Why Rihanna is music’s ultimate femme fatale

The video for ‘Needed Me’ is the third time she’s killed a man on-screen – but her killings have allowed her to take control of her own story

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Rihanna’s video for “Needed Me” shows her in the same mood as last summer’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” – stoned and deadly. We follow her into a strip club where she guns down a guy getting a lapdance, her third male murder (at least in her music video life). This feels business-as-usual after the last 12 months, in which we’ve witnessed Taylor Swift knock two men out at once in “Bad Blood”, Lana Del Rey shooting a paparazzo clean out of the sky with a bazooka in “High By The Beach” and Lorde setting her illicit lover on fire in “Magnets”. Female-on-male violence is everywhere right now: misandry is the new black.

But while the cartoonish Sin City vibes position Taylor and Lana as tongue-in-cheek action heroines (Lorde’s avenging murder of a man who physically abuses his wife is a story for a whole different article), Rihanna’s last two videos strengthen her feminist cred by positioning her as that most enduring of subversive female types – the femme fatale. In film, the threat of the femme fatale is hard to see and hard to predict. It’s what makes Rihanna so compelling: in the social media age, she’s that most unlikely of things – mysterious. It’s her essential unreadability (and this despite the naked selfies, the jet full of journalists, and a media climate that demands she open herself up to her public in all possible ways) that means we can’t quite bring ourselves to look away. The fact that we can neither read Rihanna’s behaviour nor anticipate her next step is just one reason she’s 2016’s answer to the femme fatale.

Female-on-male violence is everywhere right now: misandry is the new black

In films like D.O.A, Out of the Past, They Drive By Night, and Double Indemnity, femme fatales poison, shoot, or use exhaust fumes to carbon monoxide their extraneous men to death, or they seduce someone else into murdering him for them. The sticky end that such characters usually meet (usually ending the film in either a cell or a coffin) would suggest that they can’t be read as inadvertently feminist, but instead portraying men’s fears of feminism. I’m with film theorists E. Ann Kaplan and Janey Place when they argue that “It is not their inevitable demise we remember but rather their strong, dangerous, and above all exciting sexuality… the final ‘lesson’ of the myth often fades into the background and we retain the image of the erotic, strong, unrepressed (if destructive) woman.”

The loving, lingering focus on violence in “Needed Me” serves as a snappy comeback to anyone who maintains that the video’s director, Spring Breakers’ Harmony Korine, is just phoning in a James Franco-less version of his most famous film. Sure, there’s the same grills‘n’guns aesthetic and the same fever dream red-hued lighting. But while Spring Breakers’ most violent scenes take place in a manically sped-up version of reality, the tempo slows even further down as Rihanna heads into the heart of the strip club and takes aim.

The leisurely pace of the video gives us time to think about Rihanna: real life Rihanna, that is, not music video Rihanna. While Rihanna has never been the perpetrator of violence off-camera, she has suffered its effects. Even in last year’s Vanity Fair interview, she was still being asked about her ex-boyfriend attacking her (something that took place all the way back in 2009) while being described as someone who has limited control over her image, “which has veered between club-hopping temptress and poster child for victims of domestic abuse”.

But it feels to me that, if anything, Rihanna is exerting more and more control over her own image. The music video in which Rihanna murdered her first man, “Man Down”, came out two years after the Chris Brown attack, when the media was still making vaguely tasteless half-references to the incident, like Rolling Stones’ headlining their interview with her “Queen of Pain”. The gradual brutalisation of Rihanna’s music video self, who’s gone from shooting her rapist in “Man Down” (who Rihanna argues here is the exact opposite of a “cold-blooded killer”) to murdering some random dude in “Needed Me” because who-the-hell-even-knows, seems less of a decision about a music video concept and more of a conscious attempt to shape her own narrative in the press. Honestly, it seems like a logical response that Rihanna would push back with her own media vision of herself: as an undefeated fighter, as a woman of impossible strength and a woman who doesn’t let any wounds men give her go unavenged.

The gradual brutalisation of Rihanna’s music video self... seems less of a decision about a music video concept and more of a conscious attempt to shape her own narrative in the press

The question of whether her music video selves have to be quite so relentlessly violent can be answered by your own response to a second question: when you think of Rihanna, do you think of her as victim or victor? I’d wager the latter. This femme fatale image she’s building – whatever you think of it on aesthetic/moral grounds – is working. The more she radiates bloodthirstiness and zero tolerance for anyone trying her boundaries, the more the media narrative seems influenced by it.

Looking at the evolution of how Vogue has written about Rihanna is an excellent example of this. A 2012 article states: “No matter what Rihanna does as an artist, her story always winds its way back to February 2009, when she was assaulted by Chris Brown. The abuse was shocking, and Brown pleaded guilty to felony assault. Though a cloud lingers over his name, Brown and Rihanna have become friendly.” Yet in neither of the two parts of Vogue’s 2016 Rihanna feature does Brown even come up. When Vogue asks her about a man she’s rumoured to be dating, they’re careful to couch their question in professional terms: “You’re touring with Travis Scott. Creatively, why were you attracted to working with him?” Similarly, when Mary H. K. Choi bends over backwards to write the definitive Rihanna cover story for The Fader without getting any face time with the star, she chews over what questions to send her by email with a group of fans and they resolve: “We nixed all questions of men… Truthfully, we want to know everything about what’s going on with Travi$ Scott, but why waste a question with one that she’d rightfully not answer?”

Perhaps the real reason Rihanna is a femme fatale is little to do with violence and almost nothing to do with sex appeal. Maybe she’s the only real-life, present-day femme fatale I can think of because she’s done what might seem impossible: she’s managed to subvert her own narrative as a woman. She may be a serial murderess on-screen, but those killings have allowed her to take control of her own story.

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