Beyonce has pushed Rihanna to be the best Rihanna she can be

I tuned into the VMAs last night to see a celebration of the dominant force Black women and Caribbean musicians and musics are having on U.S. culture right now. And even though Beyonce’s Lemonade performance was incredible, I was most struck by Rihanna’s extended performances on the eve of her Vanguard Video Award, and even her speech itself, which vocalized the Caribbeanness of the night–almost every song performed had Caribbean musical influences. As Rihanna said of Barbados upon receiving the award, “When I think about the Vanguard Award and receiving this tonight, all I could think of was my country. They’re gonna be so proud, this is the first Vanguard Award to land anywhere close to my country. My success, it started as my dream. But now, my success, it’s not my own. It’s my family’s, it’s my fans’, it’s my country’s, it’s the Caribbean as a whole, it’s women, it’s Black women.”

Riri’s opening performance (watch here), with its bubblegum pinks and dozens of dancers moving in sync, made me think that the existence of Beyonce has pushed Rihanna to craft more total performances than she was inclined to do earlier in her career. Rihanna never was a dancer like Beyonce is, often choosing to stand or sway, or do small unchoreographed Caribbean dance moves as she sang, but on her ANTI World Tour she appears to have pulled out the choreography stops and pushed herself as a dancer and a performer to something larger, more fully Pop. And in her opening performance last night, Rihanna focused on her dance moves, giving a visual performance that captured the attention of the arena and left the assembled celebrities standing and screaming for her at the end.

But what really blew me away was Rihanna’s performance of “Work” (watch here), set over a dancehall mashup track produced (I think, from the digital signature) by DJ Mustard, in which Rihanna appears with a big white t-shirt pulled over her head, a long black du-rag tied over it. Behind her is a riser stacked with dancers participating in her song, this mob of black and brown partiers inspired, too, by Kanye West’s recent performances with stages packed full with his clique. With last night’s dense human scene Rihanna channels the Jamaican club depicted in the first video for “Work,” but she also, by donning the “masque” of drag, troubles the male gaze she solicits in both of the “Work” videos. Grimacing and leering as she dances, in her VMAs performance of the song Rihanna at times makes herself ugly in a way that Beyonce never does, in a way Beyonce actively fought. In this performance of masculine ugliness as well as hyperfeminine sexiness Rihanna reminds us that she is Caribbean in a way that Beyonce, despite her mastery of Caribbean dance moves, will never be and never wants to be. (Depite the political content of Beyonce’s newer work, her identification with Creole culture may mark the edge of her progressivism.) Beyonce’s playfulness stops at the edge of her beauty.

Rihanna performs “Work” at the 2016 VMAs, image via capitalfm.com

In the space of the VMA awards, where Black labor produces white capital, Rihanna’s performance of “Work” is an embrace of the “Caribbean Carnivalesque,” what Caribbean rhetorician Kevin Browne explains is the emergence of folk energies that inhabit “the liminal spaces between revelry and revolt” (14). Negotiating with the space given her by MTV’s neocolonial representational regime (read up on the history of MTV on this one), Rihanna’s performance of “Work” rejects the male gaze that circumscribed the hypersexualized performances of the evening by Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, and Rihanna herself. In the context of an album of ballads that sound like something by Amy Winehouse or Adele (themselves ironically the white inheritors of soul), Rihanna’s “Work”–“You see me I fi work, work, work, work, work”–signifies on the gendered, nationalized emotional labor asked of Rihanna to make herself intelligible as a commodity whose Caribbean exoticism is part of her appeal. By performing this much-mocked song with a t-shirt pulled over her head, Rihanna pushes the limits of her white audience’s illiteracies even as she explodes Caribbean ways of celebrating, performing, and critiquing onto an MTV stage. Thus, on a night that left some pitting Beyonce and Rihanna against each other, Rihanna rose to the bar Beyonce sets for all performers today but also showed us what makes her what Queen B will never be – a rude gyal.

Works Cited in this Post

Avidly’s “On Beyonce’s Face,” 2013.

Black Girl with Long Hair’s “Unaware of Jamaican Patois, Critics Blast Rihanna For Speaking “Gibberish” On Her New Single ‘Work’,” 2016.

Yaba Blay’s “On ‘Jackson Five Nostrils,’ Creole vs. ‘Negro’ and Beefing Over Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’,” Colorlines, 2016.

Kevin Browne’s Tropic Tendencies: Rhetoric, Popular Culture, and the Anglophone Caribbean. Pitt U Press, 2013.

Andy Green’s “Flashback: David Bowie Rips Into MTV for not Spotlighting Black Artists,” Rolling Stone, 2016.

Rihanna, 2016 MTV VMA performances of “Don’t Stop the Music” medley and “Work” medley.

