Drake Who? Rihanna’s “Work” and Female Autonomy

February has been a jam-packed month for Black musical artists. In the midst of a welcome flurry of new singles, videos, entire albums (Frank, come on, fam) and stunning performances, Monday saw the release of both of Rihanna’s music videos for her rhythmic iffiancehall single, Work.

One of the many reasons I love/adore/volunteer my edges to Rihanna is because of the kind of female autonomy she represents and effortlessly demonstrates. Both videos for “Work” put her agency on full display. The first video opens with Rihanna, clad in a pink, hooded fur coat, walking into a West Indian restaurant. As the beat drops, the camera pans over Rih whining in front of a mirror in the middle of the restaurant-turned-dance floor. The rest of the song is basically all the best parts of a West Indian fête sans tourists.

The second video is much more stripped down—it’s just Rihanna and Drake in a pink-lit room. Rih spends most of the video dancing and singing while Drake remains largely inconspicuous in the background, trying his best to look unaffected and frequently failing. Drake does get up for his verse, of course, and the two do interact with each other a few times. I admit it, they’re cute together. But eh…Rihanna and Drake’s chemistry was the least interesting part of either video.

Instead, it’s also worth focusing on the kind of autonomy that Rihanna demonstrates in this video, one that is more complicated than the traditional, mainstream and flattened dialogue around choice. We still need to talk about autonomy as it relates to consent, for example, but autonomy also involves a woman’s right to take up space, and the ability to manipulate the boundaries of that space at her whim. Autonomy is about your body’s physical agency and the way you see yourself, and it’s also about having the right to define all those things for yourself, without anyone else’s input or involvement.

But in order for patriarchy to work, no one can be allowed space to develop any understanding of gender that isn’t specifically related to masculinity. So part of deconstructing patriarchy involves us interrogating the self-consolidating patterns that the gender binary depends on in order to exist. Men are men, specifically because they’re not women. The borders of masculinity are defined by the lack of femininity. The definition of one depends singularly on our constructed understanding of the other. Not only does this perpetuate out-dated understandings of both genders, it also reinforces a binary model that refuses to place gender on a spectrum.

The kind of autonomy on display in Rihanna’s videos embodies a female-ness that rejects this. Her sexuality is about how sexy she knows she is, and how much she enjoys putting on a show—be it for Drake, her fellow dancers at the restaurant, or herself in the mirror. This doesn’t mean that the male gaze isn’t present, or even very involved, but it does suggest that in this case, the male gaze is not the ultimate prize. Drake is present in both videos, but he’s not the deciding factor regarding how Rih dances, or why. In fact, no guy is. In an interview with The Fader, the director of Rihanna’s first “Work” video, Director X, explains, “Dancing and sex are tied together in America—if you’re dancing with somebody that means you’re sleeping with somebody… In West Indian culture, you’re dancing with someone because you’re dancing with someone. You’re having fun.”

In both of Rihanna’s videos, “fun” looks like expressing one’s sexuality and sensuality to whatever degree that individual desires, regardless of who is or isn’t around, regardless of who is or isn’t watching—although any of those details can make the experience more exciting. Even in the second video, Drake isn’t really set as the love interest—despite the pink lighting and coupling in the latter half of the video. If you put #AubRih aside for three minutes and 39 seconds, it becomes clear that Drake is just the feature artist. He’s the decoration. Their pairing is the focus only if and when Rihanna feels like playing around with the idea. And I love that.

Rihanna is my favorite mainstream example of a Black woman, not interested in dating at the moment, who still presents a version of empowerment that is deeply, joyously and intentionally sexual in the face of everything. Her sensuality is a celebratory one, and though the male gaze is ever-present, it’s at least at arm’s length for now. It’s the same celebratory feel I get from watching her “Pour it Up” video. We can’t make the male gaze disappear, but we certainly can explore what it means to make a video like that with zero men included. It’s difficult to imagine what it would mean to construct an understanding of our own genders—the entire spectrum included—that’s singularly dependent on how we wanted to present ourselves. What does it mean to imagine a female identity independent of our understandings of masculinity? Is that even possible? How much distance can we really get from the male gaze? I don’t know. But I love Rihanna for inadvertently helping us consider it.

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Jacqui Germain is a published poet and freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. Her work is focused on historical and contemporary iterations of black, brown and indigenous resistance. She is also a Callaloo Fellow, and author of "When the Ghosts Come Ashore," published through Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press.

Jacqui Germain is a published poet and freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.

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