April Scissors is a writer and cultural critic. She works to explore and uncover the historical and present implications of faulty representations of people of color, women, and other marginalized groups in politics, popular culture, and media. Find more of her work at aprilscissors.com and on Vocalo.org 89.5fm in Chicago where she is a frequent guest and contributor.
In an anti-racist feminism course, my then-professor presented us with Allan Bérubé’s essay, “How Gay Stays White and What Kind of White It Stays.” She asked how feminism presents a similar paradox. As someone who once identified as feminist and then became disenfranchised by the white privilege I saw in many parts of the movement, I reflect on that question often. For me, one of the greatest spaces that highlight the importance of answering that question—of how feminism stays white—is the pop culture feminist blogosphere. In that space I’ve noticed the eagerness to not only crown some pantsless pop divas as feminists, but also simultaneously admonish the thought that other female artists (also pantsless) could ever don the “F” badge.
Beyoncé’s debut of “Run the World (Girls)” last summer was almost overshadowed by sudden cries of “IS BEYONCE A FEMINIST?! SHE SAID GIRLS RUN THE WORLD! SHE’S LYING!” I even fell into this trap by responding to the noise, though Beyoncé has always been vague about how she identifies. Most notable of those dissenters was vlogger Nineteen Percent who kindly laid out all of the reasons why girls do not, in fact, run the world. What was missing from a number of these “Beyoncé is not a feminist” critiques (including my own) was the positive and empowering relationship many Black women have with King B, which plays an important role in some people’s brand of feminism. These critiques that played out online in larger pop feminist spaces seemed to have been looking at Beyoncé as feminist from the perspective of a feminism that strictly relates to gender and patriarchy, rather than gender, patriarchy, and race—among other things. I believe when feminism tethers itself to the former and ignores the intersectionality of the latter, it becomes “white”—because only whiteness as a particular social construction affords the privilege of ignoring the complexities of possessing fluid, simultaneous othernesses.
Rihanna’s powerful response to Eva Hoeke, the shamed former editor of the Dutch magazine, Jackie, who issued a non-apology apology for calling the singer a “n*ggerbitch,” reminds me of the importance of spreading the message of Black feminism equally to promoting a more generalized feminism. Many of the same pop feminist circles that were excitedly hoping Rihanna would wholeheartedly claim feminism and advocate against domestic violence after Chris Brown’s attack—and were offended when she didn’t—were notably absent in recognizing how she defending herself and all other Black women spoke to one of the guiding principles of the movement—love for yourself and for your sisters.
(And as an aside, the current climate of “Black women can’t get married/are too fat/have too high of a self-esteem even though they’re so fat and can’t get married” someone—least of all a pop star—standing up to honor Black women should be receiving feminist praise from all corners. I digress…)
Another missed opportunity at recognizing Rihanna’s possible nod to Black feminism was her response to critics of the “Man Down” video. There are (mostly white) feminists searching for a subversive double meaning in Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” and “Bad Romance,” but interestingly avoid the significance of a pop singer being frank with her female fans and essentially saying, hey things that we don’t want to happen and don’t ask to happen, can happen—be careful. This comparison is not to position all pop stars in a battle of “Who’s the Most Feminist,” but to highlight how the politics of being Black and woman and Black feminism are undervalued in the movement—even on a pop culture level. Doing a simple Google search of “Rihanna as feminist” exposes a number of critiques that essentially fall into the category of policing Black female sexuality and Black females. That is the history of Black women working their/our way into greater spaces, whether that space is feminism, American history, or legitimacy itself.
I have not heard or read anything where Rihanna claims feminism or deems herself a feminist. However, I believe there is a strong element of the movement that presents itself in the singer’s work and actions that should not go unrecognized. That is not to say that everything she does or has done should be interpreted as feminist. I’d hoped with so many Black women’s reaction to the popularity of The Help that the larger feminist or feminist-themed spaces would open the door to let Black feminism in and stay awhile. Instead, there continues to be a tepid roof-raising of support for Black feminists who draw the connections themselves. That passerby acknowledgement only allows for mostly white feminists the freedom to remain unattached to the ever present “race issue” while concurrently positioning themselves as allies with no real consequences. Just as every Black woman a part of every wave of feminism has had to ask, “Ain’t I a Woman?” Ain’t Rihanna a feminist? Black feminism and feminism in popular culture and otherwise should not exist mutually exclusive of one another. Instead, there should be a decided cohesiveness between the two that not only acknowledges our shared marginality in a patriarchal society, but also gives us the tools of love and solidarity to combat our oppression(s) as sisters in the struggle.