“…mistaking anti-social surrealism for social realism” (Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant Than The Sun).
People keep accusing Rihanna of this, that, and the other, when really she’s doing us such a favor that the least we could do is maybe buy her lunch. Yes I’m comparing Rihanna’s Unapologetic to Plato’s Apology. In Plato’s context, “apology” means defense—Socrates was defending himself against two sets of accusers. In Rihanna’s case, she’s not asking our forgiveness for her apparent transgressions of normative femininity and black female pop stardom. With this comparison to Plato’s Apology, I’m not so much offering a defense of Rihanna’s album against its many critics as I am trying to re-frame the entire approach to it…which is actually what Socrates was doing in apologia to the Athenian senate.
Though Unapologetic is not exactly getting tons of praise, it’s generally RIHANNA who is the target of most of the album-related criticism. People are faulting “Rihanna” (who, remember, is a character played by Robyn Fenty) for not sufficiently rejecting her abusive ex-boyfriend, Chris Brown. Rihanna expresses ambivalent feelings toward her former abuser, and many people have a huge problem with this. I’ve written extensively about the RiRi/Breezy controversy here. Much of the concern-trolling over RIhanna’s feelings for and collaboration with Brown come off as good ol’ “saving brown women from brown men” racist paternalism. This racist paternalism ends up being more about our disavowal of our own complicities in racist misogyny, and less about serious engagement with works of art.
In this post, I want to focus on Jessica Hopper’s Pitchfork review because it brings in to focus some of the more nuanced ways racist misogyny informs and results from overly-simplistic criticisms of Rihanna’s work with and supposed feelings for/toward Brown.
Art or Confession
The Pitchfork review suggests that the album plays with the ambiguity of narrative voice: is this Rihanna or Robyn Fenty? But why even assume Fenty is speaking personally here, that these are even potentially her “real” feelings or thoughts? She could be using the Rihanna character to explore aspects of the experience of relationship violence that Robyn Fenty doesn’t actually feel or encounter. Maybe Fenty’s experience with domestic violence has led her, as an artist, to want to explore it more fully, to push her artwork beyond her own personal experience? Why not assume that Fenty, as Rihanna, is choosing this artistic medium to explore the very, very complicated nature of domestic violence, abusive relationships, and stereotypes about the supposedly always-already-dysfunctional nature of black heterosexuality? Maybe what Rihanna has produced is a complicated, deep, difficult work of art, a work that not only transcends the personal experiences of its creator, but that also deals with heavy issues in ways that refuse to reduce these issues to a simplicity that they just don’t have?
I would suggest that we don’t first treat Rihanna’s songs about relationship violence as art, i.e., as transcending Fenty’s personal experience, because of racist/misogynist implicit biases. These biases lead us to implicity (and sometimes explicitly) assume that women cannot create beyond what they have personally experienced. People leveled this criticism against Beauvoir’s novels, and Adrian Piper’s analysis and critique of the reduction-to-biography problem for WOC artists is not to be missed (see her essay “The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artists”). You can see this implicit bias play out in the Pitchfork review, which faults the album for being both too dark and not pop enough to balance out the darkness:
Would it fare better if the topics were the same, but set to songs as combustible as ‘Don’t Stop the Music’? If her pain and shame and can’t-quit-you-babe motif was delivered with some humor? If she kept her personal drama to herself and sang about rolling fat joints on her bodyguard’s head and did more duetting with the dude from Coldplay?
So Rihanna has given us a really hard to digest artwork, and we complain that it’s not fun enough?[i] Black female performers have a both/and tradition—superficially, a work is bubbly pop, but analyzed more carefully, there’s layers of depth and complexity. This is a long-established critical practice; does the Pitchfork review indicate that white audiences expect black female artists to use this practice? In other words, white audiences will only tolerate art by black women if the artist allows audiences to ignore the artistic dimensions and interact only with the superficial, “fun” ones?
