Rihanna: Defying Cultural Norms?

In 2011 Rihanna released a music video for her song “S&M” that was subsequently banned in eleven countries and restricted on YouTube, and some radio stations listed the song under the alternate title “Come On.” The video provoked general shock and outrage for its suggestive content about sexual sadomasochism. This reaction is understandable, at first. People are shocked by Rihanna’s vulgarity, and our society is uncomfortable with the concept of nonstandard sex existing in the mainstream. However, we should look past the shock novelty of her “chains and whips,” and consider her message, which isn’t bad. It might even be liberating.

Popular culture has often been a kind of carnival, like the medieval romps Bakhtin describes in Rabelais and His World:

“Carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions.”

Ordinary people set aside the usual rules and hierarchies and, in fits of liberating bad taste, rebel against (or temporarily take the place of) their kings and bosses and masters. There is no distinction between performers and audience members. Semi-lawlessness and debauchery rein. Social norms—beauty standards, etc.—are disposed of. In two words, Mardi Gras.

Oftentimes, popular culture is not a depiction of carnival. Sometimes it is a depiction of an anti-carnival where even in 2016 artists can make millions perpetuating social hierarchies through racism, homophobia, and misogyny. Just take Selena Gomez’ “Good For You.” Gomez sings “I just wanna look good for you, good for you” and A$AP Rocky then raps “You look good, girl, you know you did good, don’t you?,” unabashedly marginalizing women as objects men can show off by suggesting a woman’s purpose is to look good for her man.

Or take “Work From Home” by Fifth Harmony. Each of the five girls is singing to persuade a guy to stay home from work to have sex with her. “I know you gotta/Put in them hours, I’mma make it harder/I’m sending pic after picture, I’mma get you fired.” In addition to enforcing the stereotypes of men working and women staying home, the song dives further into the traditional gender roles, saying, “baby you’re the boss at home,” indicating that men are the heads of households. And if that isn’t enough, watch the video. It goes so far it’s a parody of itself. Both the men’s and women’s outfits would not be out of place in a costume shop under the label “sexy construction worker.” It’s actually funny. Men work a construction scene, with plenty of slow-motion shots that show off their oiled-up abs. The women of Fifth Harmony sing the melody, moving their hips provocatively, presumably there to distract the men. Innuendos abound: one of the girls unwinds a tape measure several inches and looks suggestively at one of the workers.

Back to Rihanna—specifically, her new single “Work” (which, as I write this, is sitting at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100). Almost nothing she sings is discernible but Drake, her feature, auto-tunes these gems: “You need to get done, done, done, done at work, come over/…/Now you need to forward and give me all the/work.” It’s possible different listeners will have different interpretations of the word work here, but I think it’s reasonable to assume it’s not work like work it, and there’s no escaping the fact that a man telling a woman to give him all the work is currently at Billboard #1. And how about “Take a Bow”? At first listen it’s a female empowerment anthem; she’s asserting herself and standing up to a guy who cheated on her. In the meantime, though, she manages to further drill into our heads traditional male stereotypes, this time about how men should not express emotion: “You look so dumb right now/Standin’ outside my house/Tryin’ to apologize/You’re so ugly when you cry/(Please)/Just cut it out.” We hear a strong, independent woman, but we hear her telling us men look dumb when they cry and apologize.

Rihanna is baffling because many of her numbers are indeed carnivalesque, and some of the songs even contradict themselves! I’ll take a step back. What counts as carnivalesque? If the central qualification is the concept of the ‘king fool,’ of the dissolution of the usual hierarchical boundaries and social norms, then who are the kings who become fools and the fools who become kings? In Rihanna’s case, it’s usually a matter of race and gender. So white people, and men, and white men, are her oppressors.

“Hard” is one of these contradictory songs. The carnivalesque messages are more involved: the hook, “I’m so hard,” is unique in itself because a woman wouldn’t normally sing that line. The video (set at a military base) portrays Rihanna as a drill sergeant with the infantrymen snapping to attention, doing her bidding. She sings, “They can say whatever, I’ma do whatever” as men submit and snap to attention. The rest of the video includes scenes of Rihanna participating in activities stereotypically masculine, like playing poker with the guys in the barracks. She also sings about being at an “all white party wearing all black,” a metaphor for race. The song/video combo is not perfect—Rihanna’s expected sexualization, and the possibility exists that a sexy woman taking control could be viewed as a fantasy—but it’s a step forward.

