In her latest video, Rihanna goes on a violent spree and tortures a white woman. Mia McKenzie says it has upset White Feminists, perhaps because they are associating Rihanna suspending her victim from the ceiling with the attitude shown to women in other hip-hop videos. Maybe they see it on a continuum with films like Saw, and are worried that it is torture porn.
McKenzie tells them to whistle. For her, the video is a celebration of a strong black female treating a white woman in the way that white feminists treat black women. It's a symbolic narrative that reverses the usual way of the world. It's about a powerless woman taking control and the violence is not literal but a metaphor.
I agree. Rihanna's behaviour is not something to try at home – unless you have enough money to buy off most legal ramifications – but this is a video, a work of art. And works of art, ontologically speaking, exist as symbolic explorations of ideas. Rihanna might well be making a point about feminist hierarchies.
Even if she isn't, McKenzie's interpretation is valid. The art does not happen just in the art object itself, but in the place where audience and event meet.
I don't have a great deal of enthusiasm for representations of violence in art, but letting that go, McKenzie's explanation wins because it treats art as art, and not real life. Sure, if I decided to go on a hacking spree in real life, I would go to prison, even if I claimed in court to be acting out a metaphorical political commentary. But if I wrote about it, I get to stay free.
Art is often the place where things undoable in real life get down. Alan Moore's Watchman features a plot to undermine the Soviet-USA cold war: by having a big fuck off alien destroy New York in the comic, he can make his point without the need for building a pretend big fuck off alien and dropping it on New York. Art uses storytelling and fantasy to make a point, without harming anyone.
This is the same reason that I think Fifty Shades is being critiqued for the wrong reasons. Yes, it is badly written (seriously, where are the sex scenes?), and it depicts an abusive relationship and pretends it is sexy. But sexual desire is a difficult matter, and that fantasy can be played out in the book so that the reader can avoid it in real life.
Art is not the same as reportage. It is vicarious. That may make it uncomfortable – and in the case of Fifty, hilarious when a Q and A goes wrong. But banning it, or protesting it in any other way than making more art, is not only repressive: it reveals a failure to understand its function.
In other news, Rihanna's video could also be read as an act of rejecting her female identity for one more associated with male gangster rappers. But McKenzie's reading is compelling.