Rihanna: Taking Sexy Feminism to the Extreme

Rihanna’s turning out to be quite the complicated figure, isn’t she? The gorgeous girl who gave us one of the greatest pop gifts ever in “Umbrella” once seemed headed for pretty-woman-who-sings-dance-hits-with-little-meaning territory; then, she became national news in the most unfortunate of ways, by being beaten by then-boyfriend Chris Brown at a pre-Grammy event two years ago. Now she’s emerged as a fascinating presence in pop: Yes, she still dabbles in those fluffy dance tunes (see her duet with Drake, “What’s My Name,” performed quite sexily at last night’s Grammys), but she’s made going pantsless into an act of empowerment (with a strong assist from Gaga and Beyonce, of course). And, more than anything, she also packs the occasional single with an unexpected truckload of meaning.

Case in point, her newest single, “S&M.” Though she certainly pushed some buttons last year with her Eminem collaboration “Love the Way You Lie” — in which she sings, “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn/But that’s alright because I like the way it hurts” — her latest challenges listeners to process her personal life and artistic expressions at a whole different level. First, there’s the (extremely singable) refrain, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but whips and chains excite me.” Then, there’s the video, which plays as both a critique on the media coverage of her troubles (reporters are shown gagged at a press conference while she’s trapped under cellophane against a wall, and she walks gossip blogger Perez Hilton on a leash) and, more provocatively, her penchant for S&M (she’s shown tied up, in latex, and wearing a Playboy Bunny costume, among other scenarios). There’s no actual sex, and everything is art-directed to the hilt, giving it a heightened, pop-art vibe — it’s hardly realistic. And yet it’s been banned in 11 countries and protected by an 18-plus filter on YouTube. The song itself has been relegated to evening-play-only on many radio stations, and she wasn’t allowed to perform it at the recent Brit Awards. All this hysteria seems a bit overblown, to the point where it’s hard not to suspect a bit of sexism. Women are objectified constantly in rap and rock videos by male artists, yet apparently aren’t allowed to express specific desires themselves. Remember Justin Timberlake’s once-omnipresent “SexyBack,” in which he sings, “You see these shackles/Baby, I’m your slave”? That, it seems, was just fine. As Charlsie at College Candy points out, it’s likely no one would have trouble handling JT in such an oversexed video. And it must be noted that “Love the Way You Lie” — in which Eminem raps about tying a girlfriend to the bed and setting it afire — was praised widely, played without restrictions, and featured at the Grammys. I support this — I see it as a nuanced look behind the cycle of domestic violence, and a discussion-provoker. But why can’t Rihanna express her kinkier side as well?

It might be because of a feeling some bloggers have expressed — that the song and video are hypocritical for a woman who ultimately pressed charges against Brown for his assault against her. (I won’t dignify any of those with a link here, but they’re out there.) This line of thought, however, is exactly what makes “S&M” more than a fun song about fetish. There couldn’t be anything more dangerous than the assumption that a woman who likes a little bondage in the bedroom deserves to be beaten. It’s a she-was-asking-for-it argument taken to a skewed extreme, and it’s a controversy she could have chosen not to court. Instead, she put her complicated feelings into song and made a danceable pop tune that happens to challenge some serious assumptions along the way. And by the way, is she also saying something pretty interesting about the relationship between media and celebrities by equating it with S&M?

These are particularly bold moves for a woman who’s chosen not to speak much publicly about the Brown incident. She’s putting herself out there in her art, and letting listeners and viewers interpret for themselves — the act of a true artist and provocateur. The fact that her messages are pretty damn catchy is just a bonus.


Author: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong grew up deep in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, then escaped to New York to live in a succession of very small apartments and write about pop culture. In the process, she became a feminist, a Buddhist, and the singer/guitarist in an amateur rock band. She also spent a decade on staff at Entertainment Weekly, cofounded SexyFeminist.com, and now writes for several publications, including Women’s Health, Runner’s World, Writer’s Digest, Fast Company, and New York‘s Vulture. Her history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2013; her collaboration with Heather Wood Rudulph, Sexy Feminism, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013. She is the author of the Why? Because We Still Like You, a history of the original Mickey Mouse Club published by Grand Central in 2010. She has provided pop culture commentary for CNN, VH1, A&E, and ABC, and teaches article writing and creative writing. Follow her on Twitter: @jmkarmstrong


  1. mokatara says:


  2. Ha– the old Spinal Tap double standard–such a fine line between sexy & sexist!

  3. denelian says:

    there’s such a HUGE difference between BDSM and Domestic Violence.

    the biggest? CONSENT!
    [that word again - the word that misogynists and right-wingers - if there's a difference - HATE. when they even know what it means]

    arguably, in BDSM the sub/bottom is the one in control – the dom/top’s *entire job* is to whatever the sub/bottom wants and or needs – they have to pay close attention, and the sub/bottom has FINAL SAY.

    none of the above is present in DV. DV is about controlling another person and taking out your issues on that person without their consent and against their will.

    now, i know a ton of people who are in BDSM, and use it as a way to fight their demons from DV. but they ARE NOT THE SAME, in any way other than the fact that sometimes, a person in being hit.
    the fact that she is apparantly [? is she really, or is she just using the STRUCTURE of BDSM to make a point] is no reason to say she “deserved” to suffer from DV; in fact, NO ONE EVER deserves to suffer from DV.

    moving on: i did really like this video [and the song - although she has it reversed, she's saying "sticks and stones may break my bones by chains and whips excite me" when it's *supposed* to be "whips and chains". but i'm pretty sure that was deliberate, to make it a bit different...] and i’m not a fan of hip-hop styled music, generally. i’m being shocked, Rhi and Beyonce and L Gaga are making songs in a style i tend to not like, and then I LIKE THEM.
    because these aren’t just FLUFF. the stories, the way they’tr using their music to process their stuff and/or make a statement [the way the press treated her probably DID feel like just a continuation of the DV - so what does she do? she does it back, but correctly, in a BDSM setting where the key is CONSENT. i like the flip; it speaks to me] makes me like these songs – if the lyrics and meaning were different, but the music the same, i wouldn’t.

    and i admit – i’m impressed as hell. and cheering her on, until my voice gives out.

    this is what music SHOULD be!


  1. [...] interesting thoughts about the video here! I must say, I found the inclusion of chubby kinky women really [...]

  2. [...] I’m being unfair. There are a select few who think this behavior is okay. Sure, they may be right. It may be a “fun song about [a] [...]

  3. [...] Reason That’s a Problem: We’ll just add that we are always in defense of Rihanna, as we said back when she was taking crap for her song [...]

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