Privileged Bitches: White women, white men and BBHMM

[standard introductory bit about how I shouldn’t be writing on this topic since everyone else has already and it’s obviously a bloody minefield blah blah blah]

On Thursday I watched the video of Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money. Since then I have felt extremely upset. Yeah, I know. White lady tears. Pass me the smelling salts and a string of pearls to clutch etc. etc. I found the whole thing, and responses to it, deeply triggering, especially in relation to violence I have suffered in my own life. Should anyone else give a shit about this? Possibly not. But there it is.

I know that it is complex. But it reminded me of how violence against a certain female stereotype – the “privileged bitch” – is excused, negated or justified within specific cultural contexts. Furthermore, it reminded me of how this happened to me over the course of several years. It made me wonder what, if anything, feminists who focus on other narratives – ones which are equally valid and worthy of discussion – would have to say. It made me afraid, for the first time, not only that they wouldn’t care, but that they might actually approve. And I don’t know what to do with that.

As many have pointed out, the Accountant in Rihanna’s video only gets his comeuppance at the end; the long scenes of torture and humiliation are reserved for “his” woman, his property. But for me the problem went beyond that. I don’t think it’s just a case of “he’s male therefore we don’t objectify him” (welcome to the whole fucking world). I think there is a particular cultural narrative – a misogynist one, one that is particularly prevalent in abusive heterosexual relationships and in MRA circles – which positions the white woman as more privileged than the white man and therefore more deserving of punishment and abuse (cf “masculinity in crisis,” “the end of men,” “the extinction of the poor white male,” the very existence of Ally Fogg etc.). It is my view that Rihanna’s video picks up on this narrative and grants it a form of validation.

I know my abuser saw himself as more oppressed than then women in his life because of his role as self-styled head of the household and provider. I could very easily imagine him watching BBHMM and thinking of the Accountant “poor bloke. He only took Rihanna’s money ‘cos he’s having to pay for the upkeep of his bitch of a wife, her implants and that stupid dog.” Because let’s be honest, we are all encouraged to see the white woman as some frivilous, tottering bitch who, unlike her partner, doesn’t even seem to have a job. She doesn’t have any authority. Hell, at least when the Accountant takes Rihanna’s money, he’s demonstrating some agency. The white woman, on the other hand, is just fucking useless, isn’t she? Her torture her hardly counts as such since she’s barely a person. Within the context of the video, the white man is accorded respect. He gets a choice on how to respond to Rihanna’s demands. No such choice for the naked bitch hanging from a rope. As far as her fate is concerned, the power is in his hands as much as it is in those of her female torturers.

My own background makes me sensitive to an alignment between how Rihanna’s video, those defending it and white male consumers (and abusers) position the white woman. There is a broader cultural narrative of misogynist abuse that is being reflected and reinforced, not least through the intimation that white women are less deserving of dignity and respect than white men (which, in the context of an abusive relationship between a white man and a white woman, boils down to “you, woman, must pay the price for what I am and all that I have taken from others”). I know this narrative. I know what it is like to be seen as both the bearer of all privilege (“none of this is mine, I only did it for you, ungrateful bitch”) and the pathetic object with no agency (“why don’t you fight back?”). It is an impossible position to be in. All resistance is seen as “privilege.” The absence of resistance is taken as evidence that a) you are not really being abused and b) you really are just as privileged, if not more so, than the white man who gets to decide whether you live or die. And I’ve seen this position echoed by those who discuss BBHMM without taking into account the historical and cultural dynamics of white women’s oppression at the hands of white men.

Should women of colour have to take this narrative into account when they have their own to tell? No. But it is another narrative and we should at least admit that it exists. You may think that the ends justify the means; that the reinforcement of one narrative that harms is justified by the playing out of another one, one that challenges white privilege and assumptions of power. Maybe so. But as a cultural product this video is available to viewers coming from many different backgrounds and some of those watching it will be men who think the way my abuser thought – and they will see their own story reflected back to them, and approved, and then echoed back by the voices deriding white feminists for being ignorant, privileged bigots who dare to have “issues” with BBHMM. And when I hear people saying this does not matter, or that even to point this out shows ignorance or a lack of concern for the violence other women experience – well, this makes me feel that the violence I experienced is approved of by women who call themselves feminists; that to them, my bruises were no more than decorative patterns; that when I fell to the floor, it was just some posh lady swoon. I don’t think this is fair. Moreover, I do not think the reinforcement of narratives of violence that harmed me and continue to harm others helps anyone else.

There has to be an allowance that one cultural product can prompt several narratives at once, some of which contradict one another. It is not just a matter of “seeing the context.” There is more than one context, more than one viewer, more than one victim, more than one way of justifying more than one form of hate.

I don’t think any particular story “wins.” But if I can think of a winner in all this, it is the Accountant, sitting in his chair, yes, possibly about to die, but validated as an actual human being while the rest of us wrestle in the dust.

Advertisements