S&M with Rihanna

// 13 February 2011

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whip rose.jpg

BBC Radio 1 has refused to play the official version of Rihanna’s new song, S&M, in the daytime, deeming it inappropriate for younger listeners. The BBC-approved radio edit of the track has been renamed Come On and all references to sex, whips and chains have been removed. The original lyrics include the offending:

Cause I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it

Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it

Sticks and stones may break my bones

But chains and whips excite me

The video has also been causing controversy, with YouTube flagging it as inappropriate for under-18s and the Brit Awards organisers rumoured to be worried about the way she might perform the track at the ceremony. Whether or not the track and video are indeed unsuitable for under-18s (no doubt readers will be divided), I think the most interesting aspect here is why this particular song has been singled out amongst a plethora of tracks and videos containing sexualised lyrics and content.

For me, it’s her portrayal of an arguably more authentic and complex BDSM sexuality as a woman who is sexually assertive. Many music videos portray sexual dominance and submission, but because this generally involves a half naked woman (or, more likely, multiple women) contorting herself into bizarre positions at the behest of a fully clothed man there is no outcry about the supposed dangers of exposing BDSM sexualities to children; after all, male dominance underpins our society, particularly when it comes to sex. So while feminist commentators like myself might complain that kids are being taught that female sexuality – and sexual confidence – equates to displaying yourself for male entertainment, which is repressive and potentially damaging, Youtube and the BBC needn’t take action because these videos do not threaten the social status quo.

To give just one example, Ciara and Justin Timberlake’s Love Sex Magic sees an skincrawlingly-arrogant Timberlake holding Ciara on a chain and her writhing all over him – see Soulbounce’s take down here – but no 18 rating from YouTube. Meanwhile, Radio 1 happily played 3Oh!3’s Don’t Trust Me all last year, which includes the charming lyrics “Shush girl, hush your lips, do the Helen Kellar and talk with your hips” and the additionally sexist “Don’t trust a ho, never trust a ho, Won’t trust a ho ‘cos the ho won’t trust me”.

In S&M, Rihanna sings about what she wants, what feels good to her and what she likes, and unlike most female pop singers, this doesn’t amount to wanting a man to want her. The video features her in both dominant and submissive positions, although even when she is tied up or in latex, we never see a man dominating her. Crucially, we see men both actively engaging in and being forced to engage in sexually submissive behaviour, with a man happily playing puppy for Rihanna (rather cute I thought, but I’m odd like that) and male journalists taped and gagged up as she prowls around them with a whip.

She uses S&M as a metaphor for her relationship with the press: we see them writing notes calling her “slut” at a press conference, which she conducts trapped behind a sheet of plastic in a dress made of newspaper cuttings about her. Through both masochistic pleasure in the face of the media onslaught and defiant (albeit very mild and playful) sadism as she gags and plays with the journalists, she shows that their words cannot harm her and that her sexuality is her own. Although she conforms to pop music video norms by remaining visually hyperfeminine and conventionally sexy throughout (god forbid a female pop star refuse to be sexy!), her subversion of the genre’s usual portrayal of sexual power singles S&M out as a unique threat to the status quo, and therefore to young eyes and ears. Oh, and she eats a banana.

So the Beeb decides to play the radio edit during the daytime, alongside – guess what? – the latest offering from Chris Brown. Apparently it’s fine to endorse the man who abuses, but not the woman who enjoys consensual BDSM.

S&M’s not perfect, but I like it.

Disclaimer: I’m not implying and certainly don’t think that consensual sexual activity involving men dominating women is inherently bad, but in the context of pop music, the constant M/f power hierarchy in lyrics and imagery is a problem and should be challenged.

Image by captain.orange, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

Ruth // Posted 13 February 2011 at 2:53 pm

Great article. I’e heard many people talking about this video and if its right to have it on out tv’s but we see so may music videos of half naked women submissing to men, could be classed as soft porn in some instances, yet nobosy ever bats an eye lid at that!

peace // Posted 13 February 2011 at 3:04 pm

i don’t get it, you said Justin timberlake’s song love sex and magic is somehow bad but you go on to say consensual sexual activity involving men dominating women is not a bad thing.