“Bitch Better Have My Money” takes another step toward blurring social boundaries. Margaret Corvid of New Statesman writes, “Rihanna’s BBHMM video has horrified many feminists—but I saw an empowering BDSM fantasy.”1 Before Corvid gets into the sexual aspects of the video, she describes how this song intimately depicts Rihanna’s anger, set off by the accountancy firm that cheated her out of millions, at the patriarchy’s “financial violation” of women, and the fact that critics were disgusted because society does not take well to female revenge. The video is based around the kidnapping and submission of an elite white woman by a diverse trio. There’s Rihanna, there’s another white woman, and there’s another who could possibly be described as a biker chick, but she isn’t sexualized, she’s overweight, and her outfit includes many piercings, tight black clothes under a trench coat, and a spiked choker. All three look like thugs. They tie up the elite white woman, strip her, and take her to a barn, a yacht, and then a house and force her to binge drink, smoke marijuana, and participate in a variety of degrading acts. But Corvid’s (and my) point is that she seems to like it. She never fights back. She hides from the police when they show up. So in “BBHMM” Rihanna advocates lawless deviant sex between four women, and the placement of that high-class white woman below (the case could be made for equal to) the thugs. The king (queen?) is willingly made a fool.

The best example of Rihanna’s carnival side is S&M. If “BBHMM” is an implicit BDSM fantasy, “S&M” is an explicit one. The first lines of the song are:

“Feels so good being bad

There’s no way I’m turning back

Now the pain is for pleasure

‘Cause nothing can measure”


And if the lyrics aren’t overtly carnivalesque (BDSM is not inherently so), the video sure is. There are three alternate settings, the first being Press v. Rihanna: men in suits drag her through a door into a pressroom. The journalists are ball-gagged and Rihanna is wrapped in latex, and it’s not too far of a stretch to see the separation between them (she’s standing on a stage, they’re sitting facing her) as that divide between the performers and audience that’s so anti-carnival, and the subsequent participation of the press in Rihanna’s fantasy as the wiping away of that divide. The journalists aren’t attractive, either. There’s a fat balding white guy, a fat black woman, and less overweight people of all flavors. The second scene includes as good of a ‘king fool’ representation as I’ve seen: Rihanna dressed as an aristocrat walking a dog, except the dog isn’t a dog, he’s a tied up white guy (Perez Hilton, a celebrity), and he likes it. The third scene is a costume room, and again, there are people of all shapes, sizes, and colors dressing up in weird clothes doing sexual things. In a particularly illuminating split-second, Rihanna is dancing on the lap of a fat white man with tape all over his body, and he has an excited grin on his face. All three scenes present fantasies of bridged divides and blurred lines.

Are society’s values carnivalesque, though? Sure, culture sometimes portrays that scenario, but why, then, are so many of the best-selling, top-rated, and most listened-to songs out there so abhorrently misogynistic or racist? S&M was restricted and even banned in some areas.2 Also, so many of these songs are so catchy that catchiness alone isn’t a good enough excuse for liking one. If someone is offended by lyrics, they have hundreds of other catchy songs to choose from. We listen to the marginalizing stuff, so in some sense we must hold those values, but we also listen to songs like S&M—it’s one of Rihanna’s top hits of all time. We as a society are undecided as to whether we support the concept of the carnival.

Don’t think for a second that this stuff doesn’t matter. Music is central to society and culture. The average teenager listens to music for almost four hours per day. 84% of American adults use the internet. Running through poor, rural Vermont, I passed two guys sitting on the porch of their trailer listening to Flo Rida. Song lyrics and YouTube views matter: the small amount of research that’s been done on the effects of these media has suggested that the media do affect behavior,3 and we are being desensitized to concepts like white male supremacy.

Rihanna is in a position of wide influence, and she’s giving us the hint of a message that destroying hierarchical boundaries is the way to go. If she really believed and cared about our supposed deep-down desires to break those boundaries, I doubt she’d let Drake tell her to give him all the work. She’s giving us both sides of the coin, and she represents our society’s indecision about whether to break down our hierarchies. Yes, much of her output is decidedly anti-carnival, but so is everyone else’s. As morally questionable it is, anti-carnival messages are the norm, the baseline, just as marginalization has been central to society for as long as it has existed. Rihanna’s attempts to go against that trend are breaths of fresh air. Bluntly, they’re worth the other garbage.



1 Corvid, Margaret, 2015. Rihanna’s BBHMM video has horrified many feminists—but I saw an empowering BDSM fantasy. New Statesman.


2 Niemiec, Charlsie, 2011 for CollegeCandy.com. What’s the Big Deal About Rihanna’s S&M? Huffington Post.


3 Inappropriate Content in Music. Media Smarts.