Friday, September 4, 2009

Rihanna goes topless in Italian Vogue

by Thúy-Lan Võ Lite

Rihanna wants to reclaim her title of Queen. Her efforts to rise above “victim” status (see: February’s beating from now-ex Chris Brown) and re-establish herself as singer-icon extraordinaire are admirable and even empowering. Yet her raunchy photo shoot for the September issue of Italian Vogue make me question her methods; how appropriate is it for a former constituent of an abusive relationship to advertise violence?

At first glance, Rihanna’s photos depict her as strong and edgy. In ensembles of dark colors and leather and thigh-highs, she seduces the viewer with smoldering, smoky eyes and provocative poses. Props and equipment (for instance, a muzzle – and is that a whip?) reminiscent of BDSM are sprinkled throughout the photos. In one picture – the current favorite on HuffPo’s poll – she’s wearing nothing but spiky underwear, pasties over her nipples, a long jacket strategically left completely open, and a grimace. She’s a dominatrix, in control of her sexuality and, presumably, her life.

I take no issue with females reclaiming their bodies or with BDSM as a practice between consenting partners. But I do worry that the imagery in these photos only reinforces the public association of Rihanna with domestic violence. How can she stop being a victim if we continually associate her with aggression? Will the motif of the spread help bolster the tragically popular opinion that she somehow provoked her own assault? And, furthermore, how ethical is it for a magazine to profit off her injuries?

Of course, as Judy Berman points out in Salon, “[t]here is no formula for bouncing back from abuse.” These photos just might help Rihanna garner the positive attention she needs to jumpstart her career. But then, there’s the perennial mystery: why should a talented R&B artist have to show us her boobs for us to want her music?


At September 4, 2009 at 2:32 PM , Anonymous nikki L said...

great post. that's all I have to say.

At September 4, 2009 at 7:15 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your article really made me think twice about what I had previously viewed to be just another magazine cover! Keep up the excellent work!

At September 4, 2009 at 7:59 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps it's just a knee-jerk attempt to, as you say, elevate Rihanna above the victim status.

Or maybe the people at Vogue Italia trust us to make a clear distinction between BDSM as a sexual practice and domestic violence.

Who knows? Not I.

At September 5, 2009 at 12:24 AM , Blogger Emily Rutherford said...

Maybe I'm overthinking this, but it could have another effect: by demonstrating that someone who is a survivor of domestic violence can engage in a photoshoot that employs BDSM imagery, it could actually help to distinguish between BDSM and nonconsensual violence. It demonstrates that there doesn't have to be a conflict between condemning and recovering from violence and engaging in or supporting those who choose to engage in consensual BDSM.

At September 5, 2009 at 9:43 PM , Blogger Thuy-Lan said...

that's an interesting point emily (and it kinda goes along with Anonymous above you). i don't know if we can give vogue that much credit, though; i would be really surprised if the brains behind the shoot consciously set out to distinguish between BDSM and domestic violence in a pro-BDSM way. and, what's more, i definitely don't trust most viewers to avoid the association between rihanna's history and the undertones of violence of these pictures.

At September 7, 2009 at 6:43 PM , Anonymous Angela said...

"why should a talented R&B artist have to show us her boobs for us to want her music?"

That is one way to put it. A more optimistic way to see this is that she is exploiting one particular way to get back her public standing - one that is unavailable to men. Making full use of female privilege is an essentially Feminist act.

At September 8, 2009 at 10:09 PM , Anonymous Diana D said...

I'm a little perplexed that the title of this post treats toplessness as the main idea, whereas the fact that Rihanna is a survivor of domestic violence is the hub of the controversy here. But that's kind of nit picky I suppose.

I also don't understand the concern about the "public association" between Rihanna and domestic violence, and I think the idea of trusting or not trusting public to make a certain association is irrelevant, as well as presumptuous. She is a public figure, so all kinds of things are always going to be said and written about her, whether or not she's just been beat up by her boyfriend. I'm sure there was all kinds of garbage written about her before the domestic violence incident, and she was probably a victim of paparazzi harassment and other craziness that comes along with being a celebrity, battered or not. That is a separate issue, which has to do with celebrity-worship and nosiness in this country.

She will stop being a victim when she no longer feels herself a victim, and how she achieves that is none of our business. If she actually WANTS to bare her breasts in a magazine, I feel like that has more potential to be personally productive for her than worrying that BDSM accoutrement may reinforce her public image as a victim.


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