On another level, you could talk about gendered societal demands that women confess (in the Foucaultian sense); maybe women have an obligation to “confess” in ways that men don’t? The confession-imperative actually compounds the reduction-to-biography (i.e., you’re too dumb to speak in any mode other than the literal) problem…
The Pitchfork review actually gets the following claim right; the problem is that it doesn’t critique or problematize the fact it accurately states. It says:
Its narrative, about a woman's miserable obsession with a man we know to be her abuser, flouts expectation of the traditional survivor's tale; we want to see a woman learn from that pain and leave it, not rut in it.
Yes, EXACTLY. Rihanna refuses neoliberal norms for feminine subjectivity. Autumn talks about this over at The Beheld. She argues that the “therapeutic” narrative of “overcoming” is one mode or logic of contemporary normative (white, bourgeois) femininity:
The narrative of body image—with its triumphant tale of overcoming obstacles such as self-loathing, mass media, and the collateral damage of girlhood—is inscribed upon us, particularly among consumers of women’s media, to the point where we forget other bodily narratives may exist.
We expect women to be survivors; to have overcome difficulties—like body-hatred, eating disorders, etc. This imperative to overcome is neoliberal because it demands one capitalize on one’s (perceived) flaws: turn your deficiency into an opportunity. The “look, I overcame!” narrative is one form that human capital takes—perhaps it’s even a specifically feminine form, or maybe there are specifically feminine forms of this narrative (what would masculine ones be? Certainly the “wrong body” trans narrative is one version of the LIO logic.) There are so many contemporary Top-40 songs of this sort by female vocalists: they’re Kelly Clarkson’s bread and butter, but Taylor Swift and P!nk have had recent “look, I overcame!” hits. Rihanna’s not giving us a Clarkson-style “Look, I overcame!” narrative. This is not “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” This is, instead, a more gothic “shadow feminism,” a feminism that complicates mainstream notions of agency, resistance, and critique.
I’m taking this language of “shadow feminism” from J. Jack Halberstam’s book The Queer Art of Failure. As he explains:
shadow feminisms…have long haunted the more acceptable forms of feminism that are oriented to positivity, reform, and accommodation rather than negativity, rejection, and transformation. (4)
As I read it, Halberstam’s theory of shadow feminism is basically a critique and alternative to the LIO imperative neoliberalism puts on (white) women. They are gothy practices that revel in and intensify the damage rather than seek to capitalize on it. Pushing Halberstam a bit (and just a bit; he practically goes all the way there himself), we could argue that neoliberalism makes feminists “willfully blind to forms of agency that do not take the form of resistance” (128) or overcoming. The neoliberal LOI imperative is a “humanistic investment in both the female subject and the fantasy of an active, autonomous, and self-activating individualism” (129); only self-capitalization (overcoming) registers as legitimate liberation or self-care. As a critique of and alternative to the LOI model, shadow feminism
does not speak the language of action and momentum but instead articulates itself in terms of evacuation, refusal, passivity, unbecoming, unbeing. This could be called an anti-social feminism, a form of feminism preoccupied with negativity and negation. (Halberstam 129)
Shadow feminism is anti-social because it does not capitalize on personal damage in ways that produce literal and metaphorical surplus value for corporate and hegemonic institutions. She does not accede to the neoliberal demand that she narrate her overcoming in a public and publicized confession. She does not apologize for her transgressions, because such apologies are precisely what hegemony wants.[ii] This behavior is anti-social because does not contribute to the reproduction of this particular configuration (i.e., the white heteropatriarchal/homonational one) of the social. In this way, Rihanna’s shadow feminism participates in the Afrofuturist tradition of meeting hegemony’s demand for “social realism” with “anti-social surrealism” (as Eshun says in the epigraph cited above). I’ll address Unapologeti’sc Afrofuturism in the next section; here I want to stick to the shadowy/gothy aspect of Rihanna’s feminism, because its “bad-girl” refusal of the LOI imperative actually sets up my Afrofuturism argument.
