It’s unlikely any seven-minute clip deserves a two-minute trailer, but the music video Rihanna released at midnight makes a strong argument for its own hype. The plot’s straightforward, to the point of coming right out of the song itself: the star sings “Your wife in the backseat of my brand-new foreign car” as the camera pans over… the bitch in question’s wife in the trunk of a car. Not a brand-new or foreign car, as befits the segment’s vintage Americana road-trip vibe, but close enough.
Rihanna’s target is a Pomeranian-toting, all white-wearing Tasteful Rich Woman (though in the universe of Rihanna music videos, even the most buttoned-up blondes wear completely sheer “bras”). Her husband — played by Mads Mikkelsen, the Danish actor whose highest-profile stateside role is as the title character of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal — owes Rihanna money, and to get it back, Rih and her clique hold his spouse for ransom. Twisted hijinks ensue, and because Rihanna is a pop star in 2015, so does the backlash.
In between the initial abduction, conducted in a hat that would make Bonnie Parker proud, and the final murder that goes for Dexter messy over Hannibal clean, Rihanna puts her prisoner through hell: she’s dragged naked into a warehouse and swung around like a pendulum; suspended underwater and ignored by the camera in favor of Rihanna’s #flawless, swimsuit-clad butt; and force-fed bong hits before she submits to Stockholm Syndrome entirely and joins the seedy motel room party. Rihanna closes the video triumphant, with a chest full of cash, Mikkelsen’s Accountant/Bitch dead, and his wife nowhere to be seen. (Why would she be? It’s Rihanna’s party, and she’ll bathe in money if she wants to.)
Between the performative feminism we’ve come to expect from our biggest pop stars and the understandable skepticism we’ve started to feel towards sexual violence onscreen, subsequent headlines like “Rihanna’s ‘BBHMM’ Video Is Not Suitable For Work, Or Feminists” feel like they came from a game of Hot Take Mad Libs. And then there’s more justified discomfort like that of my colleague Moze Halperin, directed towards the depiction of a woman’s sexual humiliation side by side with yacht outings and convertible rides.
While no one’s obligated to take unqualified pleasure in the sight of someone puking into a bucket, writing off the video as just another instance of glamorized sexual violence feels reductive. There is, of course, the power of watching a black woman take what’s rightfully hers, in the context of both a fictional narrative, where she bathes in dollar bills and Mads Mikkelsen’s blood, and real life, where she just shattered a record by hitting 100 million digital sales. It’s a phenomenon that’s been written about eloquently and at length by writers like Pitchfork’s Doreen St. Felix and BuzzFeed’s Hannah Giorgis.
Then there are the more subtle subversive tweaks worked in throughout. Rihanna’s accomplices, for example, act as co-conspirators rather than sexualized props, hardly typical for supporting female characters in big-budget music videos. And Rihanna herself occupies the kind of role typically reserved for actors like Mikkelsen — part of what makes his casting so satisfying, though more people likely watched the video in its first few hours online than have ever seen a single episode of Hannibal. As the abductor, Rihanna substitutes for countless generic, mostly male kidnappers in any number of action flicks (or less memorable music videos — sorry, Drake).
Which is part of what makes criticism of the video’s violence ring hollow. It’s not like a woman’s abuse at the hands of her kidnappers is a horror Rihanna and her collaborators pulled out of a hat; it’s a trope, one that “Bitch Better Have My Money” leaves intact in some places and warps in others. And to hold one example of a trope accountable above, or pretend it’s identical to, the rest is to hold it to a double standard.
Besides, Rihanna’s never pretended to want the role model status those crying antifeminist are denying her; disregarding universal appeal is her appeal. Audiences can be as uncomfortable as they want. They just shouldn’t expect the woman sprawled on a hard-won pile of money to care.