Laura // Posted 13 February 2011 at 3:26 pm

@ peace – I think the constant portrayal in music videos of male dominance, and of female sexuality as nothing more than a desire to sexually arouse men is a bad thing, because the absence of other portrayals of sexuality gives the impression that this is what heterosex is all about. So it can contribute to a culture where girls learn that sex is about pleasing the guy, not having fun themselves. Love Sex Magic is just one example of that. Men and women engaging in consensual M/f sexual play is a different issue.

peace // Posted 13 February 2011 at 3:36 pm

oh sorry, my bad. anyways i like both songs.

Laurel Dearing // Posted 13 February 2011 at 6:24 pm

considering that there was no apparent problem with her song referencing her domestic violence experiences as some romantic dramatic tragedy that she secretly likes, yeah, because it seems being put in pain by a lover who doesnt care about what you want is deemed more acceptable than being put in submission or pain by a lover because you want them to.

coldharbour // Posted 13 February 2011 at 8:16 pm

I like to hear a feminist critique of CFNM, it seems to be becoming more mainstream I guess. If anyone knows of any forward me a link.

SnowdropExplodes // Posted 14 February 2011 at 5:36 am

Can I just say (as a BDSMer) that the reactions I’m seeing (and that I share) in a lot of BDSM community web spaces to Rihanna’s S&M song/video is that it really isn’t a “portrayal of a … more authentic and complex BDSM sexuality”. It’s being experienced as more of the same fake stuff that is accepted when it’s male-top. They do nice pictures that sort of look like BDSM, but it’s paper-thin. There is a definite sense that, while the images are enjoyable, there is also a silencing of actual BDSMers’ lives in favour of vanilla folks’ glamorised/demonised perception of it.

As the OP mentions, it seems to be less about kinky sexuality and more about a co-dependent/abusive relationship with the press (at least, the video does).

In terms of the main topic, I’m in complete agreement with the OP. I saw nothing in Rihanna’s video that would look out of place in advertising or any other music video (for some reason, female tops appear to be more acceptable than female bottoming in adverts), with the only apparent difference being that this time a woman is making her (“deviant”) sexual desires known and acting on them in a more-or-less empowered way.

sianushka // Posted 14 February 2011 at 11:34 am

great piece laura!

i agree, the visuals of male dominance of women in pop music are absolutely every where and deemed perfectly acceptable – there was one video where a fully clothed man literally flicked through an array of scantily clad women performing for his pleasure. he was in charge, their pleasure was no where to be seen.

rihanna is such an interesting performer and i find it intriguing how she and other female pop stars who sing about their own sexual pleasure and enjoyment of their bodies are vilifed (mid career christina aguilera comes to mind, as well as madonna of course) whereas images of men hurting and treating women as toys are perfectly fine.

i immediately thought of that justin ciara video too.

and the fact that chris brown, mike tyson et al still have careers is a really damning indictment on how we view women in popular culture.

Laura // Posted 14 February 2011 at 6:07 pm

@SnowdropExplodes – I meant to write “an arguably somewhat more authentic…”. I agree it isn’t particularly reflective of real life, but I think the elements of sexual play and toys/costumes used in the video are probably more threatening to the mainstream than the bogstandard half-naked woman gyrating on a man’s lap.

SnowdropExplodes // Posted 15 February 2011 at 10:50 am

I agree it isn’t particularly reflective of real life, but I think the elements of sexual play and toys/costumes used in the video are probably more threatening to the mainstream than the bogstandard half-naked woman gyrating on a man’s lap.

Ah, point taken :-)

In point of fact, I’ve learned since making my comment here that a professional BDSMer did the rope work for the bondage scenes, so that much at least is authentic.

Carly Clark // Posted 1 April 2011 at 5:21 pm

I am currently doing a discourse analysis on pop song lyrics, and this song is one of them. My intention is to find constructions of femininity and sexuality. I am stuck on decideing whether this is a positive for sexual liberation for women, or if the link between violence and sex (whips and chains) is one that can actually degrade women, much like in pornography. Furthermore, Rhianna uses the dichotomy of good girl/bad girl to portray a sexual deviant nature, defining her sexual liberation as naughty/kinky, as supposed to describing her general enjoyment of sex. The rest of the lyrics describe rhianna’s “yearning” for a man to “give it to her strong” does that not highlight a dependency upon the stereotypical dominant male to take the lead when having sex?

Jayden // Posted 5 April 2011 at 6:44 pm

In a country where we are so concerned over sexual offense of children, we are so at liberty to ring such words in their ears. It absolutely hypocritical.

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