As I have argued elsewhere, Rihanna identifies with the black “bad girl” side of a racialized virgin/whore dichotomy, the other side of which is the white “good girl.” Mainstream feminist ideals are normatively white. The LOI narrative is a narrative for white women. Or maybe: it is a narrative that whitens women; insofar as WOC participate in it, they are perceived to be more socially white, more “model minority” (think about mainstream media stories about gender disparities among African-americans in higher ed, for example). In the same way that homonationalism “normalizes” formerly marginal populations (gays and lesbians, blacks), this LOI narrative “normalizes” WOC and femininities of color. In a society that stereotypes black female sexuality as always-already pathological, Rihanna inhabits this supposed pathology; she refuses to “overcome” it. By rejecting this narrative, Rihanna rejects the neoliberal tendency to conditionally include blacks, especially black women, in privilege, to use them as a “border population” that intensifies the marginalization of more abnormal groups (working-class black men, “Muslims,” etc.).
So Rihanna does things that, from a mainstream feminist perspective, make her a “bad girl.” This is an established black feminist strategy. For example, the Pitchfork review argues that Rihanna’s duet with Chris Brown, is “a bubbly pop tune that conjures up historical memory of women defending men who have hurt them.” I don’t think any white person who has read Kimberle Crenshaw’s analysis of race, racism, and domestic violence in “Mapping the Margins” would write this sentence. Black women have had very good reasons to defend men who have hurt them, especially when the accusations come from the white establishment. Because black women face racist misogyny, their resistance to patriarchy often looks, from the perspective of white feminism, irrational or un-feminist. And, as Angela Davis repeatedly demonstrates in her book on the blues, black female singers often use lyrics that superficially portray their victimization to critique the very racist misogyny that would victimize them. Why aren’t people at least granting the possibility that Rihanna is participating in this tradition? Is it ignorance of this tradition combined with the above-analyzed tendency to deny the artistry of Rihanna’s work? (in other words: it’s the racist-misogynist view that black women aren’t smart enough to make art art, so RiRi’s work can’t participate in a black feminist art practice, because such a thing is impossible, both now and in the past.)
Bad girls are anti-social: they refuse to “be” what white heteropatriarchy demands they be. Rihanna’s sexuality may appear abnormal, but it’s not “broken” in the ways white heteropatriachy relies on. So it’s not that she’s “broken” that matters—it’s that she’s not “broken” in what white hegemony construes as the “average” or “regular” ways, the ways it anticipates and controls for (think about how the prison-industrial complex relies on and encourages the pathological criminality of men of color).Rihanna is not a helpless victim, a brown woman in need of rescue from her brown man. That’s why she’s unapologetic. She’s well aware of the complex shit that she’s talking about, and she’s dealing in the way she chooses. This might not be the way that best supports hegemony. And maybe that’s why people are so upset.
I’m working on a second part to this post. I talk about melancholia and gaga feminism, and the difference between neoliberal, post-goth gaga feminism, and melancholic goth “shadow” feminism, on the other. Basically, I push both Halberstam’s concepts (and his ambivalence about gaga feminism) to explain how and why goth feminism, by intensifying damage, is the opposite of “Look, I overcame!” gaga feminism. I also talk about Rihanna’s use of Afrofuturism on Unapologetic, and argue that there are some Afrofuturist feminisms that similarly intensify damage. If neoliberalism counts on bare life dying in regularized, “normally abnormal” ways, then dying in the “wrong” way, or living an “abnormally bare life” screws up biopolitcal hegemonies. I hope I can get the second part of this post finished after finals (which are next week), so be on the lookout for it.
[i] Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak album was similar: it mixed the same sort of emotional weight (grief and guilt over his mother’s death) with a lot of not-very-poppy musical weirdness. When Yeezy does it, it’s avant-garde and he’s a (weird) genius; when RiRi does it, it’s indulgent and/or lazy? That, my friends, is some seriously gendered double-standard.
[ii] “If speaking for a subject of feminism offers up choices that we…are bound to question and refuse, then maybe a homeopathic refusal to speak serves the project of feminism better” (Halberstam 130).