Rihanna’s Argument for “Appreciation”

By Amir Gold

Rihanna’s 2019 Savage X Fenty Show has been praised for its celebration of diversity in the fashion and performance industry, debuting a line of body-inclusive lingerie in an unprecedented (and Primetime Emmy-nominated) combination of visual and performance arts. The show made a lasting impression on social media, especially amongst young progressive viewers, and has even been partially accredited with the demise of the antiquated Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Additionally, its juxtapositions within the fashion industry and American economy, the manners with which performances and performers were presented, and its creative appropriation from marginalized communities all serve to highlight problems not only with the hegemonies which drive our society but also with certain forms of progressivism.

The show debuted at New York Fashion Week, a biannual spectacle which draws hundreds of thousands of viewers and participants every year to one of the “Big 4” global fashion capitals. It’s interesting to note that the other three constituents of the Big 4 are Paris, Milan, and London, highlighting the colonialist and Euro- and White-centric beauty standards, clothing design and production practices (specifically with regards to fast-fashion), and business models of the fashion community, which has faced growing criticism over the years for its discriminatory stances on global markets, affordability, gender expression, and representation of all kinds. It’s also helpful to juxtapose this performance against lingerie runways in the past; prior to this performance, the industry’s most “distinguished” annual show was the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show which was cancelled in 2019. This lingerie giant, owned by Les Wexner (a close friend of Jeffrey Epstein) has been subject to a litany of accusations surrounding their toxic culture. President Ed Razek resigned following a buildup of harassment and misogyny complaints and lawsuits, as well as an assertion that this show is a “fantasy” which should exclude transgender individuals; the show regularly ignored criticism surrounding exoticism and appropriation with their “Wild Things”, “Go East”, and “Nomadic Adventures” which saw models of color featured in tribal makeup and headdresses, animal print, and sacred garments marketed towards White women; and a “Perfect Body” campaign which highlighted their perpetuation of sexualized, idealized, and objectified perspectives on women’s bodies.

The Fenty X Savage show, in contrast, highlights performers of all sizes in accordance with their brand, which seeks to empower women of all sizes and skin-tones by providing a large selection of size and color options. For this show, Rihanna “[looked] for unique characteristics in people that aren’t usually highlighted in the world of fashion as it pertains to lingerie and… what society sees as ‘sexy’” in an attempt to treat bodies (especially women’s) as “[pieces] of art”, a direct contrast to Victoria’s Secret’s exclusive and objectifying brand. The performance lasting from 39:00 to 41:20 specifically mirrors Victoria’s Secret’s appropriation of Eastern cultures, featuring performers in hijabs walking to the beat of an electronic song featuring pentatonic guitar samples and microtonal vocal melodies. Adorning the featured models and the dancers who flank them are oversized piercings and jewelry pieces which are assumingely meant to be nods to Bedouin body piercing traditions, which originated in the Middle East, as well as accessories and makeup meant to bring this performance an “Oriental” feel. These creative choices perpetrate a degree of cultural blending, wherein elements from various Eastern tradition are combined to exude a general sense of the performance being “Oriental” in nature. This orientalizing often goes hand-in-hand with fetishization and exoticism, and one could easily compare this to those instances of appropriation for which Victoria’s Secret drew criticism. So why has Rihanna’s show garnered so much praise, rather than criticism, from the left?

The performance opens with a feature of Bella Hadid, sister to Gigi and daughter to Mohamed of the Jordanian-American Hadid family, who have been enormously powerful in the U.S. real estate and global fashion industries. She is Muslim, and her father was a Palestinian refugee who achieved his “American dream” through the real estate sector before his wife and daughters stormed the fashion industry, landing them as one of the most influential Muslim families in the United States. This representation of Muslim excellency is in rare supply among Western performance spaces, and it’s especially interesting to see both Hadid sisters (it should be noted that Gigi appeared earlier in hijab in a segment that was not overtly appropriatory in any way) as models who have also performed in the Victoria’s Secret show. Bella even notes that in shows prior, she has “never felt powerful on a runway… in [her] underwear”, and that the Savage X Fenty Show “was the first time on a runway that [she] felt really sexy.”

In addition, this segment features transgender models Teddy Quinlavian and Isis King, who have been outspoken in their criticism of the fashion industry’s transphobia and misogyny, the former being a survivor of sexual harassment while working in the industry; Alek Wek, a Dinka refugee of the Second Sudanese Civil war (and an almost 20-year member of the U.S. Committee for Refugees Advisory Council as well as a missionary for World Vision and the UN Refugee Agency), who gained notoriety for breaking boundaries as one of the first dark-skinned, African model in the spaces she frequented; and Slick Woods, who grew up homeless after her mother was incarcerated, has been an avid supporter of marijuana and drug decriminalization (which has lost her gigs at numerous companies), and was undergoing chemotherapy for stage 3 melanoma at the time of the show. All of these figures are surrounded by dancers who bow to them as if in praise, elevating them to a royal status.

Choreography is provided by New Zealand dancer Parris Goebel, whose studio (which she founded at age 15) has broken records at the World Hip Hop Dance Championship. It should be noted that she, a woman of Maori, Chinese, and Scottish descent, has been accused of inappropriate cultural appropriation in the past for her use of Jamaican dancehall music for a performance of hers. The song for this segment of the show is provided by TroyBoi, a self-described “multicultural electronic music artist” who is known for his sampling of various global cultures. He is of Chinese, Portuguese, and Nigerian descent, and his mother is from India. In a way, these two figures represent (as simply an inescapable consequence of their mixed-race backgrounds) a physical embodiment of modern-day cosmopolitanist progressivism, which perpetuates this idea that “equality” implies the breaking-down of cultural boundaries, giving everyone the liberty to share and borrow from cultures. These two also serve to highlight the difficult place in which mixed-race creatives often find themselves; it is hard to separate artistic practices from their cultural origins (and most practices have a cultural origin), so what options are there for individuals who feel excluded from all forms of cultural identity? Artists such as these are often forced into cosmopolitan spaces due to exclusion from both hegemonic cultural environments as well as the very cultural identities which constitute them; for some individuals, the question is not whether or not this “cultural blending” should be employed in artistic spaces, but how it can be appropriately incorporated in the face of few other options.

TroyBoi thus embraces this melting-pot form of progressivism with his repertoire, sampling from and employing the work of performers from outside of the Global North and of his own cultural identity. In this case, he samples from a music group from Lebanon called The Bendaly Family, which was founded by Rene Bendaly in 1970’s Tripoli. The song, titled Do You Love Me, was released in 1978 at the height of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and just prior to the Lebanese Civil War, and features an interesting segmented structure which separates out a traditional Arab-style portion from a Western-sounding rock portion. This song is typical of the 1970’s Lebanese musical scene, which drew off of the progressive and cosmopolitan Mediterranean culture dominating the country’s urban scene throughout the decades prior. Music from within this elitist and Westernized niche broke traditional conservative Muslim norms, embracing Western-inspired psychedelic influences in songs about peace and harmony. But this also had the effect of alienating Muslim audiences and performers, creating a culture wall aptly described by Lebanese band The Sea-Ders’ drummer, Zouhair Tourmoche: “I had to endure a great deal of insults, verbal abuse, and all other forms of stupid prejudices, all of which were hinged on one idea: that a decent Muslim boy would never abandon his culture and follow decadent Western behavior.”

In this song, the performers are Christian and the instruments Western, though it was well-received by Muslim Arab world, likely because of its more traditional portions. Again, this case of blending advances the cause of melting-pot progressivism, and can even be interpreted as overtly political, especially as a song released on the brink of war. Bendaly sings about “the guys who make only trouble” who “know what they are doing” after mentioning how he “[doesn’t] want to be strong.” The question proceeding questions “do you love/need/want me?”, could be an appeal to conservatism and colonization, questioning whether these systems value the lives of those they exploit. In the context of Rihanna’s show, the voices at the forefront of the creative process are asking the same question to the male gaze: in a performance where women are sexualized, does a viewer respect the autonomy and the power of the women they gaze upon?

Because of these creative choices, a lot of these performers have faced the same question: Is a diverse range of representation and empowerment enough to off-balance the appropriation and blending of cultures perpetrated by artists like those involved in this performance? Some would even argue against the validity of the premise that any amount of representation or empowerment could offset the negative cultural impact of such an appropriation. Through this performance, Rihanna’s team clearly states that, yes, there is a way to make appropriation “okay”, and that the Savage X Fenty Show is how to do it. Segments like this one feel like they’re specifically meant to serve as foils to problematic performances of appropriation in the lingerie industry’s past, a bold assertion that this is to be an exemplar of representation and “appropriate” appropriation in the fashion industry. Public opinion seems to agree, but the organizers of this performance have failed to verbally address these cultural phenomena, which would help to clarify to those inspired by the show how one is to respectfully represent cultures that may differ from the backgrounds belonging to performers and other creatives.

On the other hand, this show exemplifies the patriarchal backbone of American capitalism. In any creative venture of this scale, funding must be provided from one source or another, which invites greed into this almost sacred space of body positivity and representation that Rihanna attempted to create. The runways and dance performances are punctuated by performances by largely male rappers (after this particular performance, DJ Khaled, who has come under fire for misogynistic comments in the past, makes an obnoxious appearance), a large portion of the cast’s “big picture” creative executives (producers, directors, etc.) are male; and the show streams on the exploitative Amazon Prime. In addition, we see the elevation of wealthy models who can afford (in the Hadids’ cases) extensive plastic surgery, and (again) this is all in the context of an exclusive invitation-only event. These are all reminders that seemingly no large work of art, despite the progressiveness of its message, can exist in this capitalist society without funding from (and the subsequent enrichment of) those who seek to profit off of marginalized voices.

Works Cited

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Bailey, Alyssa. “Bella Hadid Says Fenty’s Show Was ‘First Time’ She Felt Sexy Modeling Lingerie, Not Victoria’s Secret’s.” ELLE, ELLE, 15 Nov. 2019, www.elle.com/culture/celebrities/a29815081/bella-hadid-fenty-victorias-secret-comparison/. 

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Rougeau, Naomi. “Nobody Knew Model Teddy Quinlivan Was Transgender-Here’s Why She Came Out.” ELLE, ELLE, 24 Oct. 2019, www.elle.com/fashion/a15895363/teddy-quinlivan-runway-debut-march-2018/. 

Rudzinski, Alex, director. Savage X Fenty Show. Amazon Prime, Sept. 2019, www.amazon.com/Savage-X-Fenty-Show/dp/B07XDGTSBY. 

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