Neetzam Zimmerman’s “Beyoncé’s Publicist Asks Internet to Remove Unflattering Beyoncé Photos; Internet Turns Unflattering Beyoncé Photos Into a Meme,” Gawker, 2013.

On White Girls Being Dredged From the Woods

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Steven Avery’s mugshot, via hellogiggles.com

Last night, my boyfriend and I started watching Making a Murderer, the new Netflix documentary series that suddenly everyone is talking about the way last year everyone talked about Serial. It’s a drawn-out real-life series that explores the contradictory story of Steven Avery, a maybe-maybe-not murderer and rapist.

As we settled into bed to watch the show, Ryan said, “I think he’s an accused rapist.”

“I think he’s a murderer,” I replied.

This was a coded conversation. Over the past year or two of must-watch TV, I’ve developed (and communicated) a real aversion to shows scripted around the same boring sex crime, where a young white woman’s mutilated body is unearthed from the elements, from woods or water or some grimy basement. In fact, my boyf and I have come to share–several times now–a moment of recognition and resignation when we realize that another of the shows everyone is raving about is, at its core, about investigating the disappearance, abuse, rape, and death of some white woman who is never a character but instead plays the canvas that the white guys in the show get to puffer up their masculinity around. How trite.

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Kyle Chandler in Netflix’s Bloodline

Thank you True Detective, thank you Lake of the Woods, thank you Making a Murderer, thank you Bloodline. That last one was hard to take. I thought this show was about a family trying to hold their hotel business together against the creepy rising waters of the Everglades? Oh, and also Kyle Chandler, the town detective, has to slowly pull a pale Latino woman’s mutilated teenage body from the dark dikes, then lay her out on a table so that the camera can slowly, slowly pan over the gruesome makeup this actress with no speaking lines spent so much time receiving, so we can see how much empathy he has, give him a good excuse to look real torn up. Fun. He looks upset about it

It’s not that I don’t want sexual assault stories told. I’m a survivor; our stories are important. It’s that these stories aren’t really about us. They’re medeival, hero’s stuff, chivalrous men discovering, protecting, avenging. The rape victims never matter in TV stories about rape.

***

In several pieces of writing about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, I’ve suggested that America’s ongoing fascination with the Kardashians’ penchant for dating Black men is rooted in a hundred-year-old lynching narrative in which white women are continually at risk for defilement and death by oversexualized, dangerous Black men. Peep the assault scene in Birth of a Nation, Woodrow Wilson’s favorite movie, in which the white woman character dares to open her family’s gate and immediately makes herself vulnerable–neigh, responsible, even–for being chased off a cliff by a unrestrained postbellum Black man.

In an essay for The American Reader I wrote a year ago, I considered the seeming absurdity of the Kardashians’ total domination of pop-media spaces that previous summer, even as news of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, and the protests that followed, spread (with little help from major news networks) around the globe. I argued that “cumulatively, what we are watching is a dissimulation of a lynching, where the murder happens in one corner of our screen while our coy rationales withdraw into the manifolds of popular culture.” That is, if we zoom out a bit from the individual television programs and look at the wider picture, what we see is a hypermediated recycling of the same story that was told under Jim Crow to justify lynchings, a story about the threat unrestrained Black men pose to white women’s bodies. The obsessive fixation with stories of white women’s despoilment on TV is a Pavlovian bell ringing through cultural history, calling up our country’s worst memories and worst arguments as it tenaciously fights against progress–against police reform, against prison abolition, against integration of the public schools, against affordable college, against the payment of college athletes, against anything that could allow a Black man to walk freely around in the open air in a neighborhood where a White girl might open her gate–a resistance as powerful as the one culture waged a hundred years ago when Black activists fought to protect their own from being murdered for an endless list of insipid excuses.

 

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Cultural fear-mongering on the cover of Star

One of the most surprising things about Making a Murderer is how, in the second episode, we see Steven Avery become a cause celebre for criminal justice reform in Wisconsin in the 1990s. Ah yes, the plight of the blue-eyed blondie who looks like every other blue-eyed blondie in Wisconsin demands the attention and sympathy of state lawmakers. I couldn’t help thinking what a diversion this had to be of justice-based activism in Wisconsin, when the face of wrongful incarceration is a smiling white guy, in the state that has been ranked the actual worst for Black Americans in the nation. HuffPo actually named Milwaukee–the regional capital of the area where Making a Murderer takes place–as the worst city for African Americans in the nation. Yet Steven Avery becomes the face of criminal justice reform, a face so compelling that without being sued or threatened, state lawmakers tried to rustle up a 6-figure settlement for him.

Can you imagine government functionaries producing reparations for a person of color without any external pressure to do so?

And then, in the second episode, we get another dead, raped white girl, a twenty-something, actually, who only talks once because mostly she’s missing or dead, laid out in the woods somewhere waiting for us to imagine what cruelty she experienced, waiting for white men to argue their goodness and integrity over the backdrop of her naked ass.

