I’ve waited long enough now that I think it’s fair for me to comment on Rhianna’s S and M video which caused so much media fervor when it was released. I’ve seen many different critiques on the video and the responses to it, ranging from the mainstream arguments about perversion and the degredation of women inherent in BDSM practices to the feminist counter about male vs. female privilege in addressing sexual issues in music to those who simply hailed Rhianna as visionary and daring. But what I want to look at the self-awareness in the S and M video which I find so impressive, and attempt to deconstruct its ideas in a way that makes sense to be people who watched the video and simply thought “WTF???”
So, for those of you who haven’t seen it already, Rhianna’s video is available here:
First and foremost, I want to breakdown the references that Rhianna used in the video, because she did a fabulous job of showing diversity of expression within the BDSM community. For simplicity (and because I’m a bit Type-A), I made a list:
- Submissive roleplay
Rhianna’s video actually starts out with a fairly common role-playing scenario, both within the self-identified kinky community and the rest of the world: the office submissive. Rhianna holds a press conference and is surrounded by dozens of office underlings following her every word, nodding along to her singing, silenced by ball gags. It’s really a brilliant opening image because of the more universal aspect to this kind of roleplay. Many people have thought about how wonderful it would be to force that uppity Executive Vice President in their office to sit down, shut up, and start taking notes from them. There isn’t necessarily a sexual relation to it, but the element of power play in the reversal of office roles is definitely an S and M dynamic.
- Mummification (plastic wrap)
In the same scene as the office submissives, Rhianna is displayed behind a barrier of plastic wrap, reminiscent of the S and M practice of mummification. Mummification, as explained by Wipipedia, is “a BDSM bondage practice involves restraining a person’s body in a non-damaging way by wrapping it head to toe in materials like clingfilm, cloth, bandages, latex or linen sheet, rubber strips, plaster bandages, sleep sacks, or strait jackets. The end result being a person completely immobilized and looking like an Egyptian mummy. They may then either be left bound in a state of effective sensory deprivation for a period of time, or sensually stimulated in their state of bondage, before being released from their wrappings.”
More than anything, I like S and M because Rhianna gets to walk Perez Hilton (that pretentious little snot) around on a leash and treat him in the condescending manner he deserves. This is her nod to another kind of roleplaying relationships, wherein one partner takes on the mannerisms of a dog (although variations of this exist for many other kinds of animals) and the other is the owner. Sometimes these scenes are based on a loving, affectionate interaction between owner and puppy, but others manipulate scenes primarily with the objective of giving their partner orders, as one would “train” a puppy.
- Leather girls/boys
Leather fetish is probably the most established trope about the BDSM community in the books, probably because it establishes such a strong visual image and there’s such a large commercial market for leather gear. Thankfully, Rhianna touched on leather fetishism without dwelling on it too long, allowing time in the video to explore other, less well-known aspects of S and M.
- Robot/futuresex fetish
Who doesn’t want to see Rhianna dressed up in white latex robot costume, taping her underlings to the wall and doing whatever the heck she feels like? This scene was a great incorporation of robot/futuresex fetishism with dominant and submissive undertones and….
My favorite! Bondage shows up a couple of times in S and M- not only in the dark context of Rhianna the robot and her helpless future-world slaves, but also in the lighter, more playful scene where she is bound up in a bubbly, pastel-colored Japanese manga-esque dress and jokingly bites at her restraints.
That same dress may have also been a nod to another kind of roleplaying relationship with a similar dynamic to puppy play- daddy/girl relationships. Rhianna, dressed as a bratty little girl in her infantilizing dress, illustrates the kind of “punishment-style” daddy/girl interactions that stand in opposition to more caring, loving, incest-play. (This is a style of roleplay that many people outside and inside the BDSM community have trouble with because of its undertones of incest and child abuse, which is why I will once again take this time to note that this is first and foremost a form of PLAY. If you want examples of how a healthy daddy/girl relationship works, I implore you to read some of the writing on Sugarbutch)
So, having semi-dissected the video, let me tell you why I really think it’s interesting and useful relative to the BDSM community. First and foremost, S and M is a form of exposure to the community that most people would otherwise never have. That being said, a lot of people don’t understand the video and/or are offended by it, so this can often be a two steps forward, one step back approach, but I appreciate Rhianna touching the issue at all.
Second, I am so happy, as another blogger- Vanilla Edge- brought up, that S and M doesn’t focus exclusively on the “dark images” associated typically with BDSM (chains, whips, leather, etc.). Her video is colorful, playful, and exposes people to a spectrum of BDSM practices, which is awesome!
At the same time, however, the video is very self-aware of the way it would be perceived by the general public. There are a few quick cut-scenes of Rhianna with newsprint running behind her questioning her sexual ethic, calling her a whore, etc, which is a very ingenious way of breaking the fourth wall with her audience. She is acknowledging both the practice of S and M as taboo while simultaneously noting the fact that her own video will then incur those same taboo associations. In a way, such an approach pre-empts any negative press the video would receive and makes a very eloquent artistic statement.
Last but not least, I want to look at the content of Rhianna’s video as a composite piece. Whether she did so intentionally to make a statement or simply to avoid further censorship by the media, there’s no ACTUAL SEX in her video. I’ve heard this used as a critique of the video because for men, it’s no problem to include much more provocative images that Rhianna utilizes and this double standard caused her to shy away from any explicit images, but let me offer an alternative explanation: the lack of sex in S and M was a purposeful statement about the manifestation of S and M relationships. Not all BDSM scenes involve sex. Many people get off on S and M practices exclusively, such as spanking, roleplaying, or electrical play. There doesn’t need to be sex for something to qualify as BDSM, so the absence of sex in Rhianna’s video can be interpreted as an acknowledgement of that fact.
As you can probably tell, I really like this video, and I honestly didn’t expect to. I expected it to feed the popular misunderstandings of the BDSM community, vilify it moreso, other it even farther so that it becomes one step more removed from “the normal world.” Lauren Berlant wrote in her article for the Nation about sexual scandal a few words which I think are intensely applicable:
“..when a sexual scandal happens, people indulge in projections of what makes them uncomfortable about sex: its weirdness (I was just standing up and talking and now I’m doing this?), its sloppiness, its awkwardness, its seeming disconnection from so many other “appropriate” drives (to eat, for example). Then there’s the fear of becoming a mere instrument of someone else’s pleasure, in a way that one doesn’t want.
Nonetheless, I’m just saying, I really like sex. We have no idea what sex would be like in a world that saw it basically as a good. A weird good. A good that can tip you over and make you want to do strange things. A good that can reveal your incoherence, your love of a little disorder, your love of a little control (adjust the dial as you like). A good that can make you happy, for a minute, before the cat starts scratching the corner of the bed, or the phone rings, or the kids mew, or you’re hungry and sleepy, or you need another drink or the taxi comes.” (You should also read the whole article, because it’s excellent)
This is what Rhianna has done for the BDSM community, in a highly literate and entertaining way- made BDSM and those weird, awkward, uncomfortable parts of sex a little more connected to the world we know. If a popstar can sing about them, can’t we at least acknowledge them?
I would never go so far as to say that the world will take Rhianna’s S and M video as a justification for experimentation with BDSM- in fact, I highly doubt that it truly swayed many people’s opinions at all. But it did provide exposure, and S and M did so in an impressive and balanced way. To get people talking is the first step towards changing opinions.
So get talking, queer kids.
*NB: More information about any of these BDSM activities can be found at http://www.londonfetishscene.com/wipi/index.php/Main_Page. Furthermore, a must-read for anyone interested in practicing BDSM is this safety manual from ACT Toronto.