She appears in monochrome beneath a translucent sheet.
The sheet dances across her silhouette, caressed by the wind.
She arches her back.
A die rests near her hip, disappears between her thighs, then re-emerges and rolls towards her navel.
The die multiplies.
Now four dice glide slowly down her belly and across her pelvis,
Until they too disappear between her thighs.
She sends a silent exhale through parted lips,
And drawing away the veil,
Rihanna reveals herself.
So often our language fails women.
We are left speechless when confronted with the Josephine Bakers, the Eartha Kits, and the Rihannas – black women flattened into sex symbols, but whose fierce possession of themselves defies such easy articulation.
The writings of famed black lesbian womanist thinker Audre Lorde begin the slow process of untying our tongues. Her 1978 essay “Uses of The Erotic: The Erotic as Power” offers us an expansive understanding of female sensual and erotic expression and challenges us to decouple the erotic from the strictly sexual. Lorde’s definition returns to the word’s etymological roots: “The very word erotic comes from the Greek word “eros”, the personification of love in all its aspects,” she writes. “When I speak of the erotic, then I speak of it as an assertion of the life force of women.” The erotic is a fundamentally feminine source of joy, knowledge and power that has guided generations of black women through an inherently hostile society, and which in this moment Rihanna so perfectly exemplifies.
She is the dancing woman.
Clad in a crochet bikini and Tommy Hilfiger dress, she stands apart from the rest of the dancehall crowd.
She moves her hips and winds her waist for no one but herself.
She stares at herself dance in the mirror, focused entirely on her body and moving to the music.
When a woman is portrayed dancing, the emphasis is usually placed upon what she looks like as opposed to what she feels like. Those opening shots of “Work”, the infectious beat coupled with the intensity of Rihanna’s focus on herself forces us to reckon with that feeling, to take a moment to marvel at our own bodies and the depth of feeling and joy that accompanies moving them as we please.
This is the depth of feeling that underlines Lorde’s notion of the erotic as joy. It is a sensual joy, one that joins the body and the soul in feeling. Lorde puts it perfectly, saying “…the erotic connection functions [as] the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy. In the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, hearkening to its deepest rhythms, so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience.” In the world of the erotic, a dancing woman is not a sexual object, but a sensual subject.
In the pantheon of pop idols Rihanna is a goddess of paradox; her don’t -give-a-fuck reputation proceeds her. She constantly and casually absconds with restaurant wine glasses. Her music videos have featured her killing no less than three men in cold blood. Yet, directly alongside images of Rihanna as an intimidating deity of ice and steel are praises of her expansive warmth. Fans cherish her for her authenticity and openness, and in return she literally leaps into their arms. A New York Times reporter was so bewitched by her presence that in the closing segment of her article she admits, “I never told you [Rihanna] was pretty because that’s not what I experienced. My understanding, from the moment she sat down was that we were in love. We were the most in love any two people had ever been.”
Rihanna interacts with the world on Rihanna’s terms. She does not play the game of being coy, or cute or accommodating, or otherwise entertain the myriad of expectations placed upon feminine behavior; but she also has reserves of unbelievable and rapturous warmth that she can and will extend – but only if she feels like it, only if it feels right. Lorde tells us, “The considered phrase, ‘it feels right to me’ acknowledges the strength of the erotic into a true knowledge…. That deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible.” The erotic as knowledge transforms sensual felt joy into a north star around which we can orient our lives. This truly and fully felt joy becomes the barometer by which we assess and understand each aspect of ourselves and our rightful place in this world. Rihanna said it best in a recent interview with Vogue :“I always believed that when you follow your heart or your gut, when you really follow the things that feel great to you, you can never lose.”
Living this way–prioritizing one’s joy and moving through the world in unapologetic pursuit of it–is an inherently liberating state of being. For black women in particular, who have had their sensual and erotic expressions demonized and disfigured, it is a source of genuine power. Lorde highlights the freedom of such power saying, “As we begin to recognize our deepest feeling, we begin to give up, of necessity being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like the their only alternative in our society, Our acts of against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.”
Rihanna stands in a tradition of black women who have wrested control of their joy from the suffocating grip of the outside gaze. She joins a lineage of women who have stepped out of the shadow of the Hottentot Venus and into full possession of their bodies,
She is blinding.
Two hundred thousand crystals dance in the heavy light.
Underneath their glare she wears nothing.
A scandalized reporter asks, “But are you comfortable?”
She responds coolly, “Yes I am. Why? Do my tits offend you? They’re covered… They’re covered in Swarovski crystal girl!”