Oh no! I hear you cry. Not you too. You're not weighing in on *that* video are you?
Well, take your oh noes with you. Yes I am kind of weighing in on that video, and no I’m kind of not. So much has been written about it in the last 48 hours there’s nothing I can really add or want to add to commentary on the video in particular. But I do want to talk about one trope used in the video and what that *specific* trope tells us about sexual violence and women’s humanity.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then first, don’t you live on Twitter like I do? I’m talking about the new Rihanna music video that landed with a bang online on Thursday night and has been intensely debated ever since. The video tells the story of Rihanna’s row with her accountant who has ripped her off. She decides to get back at him by kidnapping his (white, rich) girlfriend, stripping her, stringing her upside-down, forcing drink and drugs on her and basically enacting a whole heap of violence on her. Rihanna then kills the accountant.
The video has caused a lot of controversy and a lot of debate. But as I say, what I specifically want to talk about is the suggestion in the video’s narrative that the best way to get at a man, is to symbolically attack him by physically or sexually attacking *his* woman.
Because to me, that is so key to this video, it’s what is going on in many more narratives in our popular culture, and it is, horrifyingly, the reality of far too many girls living in the world today.
Rihanna isn’t the first person to use this trope. As Helen Lewis pointed out in the New Statesman, this is the standard Liam Neeson movie plot of the last decade (along with being screen married to much younger women…). It is a staple of our cultural landscape - from the rape of Lucrece and Lavinia to countless movies where men are forced to watch as men rape their wives (also mentioned in Lewis’ article).
What this portrayal of violence against women is telling us is that an effective way to bring a man down, to hurt another man, is to attack his “property” - AKA “his” woman. And this gives us an interesting insight into how we view men and women.
In these narratives, men are allowed full humanity. They are allowed to feel rage and anger and despair and sadness. We watch those emotions drive men forward. The kidnappers intent on wreaking revenge on Liam Neeson’s character in every-film-ever taunt him with what they’ll do to his female relative because they know he will emotionally react. Rihanna strings up Ms Accountant because she knows that hurting her will be recognised as an attack on the man she loathes.
Because men get to be human with human reactions and human emotions.
And women? Well, we don’t get that. Instead, we get to be the objects that the violence is enacted on.
That’s what makes me angry about this cultural trope - from Shakespeare to Rihanna. Women are not allowed to be fully human. We are just the objects. We’re the property of men and by violating that property, the men get emotionally hurt. Meanwhile, the physical and sexual violence done to women to emotionally hurt that man matters less. We’re just pawns in the fight between (usually) men. We’re an object; we don’t get to feel. Our physical suffering becomes his emotional suffering. The actual physical and sexual violence done to our bodies becomes secondary to the symbolic violence suffered by the men.
As I say, this is nothing new. Even when you think of the etymology of the word ‘rape’ you see how women’s bodies are objects to be swapped between men - how the crime is against the man because his property has been violated, not against the woman who has been directly attacked.
Of course, if this was just something that only happened in action films, Renaissance plays and music videos it would be one thing. But this isn't just a cultural trope. This is happening to women and girls in real life every single day. It is happening around the world, and it is happening in the UK.
Perhaps this issue is a little close to my heart because I recognise it as something that happened to me - on a far, far less violent scale but still an act of male violence. I wrote about it here and here. I’m not going to rehash it all but suffice to say, I very strongly believe that what happened to me was an act of aggression against a male relative using my body (or, to be more exact, my hair) as the cipher.
Please note I am not comparing this small act of violence against me with the horrific violence against women I’m about to discuss. But different scales aside, the motivations behind the violence share a commonality - the desire to symbolically attack or send a message to another man via physically or sexually attacking a woman who is somehow attached to him. And that is allowed to happen because we as a society allow men full humanity, and don’t afford the same respect to women. As we continue to treat women as objects, as the property of men, then the symbolic violence is done to the man whose property has been violated. The horrors enacted on the woman are secondary.
This is something that we know about from the use of rape as a weapon of war. Here, women’s bodies are weaponised. Raping women is seen as a way to emasculate and shame the community.
Last year I did some research on violence against women in Guatemala where this kind of act is frighteningly common. I read page after page of women being beaten, raped, mutilated and killed - left in places where rival gangs would see the violence and “get the message”. These women were completely denied their humanity. They were treated as objects to be used and abused in order to symbolically attack other men. If you can find the Amnesty report from 2006 on the killings (my link is broken for some reason) then it makes grim reading. It’s a litany of horrific violence. It’s a demonstration of what happens when women are seen as objects and not fully human.
But we don’t have to go so far away as Guatemala to witness women’s bodies being used to attack other men. Gangs in the UK are increasingly raping girls who are seen as ‘belonging’ to rival male gang members. As Carlene Firmin told the Guardian last year:
“young women connected to gangs were viewed as "currency" by rival outfits and attacked accordingly,”
The Guardian reported:
“London gangs are drawing up and disseminating lists of teenage girls whom they consider to be legitimate rape targets, as sexual violence is increasingly used to spread fear and antagonise rival groups.”
That word, currency. That’s interesting. That shows just how little we value women. We’re not people. We’re objects to be exchanged. To be passed around.
And look at that second quote. Where sexual violence is not seen as a horrific violent act done by men to women. Instead it’s seen as a weapon to symbolically attack other men.
That’s what made me cross about the Rihanna video, what makes me cross about all those action movies, what makes me cross about any cultural event that treats women’s bodies as objects to use and abuse, and treats men as the ‘real victims’ as they get to be fully human people.
Because this is our lives. This is women’s real lives. And so long as we are happy to treat women as non-human, so long as we are happy to accept that women are objects and men are people, then men will continue to treat women’s bodies as weapons - whilst the actual harm done to women is seen as secondary to the ‘symbolic’ harm done to men.