Netflix originals are cool and all, but where is the network that is ready to tell the real, diverse, systemic, important, exciting stories that this planet is brimming with? Stories of war, migration, agriculture, drugs, extortion, exploitation, mining, slaughterhouses, activism, revolution? From the perspective, goddamnit, of someone other than the white men who are invariably running things? I’m ready to watch them–and I think I’m not the only one.

 

Confused Feminist in an Apron Seeks Answers (Reflections on FemRhets 2015)

I spent a long weekend at the biennial Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference in Tempe, AZ, and boy (girl!) was it needed. After moving away from Syracuse in May to finish my degree while living with my partner in California, it had been far too long since I’d been surrounded by smart colleagues and conversation about writing, literacy, and rhetoric. I missed it. I missed you guys. A lot.

Being at the conference also gave me some perspective on the choice that I’d made. It’s hard to talk about my situation this fall without feeling a lot of shame and self-indulgence, because my position is a privileged one. But the vertigo of being among my peers all weekend gives me the perspective to admit the truth: it’s been a really hard four months. I left radical activists who challenged me and inspired me every day to move to Silicon Valley, the suburbs where strains of oligarchism float through the air like pollen, in an environment built for cars and nuclear family privacy, except I’m usually in the house alone. And not teaching or being a student has been seriously challenging to my sense of self-worth.  How do I know I’m valuable if a teacher or student didn’t tell me so today, and I am just barely affording my grocery, gas, and medical bills, let alone conference travel?

Faced with this situation, time has spun backwards. I’ve regressed, whiling away the hours doing the dishes and the laundry, wishing I had a dog. Not pulling my weight financially makes me feel worthless and useless, and I pick fights with my partner because I don’t feel deserving. I feel like a loser. I have to keep reminding myself that I was supporting myself just fine until I quit my job to move to the most expensive megalopolis in the country.

Being at a conference gave me the perspective to acknowledge how isolated I am out here, how hard it is to be away from one’s colleagues, mentors, and friends, and has allowed me to forgive myself a little for not being as productive as I wish I’d been these past few months, for taking some time to adjust. But being really busy for four days also felt so good, and lit the fire under me again. Forgiving myself for taking some time is giving me motivation to get over it and get to work.

via The Feminist eZine,

via The Feminist eZine, “The Problem that Has No Name”

But this wasn’t any conference–it was a feminist conference, which meant that great conversations didn’t hover in the abstract, but descended down to the complex material realities of our everyday lives. During lunches, attendee Ames Hawkins was wandering around with a microphone conducting micro-interviews for podcast Masters of Text, asking folks what their favorite moment was of FemRhets so far. My co-panelist LaToya Sawyer and I told the mic our favorite part was Ann Morton’s incredible opening keynote, where she discussed leaving her career in graphic design to begin making textile art that built and engaged the Phoenix community. Now that the conference is over, though, I know that my favorite moment came later, at the graduate student happy hour on Friday night. One of the women I met asked about my move out to California, and I admitted how isolating it had been. We and a few other women began talking about the choices we had made for our relationships–three of the women I spoke to had chosen their PhD programs based on proximity to their partners, all men. We shared the conflicting feelings we had about these choices, how strange it felt, especially as feminists, to feel ourselves limiting ourselves–and was it limiting ourselves?–for proximity to the men we loved. We talked about the structural inequalities which ensure that, when partners decide (with egalitarianism in mind) to follow whichever of them has the higher-paying job, the men inevitably have those jobs and the women are left to compromise. We talked about the ironies of a post-Women’s Lib world where two partners who each invest in their careers means a whole lot of long-distance relationships.

I haven’t written on this blog regularly for some time. But today I put weekly blog posts on my calendar. I want to hold myself to a higher standard from here on out. I want to acknowledge the confusing situation I’m in but not waste the luxury of it. Mostly, I want to write. Hope you’ll be hearing more from me soon–and shoutout to the awesome women and men I met, talked with, presented with, and created knowledge with last weekend. I needed y’all.

YOU ARE HAIR: Pixie Cut Mania

I am SO excited to share this.

In March, I presented in the film podcast Bonnie and Maude‘s live show, YOU ARE HAIR. Yes, it was all about hair. Now you can watch the clip, interspersed with my visuals, below. (You *should* watch the whole thing. But to watch mine, select “Playlist” in the upper-left-hand corner and choose video #3.)

In my talk, I discuss the winter wave of celebrity pixie cuts, focusing specifically on Beyonce and Miley Cyrus–how they debuted their cuts, and how they were constructed in their music videos. Enjoy–and he sure to check out the rest of the night’s program here! Special thanks to Kseniya and Eleanor for hosting and producing these clips!!