Strippers poles apart on Rihanna video

Date

Ruby Hamad

Screengrab from Rhianna's film clip Pour it Up

Screengrab from Rhianna's film clip Pour it Up

When Rihanna released the music video for Pour It Up earlier this month, there was an instant backlash. There were inevitable calls for it to be banned, and at the time of writing, the top two YouTube comments on the video are “Pour It Up or Porn It Up?'' and “99% porn 1%water”.

For those who have yet to witness the spectacle, Pour It Up is an ode to capitalism in the guise of a stripper anthem. In a fantasy strip club mysteriously semi-submerged in water, Rihanna alternates between sitting on a throne in a bejewelled bra and jean G-string, twirling around the stripper's pole, and literally rolling around in money.

Within days of its release, Annie Lennox took to Facebook to lament (without mentioning any names) the proliferation of “overtly sexualised ... videos” in which female pop stars “behave like pimp and prostitute at the same time”.

Screengrab from Rhianna's film clip Pour it Up

Screengrab from Rhianna's film clip Pour it Up

Lennox's terminology is passe but the idea that Rihanna is both the exploiter and the exploited seems an apt description of the video given the singer oscillates between stripper and customer.

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In a society that demonises female sexuality, it is difficult to discuss objectification without adding to the culture of slut-shaming. Suffice to say it is not whether or not women are wearing clothes but how their bodies are marketed that determines whether objectification is taking place (namely, are women's bodies used as props to appeal to the male gaze?). Alanis Morissette's Thank U video is a wonderful example of how female nudity need not equal objectification.

I agree with sociologist Lisa Wade, who argues that today's biggest female pop stars have made a patriarchal bargain in which they accept and perpetuate “the sexual objectification of women in exchange for money, fame, and power”, thus manipulating “the system to their best advantage without challenging the system itself”.

Screengrab from Rhianna's film clip Pour it Up

Screengrab from Rhianna's film clip Pour it Up

There is no doubt to me that Rihanna fits this mould in regard to how she presents herself, which is of course her prerogative. The real question is: is she also exploiting other women? Miley Cyrus has been roundly and rightly criticised for her appropriation of black “ratchet” culture, but watching Pour It Up, I wondered if Rihanna, too, wasn't guilty of a kind of appropriation.

Intersectional feminism isn't just about analysing how race intersects with gender, it's also about other forms of oppression, including class. Is Rihanna exploiting, for her own personal gain, a form of sex work that remains so heavily stigmatised in our society?

When Cyrus twerked her way to infamy, the most valuable criticism came from those women whose culture she had appropriated, so I wanted to discover what the women Rihanna depicts thought of it.

Well, if this article on The Hairpin that calls the video “amazing” is anything to go by, then they love it.

Susan Elizabeth Shepard, a stripper in Austin, Texas, claims Rihanna rejects “the framework of patriarchy” by aligning herself with the strippers in the video, rather than the male customers (who in the video do not even exist).

It's an interesting interpretation to say Rihanna bucks patriarchy. Personally, I had felt the fact the clip contained no men created a false fantasy around stripping that made it seem like “easy money” and not the gruelling job that it is.

When I put this to Gemma (her stage name), a Melbourne stripper and theatre performer, she agreed.

“The men would have made it too real and if there's one thing people need to uphold when portraying strippers it is that it's all a fantasy.”

The result is that the video “continues this 'strippers are not real people' myth”.

But Josephine, a stripper from Michigan who tweets under the handle “Detroit's Angriest Stripper” disagrees, saying the lack of men “does not matter within the context of a music video. Music videos are fiction.”

That's true, but we would be remiss not to note the influence pop culture has on the culture at large. As Wade notes, the success of today's pop stars is also “an affirmation that a woman's worth is strongly correlated with her willingness to commodify her sexuality”.

When Rihanna throws money in the air, thus linking stripping to wealth, is she perpetuating this correlation? Not according to Josephine, who says: “I think it's up to the consumer to do the objectifying. I absolutely saw the women in the video as more than objects. Did other consumers? Maybe not.”

But is objectification only in the eyes of the audience? As a film student, I recall learning to choose certain shots at certain times to, if not manipulate the audience, then certainly to encourage them to think certain things at certain times.

Rihanna's clip is proudly explicit. It guides our eyes to certain parts of the women's bodies, all of which fit into the current ideal of slim attractiveness. Yes, as The Hairpin notes, it showcases the dancers' athleticism and skills, but they are still presented in a uniform of high heels and G-strings to highlight their sex appeal.

Gemma finds Pour It Up “no more or less objectifying than other music videos out there” but notes that the focus of the lyrics on money is problematic because it perpetuates myths around stripping.

“If someone was to start dancing they'll get a nasty shock ... You don't have an endless supply of customers throwing diamonds and money and champagne at you. It's work. Sometimes you make no money.”

It would be unfair to entirely dismiss Pour It Up as exploitation given that some of its fiercest defenders are the strippers it depicts. Perhaps Rihanna did intend it as a homage, which is how Josephine views it. “I didn't feel exploited in the least,” she told me. “I do absolutely love Rihanna's depiction of dancers.”

But we also cannot ignore, as Gemma points out, that Rihanna is free to imitate strippers without she herself having to “engage with the stigma attached to sex work”.

What is not in doubt, however, is that it is putting a conversation about sex work on the table. In a world that continues to marginalise sex workers, talking about them far more often than it talks to them, that in itself is an important contribution.

Video NSFW: