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Rihanna’s graphic revenge fantasy ‘has a feminist message’, says supermodel

Last week, Rihanna released a seven-minute video for her single Bitch Better Have My Money. The plot centres on the singer’s character seeking revenge on a rich man who owes her a debt. Being Rihanna, a woman rarely undone by a man, she successfully procures what she’s owed – but she does so by kidnapping, stripping and torturing the man’s wife, before murdering her. While much of the violence is implied, the wife (played by Canadian supermodel Rachel Roberts) is shown topless and strung up in a warehouse, forced to take drugs and eventually drowned – it’s a graphic revenge fantasy in which a woman tortures and kills another woman, albeit one shot in glossy, David LaChapelle-esque style. It’s not necessarily the sort of fantasy most of us have, but this is Rihanna – and she has a budget.

Canadian supermodel Rachel Roberts plays Rihanna’s victim. Photograph: Jeremy Chan Photography/WireImage

Naturally, the themes of sexualised violence, seemingly gratuitous nudity and non-consensual BDSM sent segments of the world’s media into a state of apoplexy, with commentators for once unified in their disgust. In the New Statesman, Helen Lewis outlined how, quite simply: “It is not very feminist to torture women”. And that the notion of using “a woman’s pain to hurt a man” plays into a tired and outdated device of “fridging” (in which a character – usually female – is harmed solely to hurt another). In the Daily Mail, Sarah Vine argued that it glorifies and justifies “negative racial stereotyping (towards both black and white), sexual exploitation and murder”. Writing in the Observer, Barbara Ellen said her aversion to the film was rooted largely in the misogyny of the plot, adding that, having been a victim of domestic violence, Rihanna should know better.

Roberts is a successful Canadian supermodel. has appeared on the pages of Vogue, in campaigns for Ralph Lauren and, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, on the catwalk for Chloé, Balmain and Versace. Speaking over the phone from New York, Roberts says she was aware that the violence and nudity would prove controversial: “I knew what I was getting into … And, yes, it is more in your face than a lot of videos but, for me, with regards to nudity, so long as it isn’t gratuitous and [it is] there for a reason, then it’s fine.” The reason here, continues Roberts, is humiliation: “That’s not to defend the idea of a woman being humiliated – but, within the context of the story, it makes sense that [Rihanna] forces her to go topless and hang upside down.”

The nudity point might be controversial but, says Roberts, when you compare it to the more widespread nudity of the fashion industry, it’s not clear-cut: “In fashion, for example, nudity is not a big thing.”

But what of the violence, which is indisputably excessive for a music video? (If the medium is the message, isn’t it irresponsible for a star with such a young fanbase to produce such a macabre video?) “Obviously, it’s risque – but there are a lot of films, say Tarantino’s, that are far more graphic and violent.”

“It’s a video … it’s not real. I understand that some people will not like it because of the torture … Rihanna’s character chooses to torture a man’s wife before ultimately killing the man himself. But the anger has to be there to match the sentiment of the song. Whether or not you like what she’s doing in the video, Rihanna is portraying a strong woman, who is fighting back, even if her methods are obviously highly questionable. Beyond that,” she says, “I don’t think it’s particularly useful to argue the politics of the video – it was always meant to be over-the-top and not taken too seriously.”

Sarah Vine argues that the video glorifies and justifies ‘negative racial stereotyping (towards both black and white), sexual exploitation and murder’ Photograph: .

Much of the criticism levelled at Rihanna and her French co-directors Megaforce has focused on the anti-feminist narrative, compounded by the tacit “torture” and murder of the husband, which plays as more of an afterthought. Commenters have also been quick to pick up on the fact the husband, played by a wide-eyed Mads Mikkelsen, remains clothed throughout. Perhaps naively, Roberts maintains that, despite the violent themes, “there is a feminist message … It’s about a strong woman seeking revenge against a man who has probably wronged her.”

Roberts herself identifies as a feminist: “In the sense that I believe women should be treated equally. I was raised by a strong woman who never allowed herself or me to be disrespected. Having been a model and actress for many years, it does take a strong sense of self and good survival instincts to have a lasting career. If you can’t look after yourself, they are industries that will chew you up and spit you out.” At the end of the day, Roberts summarises, Rihanna is a strong woman and whatever she does will always “push the envelope – but she knows what she’s doing”.

Rachel Roberts is represented by Next Models

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