Montag, 6. Juli 2015

On Rihanna, White Feminism and Racism

Why? Because I'm another woman, and everyone knows women are sweet and helpful with each other? Because we're all sisters under the Goddess?” (Fanche in Lady Knight by Tamora Pierce)
So the internet exploded once more, this time over Rihanna's video to Bitch Better Have My Money. Especially the White Feminist internet. Everybody's talking about it, so let's do so.

And yes, I will start with the white woman in the video so we can get that out of the way. Her portrayal follows the dominant discourse on white women. She's very white, blonde, pretty, thin, rich. She's vain and shallow. She's also the Innocent Victim embodied by her skin colour and social status. It's easy to feel with her, because we have a lifetime worth of experience telling us that she's the kind of women we should have empathy with. She also displays the common white women racism of simply ignoring the existence of women of colour. And she gets stuffed in the refrigerator.

As John Fiske notes in Understanding Popular Culture, items of popular culture only become popular if the “contain resources out of which the people can make their own meanings of their social relations and identities”. As a white woman, the video offers me nothing. The discourse on white women is not deconstructed. She still only exists as an extension of the white man, is used to hurt him, and when he apparently doesn't want her back, she can be discarded. In other words, it's Monday.

But it's also OK, because not everything has to be about me. And even though I want a bigger share of the popular culture cake for white women, I don't want it at the expense of women of colour. I want a piece of the dudes' share. Rihanna and other women of colour don't have to use their platform to do white women's work. That's our job. When did we ever lend a hand to women of colour? To the contrary, our feminist history is full of very, very racist individuals and could you please look the other way while we celebrate their other achievements?
But what about the discourse of black women, on women of colour? Reading my Twitter feed, Rihanna struck a nerve with them. Apparently, whatever there isn't in the video for me, it's in there for them. I'm not going to do a thorough analysis of the discourse on black women. Not because I don't care, but because I'm not qualified. Please read this excellent essay on Media Diversified on the subject. Obviously, Rihanna's persona isn't taking shit from white people in the video. They wrong her, she gets them. She doesn't need a guy to avenge her, she doesn't ask or beg. I can imagine how this can feel. It's the feeling you get when your heroine kicks ass.
EDIT: Here's another post on the construction of black women by Black Girl Dangerous.

Quite obviously, there's more than one discourse going on here. There always is. No cultural text will ever be perfect. Some oppressive discourses are challenged, others are reinforced. And, really, what did you expect from a product of consumerist mass culture? It's not a medium know for it's revolutionary tendencies. As I said, in terms of the discourse on white women, it's Monday. It's everywhere. Which gets me to the small herd of elephants in the room: the thinly veiled racism of white feminist critics.
Yes, I'm talking about you, Helen Lewis and friends. Helen Lewis who literally had to drop whatever she was doing to yell at Rihanna for a while. She tells Rhinna that torturing rich white women isn't very feminist. Because what is and isn't feminist is decided by White Feminists. Because suddenly there's this mythical unified entity called "women" again. What you're doing to one of them, you're doing to all of them. Provided the one of them is white. As if Judith Butler's analysis that "gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts and ... intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual and regional modalities of discursively constructed identities" never happened. We're all in this together, right? Except when we aren't.
The problem isn't criticising Rihanna's video. The problem is that black women are the only ones who are ever being criticised. For things that are a dime a dozen in popular culture. They are held to a different standard than rich white women. Helen Lewis cries about Rihanna not protecting white womanhood. About Rihanna not being perfect. But here's what Helen Lewis had to say about Lena Dunham not being perfect:
 The point is not that this criticism is unfounded but that, as ever, women are held to a standard that men are not. From some of the commentary, you would think that because Dunham wrote and directed the show, she should have been able to dismantle the entire racist, sexist structure of the US media single-handedly.
 Such a sense of proportion. So many excuses. So much understanding! Funny, when Lena Dunham writes and directs an entire show that erases women of colour, a form of violence many people don't even realise exists, it's something that can be excused on accounts of nobody's perfect. But Rihanna, now Rihanna should be able to do so, right? By the way, that article is about Dunham's autobiography. Not a word on Dunham's transgressions towards her younger sister and the further violation of her by publishing those accounts.

Is there any famous white woman Helen Lewis will not excuse? I don't know. I've found this exchange on Twitter about the MTV video awards. Here's her lauding Patricia Arquette without even mentioning her huge fuck up, handwaving objections from women of colour. I cannot find her calling out Taylor Swift, or Miley Cyrus, or Lily Allan, or Katy Perry. Never did their racism, their appropriation of black women's music, life, and bodies bother Lewis' enough to even spill a single Tweet about it, let alone a lengthy article in the New Statesman. And Helen Lewis isn't alone, she's just one of a score of professional White Feminists who really, really, really needed to tell the black woman that she's wrong. And that's why the critique of Rihanna's video is racist. Not because you don't like the lady in the refrigerator. Because White Feminism never ever calls out other white women. They are excused, protected, defended. The black woman is thrown down the bear pit at the slightest sign of being less than perfect.

Dear White Feminists, if you would like black women to consider your tender feelings when they're producing cultural texts, I have some suggestions for you:

1. Speak up. Do your fucking job and throw some intersectional feminist critique at the next pretty white woman who erases women of colour, who appropriates their work, who uses their bodies as props. Maybe if black feminists saw you doing that once in a while, they would be willing to discuss the intersectional construction of womanhood with you.

2. Shut up. Quite obviously you don't know about the discourses on black women. Because if you did you'd probably understand that you're simply not very qualified to analyse them beyond the most rudimentary levels. It's OK to leave that critique to people who are qualified. Here's a hint: they're not white. Use your clout to give them a platform.

3. Learn something. I know, those matters are complicated, discourses intersect, they change. But you're being paid to be cultural critics. It's your job, ok?