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.

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“Getting On” With It

In honor of my new ABD status, a blog post!

My boyfriend works late and I live in the suburbs around very few of my friends, so I watch a lot of TV. I hereby offer you the first of a series of flash reviews of my recent favorite TV shows.

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via The Verge

Add HBO’s Getting On to the list of TV shows I watch because New Yorker TV reviewer Emily Nussbaum told me to. Her TV taste is spot-on; she got me into UnREAL and Jane The Virgin and if she has her way I just may try out The Leftovers. Getting On was a hard sell–probably for HBO, too–because it’s about a dilapidated extended-care facility in Southern California, where a troupe of overworked doctors and nurses tend to a revolving cohort of mostly elderly, sometimes verbally responsive patients. Not a real sexy pitch.

It took actually seeing a little bit of the show, when my siblings were watching it over Thanksgiving, for me to believe it could be funny. But it is. Deeply, weirdly funny. And smart. I love shows that have a political critique, and Getting On’s outlandish plotlines only work because of their foundation in the real inefficiencies and immoralities of the contemporary healthcare-insurance-industrial-complex.

I also love a good ensemble–I get tired of shows that are vehicles for a single actor–and the doctors and nurses on Getting On have amazing chemistry, both comic and heartfelt. The show stars Laura Metcalf as Dr. Jenna James, the ward’s head doctor and a frustrated would-be researcher whose desire for prestige leads her to push the limits of her insurance billings; Niecy Nash as sweet-hearted new nurse Didi, who never seems to deliver punchlines but instead grounds the show’s humanness; Alex Borstein (formerly known as Miss Swan) as nurse Dawn and Mel Rodriguez as head nurse Patsy de la Cerda. I loved Borstein as a kid watching MAD TV; the writing for her character Dawn allows her to be goofy and lonely but also desperate, confused, and sexually crazed. My favorite plotline of the show is the hot-and-cold romance between Dawn and Patsy, a relationship which is abrasive, compulsive, inappropriate, and eternally hilarious.

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The show only has three seasons of 6 episodes each, but the clear standout is the finale of season 2.  It’s impossible to write about this episode without giving spoilers, but as I watched it I was aware of the quality of the comedy writing, as storylines that had been set in play throughout the season each reached absurdist heights, then collided with one another. The episode starts with Dr. James arriving to the office with a ridiculous new perm which bounces from joy to hysteria as her moneymaking schemes implode and the entire ward is thrown into disarray. Most amazing of all may be how the episode ends seriously, by acknowledging the real life-and-deathness at the center of the ward’s work.

Highly recommended. Happy holidays.

Kylie’s Kornrows

Just as Amandla Sternberg’s video comes out and gets high circulation (at least in my social media feeds) as not just an amazing piece of digital writing by a black teenage actress but also as some damn correct reporting…

…we get Kyle at Coachella…

  

…a festival for rich Angelenos (in a poverty-stricken rural valley) who often come bedecked in boho, native-appropriating fashion. 

from Buzzfeed, “16 things you definitely shouldnt wear to coachella”

It’s important to note the not only visual, but linguistic character of Kylie’s appropriation of blackness here. From her caption, “bad bitch” and “bad bitch alert” are both phrases from hiphop and black youth discourse, with their practices of semantic inversion.  And Khloe’s previous Instagram post is a Dubsmash dubbing of herself and kylie lip synching as black men say “I love you, bitch/ I ain’t never gonna stop lovin you, bitch.” I’ve noticed this site quickly gain popularity over the last week, and jokes already often seem to be based around lip synching to heavy ethnic or regional dialect. This kind of linguistic sampling is not so different from what in iggy azaleas case has been called “verbal blackface.” 

  

Anyway, have a great weekend!! 

Alicia Florrick Tho

still from season 6, "The Good Wife"

still from season 6, “The Good Wife”

The Good Wife is a show about a woman learning to wield her white privilege for her own ends. It is about her—this woman, Alicia Florrick (Juliana Marguiles), the “good wife” of a disgraced Chicago (of course) Attorney General (Chris Noth) learning what powers are available to her as a white upper-middle class woman, if she can accept the limits and insults that come with the role. In its interrogation of white female privilege, identity, and limitations the show is aptly named, because even as Florrick is the title character that moniker is itself defined by its relationship to a man, and by its value judgment around how well the woman, Florrick, plays the role she was cast in. The Good Wife.

Now we have watched Alisha for six seasons, from her start as a mild-mannered suburban housewife-turned-returnee to the workforce, through her years as an increasingly powerful lawyer at Lockhart Garndern, in her role as first lady when her disgraced husband pulled off a return to the governor’s mansion of Illinois (another great spot for a corrupt politician), to her new role in the current season, as a candidate for Attorney General of Chicago, to succeed her husband’s smug successor.

