Academic journal article African American Review

The Case of Rihanna: Erotic Violence and Black Female Desire

Academic journal article African American Review

The Case of Rihanna: Erotic Violence and Black Female Desire

Article excerpt

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The November 2011 issue of Esquire magazine declares Rihanna "the sexiest woman alive." On the cover, Rihanna poses nude with one leg propped, blocking view of her breast and crotch. The entertainer stares out provocatively, with mouth slightly ajar. Seaweed clings to her glistening body. A small gun tattooed under her fight arm directs attention to her partially revealed breast. Rihanna's hands brace her body, and her nails dig into her skin. The feature article and accompanying photographs detail the hyperbolic hotness of the celebrity; Ross McCammon, the article's author, acknowledges that the pop star's presence renders him speechless and unable to keep his composure. Interwoven into anecdotes and narrative scenes explicating Rihanna's desirability as a sexual subject are her statements of her sexual appetite and the pleasure that she finds in particular forms of sexual play that rehearse gendered power inequity and the titillation of pain.

That Rihanna's fight arm is carefully positioned both to show the tattoo of the gun aimed at her breast, and that her fingers claw into her flesh, commingle sexual pleasure and pain, erotic desire and violence. Here and elsewhere, Rihanna employs her body as a stage for the exploration of modes of violence structured into heterosexual desire and practices. The biographical details of Rihanna as one who has suffered at the hands of her lover offer a referent for the suggestive violence of the magazine cover image, one that resonates from the realm of fantasy. The knowledge of her assault by boyfriend Chris Brown heightens the risks involved in her pursuit of forms of attachment and pleasure; it also registers with heteronormative male fantasies of what can be done to her body under the rubric of consent.

Esquire's feature explicitly creates an exchange with another highly circulated image of Rihanna. It is a photograph of the singer, beaten and bruised, after her much publicized assault in 2009, on the eve of the Grammy Awards, by R&B singer Brown when she was twenty-one and he nineteen. The gossip site TMZ.com, which shot the photograph that was used in the police investigation, was widely criticized for releasing it. Yet the criticism of TMZ.com served as an opportunity for more "legitimate" news sources to re-release the image, describe it in detail, and comment on the physical injuries that Rihanna sustained. In the photograph, Rihanna's eyes are closed, which Sarah Projansky interprets as Rihanna's refusal to participate in the dominant narrative of racialized and gendered violence. Projansky writes: "While commentators expressed shock, that shock worked--along with the graphic representations--to intensify the (image of) violence done to a woman of color. In short, this photograph is a reminder of the cavalier way U. S. popular culture treats violence against women of color. Might Rihanna have closed her eyes in order not to see this mediated, racialized violence--again?" (Projansky 72). Projansky also argues that Rihanna's closed eyes can be seen as a strategy of producing privacy by not returning the gaze of the audience.

Another strategy that the artist and her producers took in the months after her assault was to cultivate a deliberate image and sound for the artist that incorporated acts of violence in intimate relations and sexual practices, at times explicitly referencing her relationship with Brown and the psychic and physical injuries resulting from it. Rihanna's references to violence include the injuries caused by Brown as well as the media and public's handling of the assault. Rihanna's injured body took on heightened eroticism through incessant revelation of more details about the incident itself and speculation about what led to it. The singer's strategy of incorporation, instead of denying or minimizing the incident, served as a highly successful commercial venture that has only increased her appeal and success as a mainstream pop star. …

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