Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Rihanna - as if empowerment wasn't 'Hard' enough already.

If you haven't already seen the music video for Rihanna's new single 'Hard' you can view it here:

My problems with this video are threefold. Firstly, this video is pure old fashioned misogyny masquerading as empowerment. The second is that the position of female soldiers has been completely distorted – US State Department figures report that one in three women in the US military will be raped or sexually assaulted by her male counterparts. And the third is that riding around on a colonialist expedition with America’s army does not make you ‘hard’ and that war is not something to be glamorised.

It saddens me to see the route that Rihanna has taken with this video, particularly since she has herself recently been the victim of domestic violence by her former partner. It appears that this video is in part a reaction to that period of her life or at least a reaction to the media circus that sprung up around her since. The fact remains that we live in a world where one in six women are raped and even greater numbers suffer abuse – stopping this should be a priority in the world today but it isn’t. It is no wonder therefore that there is still a market for the false empowerment in this video, that the music industry can tell women that sex is the real way to be respected by men. Unless things change more young women will remain both lost, exploited and unempowered.

“Its not for her specific feminine virtue that gives women a place of honour in human society, but the worth of her useful work accomplished for society, the worth of her personality as a human being, as a creative worker, as citizen, thinker or fighter.” So wrote Alexandra Kollantai almost a hundred years ago. Sadly not much has changed in this respect. Women are still valued primarily for how they look. This is not to say that women can not be fighters. They are. Across the world they play their part in conflicts, fighting and dying along side men. And at the other end of the spectrum they take their place on the sporting field, becoming known for their strength, courage and endurance.

But Rihanna is not here in a boxing ring or on the track, what we get in this video is a distortion of physical achievement. Rihanna just has sex as her achievement. Whilst the male soldiers stay fully clothed, Rihanna pole dances in an ammo-dump and rolls around on sandbags smearing her body with mud. How is this going to help any women – soldiers or otherwise – be taken seriously as something other than a sex object? I am not condemning women being overtly sexual, what I take issue with is the way Rihanna is conforming to the idea that the way to express success as a woman is to turn your body into a sexual object and learn sexual techniques to service men. Her only physical achievement in this video is walking through sand in high heels, coupled with parodies of violent male sexual behaviour. Rather than challenge the worst aspects of aggressive masculinity she has taken the stance of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them.”

Many women at the peak of human physical fitness are in the US military. Currently 206,000 women have served the US in the Middle East since March 2003, most of them in Iraq. Some 600 have been wounded, and 104 have died. Their untold story is that one in three of them will suffer either rape or serious sexual assault by her male colleagues and 90% of female soldiers will face sexual harassment. The only thing that could and does make this worse is the miniscule number of attackers that are prosecuted. In 2007 out of 2,200 servicemen investigated for sexual assault, only 181 were prosecuted. More often than not it is the women themselves that are humiliated, blamed, or punished. Female soldiers report their male counterparts in the Middle East stating that they’ve been put there to replace the prostitutes that were freely available in Vietnam. It is this climate that allows rape to be treated like a misdemeanour rather that a major crime.

This music video echoes that assertion. While women in the military continue to be portrayed in such a sexualised way there will be no progress on this front. In addition, Rihanna is damaging women she has nothing in common with. She made $10 million this year, she is not a minimum wage soldier, doing her three years to get to college.

My third complaint comes from the fact that this video glamorises the ‘war on terror’ and portrays it as a ‘hard’ thing to do. Rihanna walks through desert explosions, there is Arabic graffiti on the walls and sandbags stacked up against mountain scenes. Lets be clear, what the US has done in Iraq or Afghanistan is not hard or tough. When histories most powerful super power, in possession of the world largest nuclear arsenal, attacks one of the poorest countries in the world its not being ‘hard’. Far tougher than the generals in the Pentagon are the Afghan fighters in the hills of Tora Bora or the Iraqi resistance in Fallujah.

At one point, whilst standing on a tank Rihanna is shown wearing Mickey Mouse ears. Firstly this makes the idea that Rihanna is a tough soldier look like a joke, how can you be a tough soldier whilst wearing Mickey Mouse ears? Secondly the Mickey Mouse ears are a symbol of US imperialism. Rihanna’s ‘empowerment’ is being a tool of US imperialism, bringing her Mickey Mouse pop music to the desert on the back of a tank.

Being exploited by a government, be it Bush’s or Obama’s is not empowering. Having your humanity and your sanity smashed to pieces because you were made to watch Afghan children have their heads blown apart is not empowerment. Having your legs blown off or losing your best friend because you were forced to walk over landmines is not empowerment. To sexualise this exploitation of both soldiers and the people they kill and to pretend that is empowerment is a disservice to those that have suffered and to everyone fighting for change.


  1. Absolutely agree. It's a disturbing vid on a number of levels - it's taking the whole phoney postmodern, "it's all just an ironic joke" sexism into new territory.

  2. Spot on, Tansy. It's even more sad that this is just a drop in the ocean of misogynist, imperialist imagery thrust in our faces daily.
    Elly x

  3. Nice work, Tansy. Loved your piece. Thought the video was a grotesque parade of retrograde nastiness! Look forward to further analysis.
    Dan x