I started watching The Good Wife because my mom, my sister, and Emily Nussbaum told me to. My mom and my sister recommended The Good Wife even more highly than Scandal—in a television lull, I’d asked them which show to start—but it was the New Yorker’s Nussbaum whose glowing column sent me clicking to Amazon Prime. But what Nussbaum or her colleauge Josh Rothman never key into—and what may have tipped the scales for my mom and sister, though they never said so explicitly—was the way that The Good Wife interrogates the role of the white woman in professional-class society—a role the women in my family have tried to master—just as Olivia Pope toys with the limitations of being a black woman with power and prestige. I love watching Kerry Washington tease out the socio-cultural possibilities of Olivia Pope, but I don’t identify with them in the same way I do with Alicia Florrick, whose Bobbi Brown makeup pallette (amirite??) and deep brown hair stain are surely the same as my mother’s, a woman also married to a Chicago lawyer with enough friends and cousins in Highland Park to fill a big country club bat mitzvah.

shady people of color scheming on "The Good Wife" - still from season 6

shady people of color scheming on “The Good Wife” – still from season 6

In their sixth-season coverage for the New Yorker of The Good Wife, both Nussbaum and Rothman attend to Florrick’s increasing comfort with and facility in using her power, but neither see the way that it is specifically gendered and raced: Florrick’s power, I contend, is specifically the power (in our society, at least) of white women. It is the power of being a white lady. Let’s take a closer look at their two reviews. Rothman writes:

The longest plot arc in “The Good Wife” shows Alicia becoming more like Peter—that is, becoming more comfortable with the exercise of power, more elegantly invulnerable when she is being magnanimous. Part of that transformation entails coming to terms with her own privilege. Alicia starts out the show as an underdog, but, at the end of the first season, she draws on one of her husband’s connections to win a coveted position at work. When, a few years after he’s released from jail, Peter becomes the governor of Illinois, Alicia leverages that connection to secure clients.

She’s also privileged in subtler ways that she is less willing to admit. From her husband’s sex scandal, Alicia retains an air of innocence and vulnerability; women root for her, and men are attracted to her. For much of the show, she drifts in and out of a romantic relationship with Will Gardner, one of the partners at her law firm. When, as the governor-elect’s wife, Alicia starts her own firm, taking some of Will’s most valuable clients with her, he calls her out on her own mythos of innocence and victimhood: “You’re awful, and you don’t even know how awful you are,” he says. Everyone, including Alicia, thinks that she’s a victim—but, in fact, she’s a predator, all the more dangerous for being stealthy.

In this accounting of Alicia’s coming to power, Rothman figures Alicia’s “stealth” as an aberration to her use of power, a quirk in comparison with her husband’s brash use of the throne. But I contend that her stealth is gendered—her “stealthy” danger, that wolf in sheep’s clothing, is her feminine use of power, power through flirting, through favors, through being nice. This is power in a “ban bossy” universe, where bossy women are bitches so Alicia has to be the bossy by flirting and cajoling to get her way, not demanding it.

All Hail Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski)

All Hail Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski)

Now here’s Nussbaum:

Alicia didn’t get the job [at Lockhart Gardner] because she was exceptional: an old law-school friend, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), promoted her over stronger candidates after she strategically flirted with him—a shady origin story that emerged slowly, over years. On “The Good Wife,” there is no success without corruption. The higher Alicia climbs—winning the second-year slot, making partner, leaving to start a new firm—the more compromised she becomes, and the more at ease with compromise. This applies to her marriage, also: it’s too valuable an asset for either spouse to abandon, even when they separate, when he is elected governor, and when she has an affair with Will. “You’re a brand! You’re St. Alicia,” Eli Gold, her husband’s chief of staff, tells her, begging her to run for office. Yet, despite everything, Alicia clings to her self-image as a heroine, a moral person in a godless universe. (Alicia Florrick is one of the rare explicitly atheist heroines on TV.)

Here again we see how the specifically feminine way Alicia starts her law career is folded into a larger narrative about corruption, collapsing Alicia’s crucial wielding of feminine power into a larger story about power. Similarly, the compromises Alicia has to make to retain that St. Alicia brand—namely, to stay in a sham marriage with a compulsive cheater—is the same compromise women have been making for millenia, just without the rewards.

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By the sixth season, in fact, Alicia Florrick has given up the delusion of her earlier years that she can or cares to help anyone—the delusion of white women living in the suburbs, which she doesn’t anymore. Instead, when asked point blank by her new campaign manager (who I am still waiting for her to sleep with) why she wants to run, she answers, “Because I can win.” The only trick to winning is to keep pretending she doesn’t care to. After an interview, Alicia comments to her new foil and “body woman,” Eli Gold’s brash Jewish daughter Marissa, “I don’t like being someone I”m not when I’m being interviewed.”

“Really?” Marissa says. “You’re good at it.”

Good at it in a way that a brash Jewish girl could never be, because to own white femininity is to be invisible, to make one’s power and pain invisible, to win just to win without anyone thinking you want anything at all.

People commend this show for its deft handling of race themes, because a series of minor issues which characters of color adds up to a discrimination lawsuit for Peter Florrick. What no critic seems to have noticed is how Florrick’s continued demotion of lawyers of color equals the show’s continued demotion of actors of color. There’s no neat way to handle that. The discrimination line is like saying “no offense.” Sorry, but it’s still offensive. But very deftly handled.

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[all the stills in this post are from season 6 episode 6, “Old Spice,” the most awesome and most feminist episode of the season, which features the show’s female stars almost exclusively. Alicia Florrick tho, but also Diane Lockhardt tho, Elsbeth Tasscione tho, and Kalinda Sharma tho. Fuck yah lady lawyers.]

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!!