Rihanna in the music video for “You Da One”
So I got into a fight with Alan Cross on the Internet. I suppose it was bound to happen eventually, as the slight lilt of “get off my lawn” has begun to colour his usually informative and solid blog posts. In the entry that raised my eyebrows, entitled “They Don’t Make Rock Chicks Like They Used To,” the broadcaster and music writer uses Rihanna’s recent SNL performance as an entry point to discuss what he feels is a lack of “strong, independent, in-your-face female performers we used to see in the alt-rock world back in the ’90s.” He contrasts performers like Liz Phair, Fiona Apple and Courtney Love against contemporary artists like Rihanna, whom he regards as sleazy, comparing her dancing to stripping and repeating his wife’s quip that “all she needs is a pole.”
In short, Cross displayed a trait that’s becoming more prevalent in the music journalism, as well as among casual fans: a fear of Rihanna’s crotch.
While Cross didn’t say so explicitly in his post, it is Rihanna’s interaction with her genitalia that has so many people calling for smelling salts. It’s become a signature of hers to grab, pat and rub herself between the legs while she performs. Far from escaping notice, this particular move is something that critics and fans can’t stop talking about. The query “why does Rihanna grab her crotch?” is included on lists of weird yet frequently asked fan questions; the move is almost always mentioned in reviews of her videos and performances; and the number of times Rihanna touches her crotch is considered news. Currently, a cultural vortex forms whenever Rihanna’s hand begins to creep towards her nether regions.
Fellow Toronto Standard writer Chris Randle tackled the subject of Rihanna’s sexualized music and performances last year, responding to the oft-repeated comment that Talk That Talk was “the dirtiest pop record since Erotica,”or maybe just the dirtiest one ever. Randle cites a series of lyrics and videos at least as sexy as anything Rihanna has created, from Madonna and Peaches to Lil Kim and Trina. He zeroes in on something that is a major part of our cultural discomfort with Rihanna’s crotch: her confidence with her sexuality. He argues that her music rejects a “repellent, male-gazing servility,” dwelling on satisfaction and pleasure whenever possible. This extends from her music into her personal life. As Randle notes, when nude pictures of her surfaced, “her reaction was healthily, characteristically insouciant.” Rihanna is deeply comfortable with sex, whether she’s having it or singing about it, and there is something about her comfort that we cannot abide.
It’s certainly not the human crotch in general that we are opposed to, as the male package has “a long and noble history in popular culture.” From Michael Jackson’s grab-and-yelp dance moves to Bruce Springsteen revealing a cheeky tuft of pubic hair through his unzipped fly, all the way back to Elvis’ hip-thrusting (which made more than one TV station refuse to show the singer from the waist down), fans have always been eager to worship the bulge in their favourite male rock star’s pants. The association between the guitar and the penis is almost automatic at this point, and male rock stars have become so comfortable touching and displaying their dicks on stage that doing so has become a cliché (cock rock, anyone?).
It’s not Rihanna’s crotch that we have come to fear, but what it represents: female sexual pleasure. When Rihanna lays her hand on her crotch, she is acknowledging that she likes doing it, that touching herself feels good. She certainly isn’t the first woman to proudly draw attention to her vagina – Courtney Love was a pioneer in that regard too, and Amanda Palmer has written an entire song honouring the beauty of a woman’s pubic hair. It’s not the simulated sex act that we find disconcerting, but the context of female pleasure that it is couched in.
Here is the crux of the discomfort that so many fans and critics feel when discussing Rihanna’s crotch: she makes no bones about the fact that sex feels good for her too. The proud, confident relationship she has with her vulva troubles us. The predominant image of the pop star’s vagina has become the snapshot furtively captured by an unscrupulous member of the paparazzi as a woman steps out of a car, and we are comfortable seeing that displayed in the glossiest of magazines. When the female body is contextualized in shame and disempowerment, when the body’s display is depicted as accidental and violating (the implication always being that the woman attached to the crotch caught in the camera’s flash is either too stupid or drunk to cover herself, and therefore undeserving of dignity), no one bats an eyelash. This has become normal: stolen, furtive, shameful sexuality.
Rihanna positions herself as a woman in charge of her sexuality, who puts her hands on her body and says “this is mine.” We find this frightening and so we call it offensive. We say it is improper for her to simulate masturbation (something that has been a standard element of musical performance since the dawn of time), when really we are just afraid of the fact that she is saying: “This is my body. My sexual pleasure and frustration is mine. I am sharing it with you, my audience, and you, my partners, but it remains mine.”
In the dreamy, pulsing “You Da One,” Rhianna coos, “my love is your love/your love is mine.” The line is an expression of sharing her sexuality rather than giving it away, her refusal to make another person wholly responsible for her sexual satisfaction and wellbeing. This is a vital statement in an extremely sensual song, whose beat that mimics the natural flow of the muscles in the stomach and hips, languid and slow. She is letting us in, showing us one of the ways she likes it.
If we, as a culture, are generally still this fearful of the vulva, the yoni, the entryway to life and the gateway to pleasure, we need to stop criticizing this particular performer and instead look at what we have become. If we would rather see the female body denigrated, constrained or exploited than the image of a woman confidently laying a hand on her body, it is most definitely time for change.
Natalie Zina Walschots is a poet and music writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press this spring. You can follow her on Twitter at @NatalieZed.