It’s funny how I have notes on a million films I want to write about, drafts on pieces I have a lot of (possibly smart) thoughts about really beautiful, meaningful films I have seen lately; but the things that actually get me writing are pop culture and “low” art. The older I get, the more I turn to pop music as an illuminating part of culture, one that overlaps with my other interests – film, feminism, art – in increasingly fascinating ways.
Tonight, Rihanna released her long-awaited video for “Bitch Better Have My Money” – you can watch it here (be warned, it’s startlingly graphically violent for a mainstream artist’s video). The video is the story of Rihanna (um, spoiler alert? It’s only 7 minutes long, so watch it now!) taking revenge on her accountant who screwed her out of her money by kidnapping and torturing his trophy wife, with the help of her girl gang. It’s as gaudily violent as anything Nicolas Winding Refn has put to film, as dizzying and debaucherous as a Gaspar Noe movie, as colorful and filled with gleeful, uninhibited feminine aggression as Spring Breakers (which, for the record, I hate).
As I mentioned, the violence is notably graphic for a pop artist to include in a music video (I’m tempted to call this a short film, but that seems like it devalues music videos, as well as the accompanying music, and this video proves it’s foolish to do so!) – Rih and her friends hang a topless woman from the ceiling by her feet, lock her in a chest, hold her underwater, and ultimately presumably murder her in a bloody way. Eventually, the woman’s husband (Mads Mikkelsen, who definitely has some fans on the FR staff) is also captured, but he escapes any on-screen brutalization. Why? I’m not sure – though I am sure that this will be a huge point of contention in the discussion of this video in the days to come (Anita Sarkeesian’s recent criticism of Mad Max Fury Road as a feminist film comes to mind). Perhaps it’s just kidnapper logic that hurting the thing closest to your target will get you what you want; perhaps it’s a statement on the abundance of violence against women; probably it’s something I haven’t even considered yet.
But if the violence – particularly the violence against women – is shocking, the most startling part is the video’s political declaration. It’s a black female artist taking back ownership of her art, and her economic assets, from the white patriarchal machine – she has a knife designated for “people who fuck up my credit,” as well as one for “dead beat dads” and a chainsaw for “cheaters.” Rihanna is pushing back – in a graphic, stylish way you can’t ignore – against slights to her as a black woman, and she has her girlfriends help her out. They’re a pot-smoking, uber-fashionable, post-modern version of Thelma and Louise, but on the offensive, striking out at people who fuck with them. It’s their world – a world with no rules and no consequences, at least not for them. Sisterhood is indeed powerful.
Even putting politics aside and focusing purely on aesthetics, this video brought out so many feelings in me. It’s no secret that one of my favorite cinematic images is that of a woman with someone else’s blood on her face – and this video ends with a closeup of Rihanna’s face absolutely covered in blood. I love music videos where female artists strike out with symbolic (feminist) violence – Nicki Minaj’s “Lookin Ass” is a recent example of this (although she doesn’t inflict any actual onscreen violence), and even going back to the outrage and furor over Madonna’s “What It Feels Like For a Girl” video, which seems tame in comparison now but at the time was absolutely shocking, only to be showed on MTV once. One of my all-time favorite videos, Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” is a male fantasy on the subject. So “Bitch Better Have My Money” does have a precedent, but I’ve never seen anyone go quite this far – which is exactly why I love it. Rihanna takes the kind of female violence that we don’t see in movies – Spring Breakers again comes to mind, but that violence was muted in favor of beer bongs and pool parties – and crams an entire film’s worth into 7 minutes.
I’m sure there will be more to think about, and to feel, about “Bitch Better Have My Money” in the future. For now, though, it’s surprised me, and pushed me to write, which I appreciate greatly. It’s a hugely accomplished directorial debut from Rihanna, and I want to see her do more things this daring – women who cast themselves as the antiheroes in their own stories are small in number, but vitally important. Thanks, Rih.