Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

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‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do

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I have probably written about Rihanna more than any other celebrity. Mostly because I don’t generally write about celebrities (though I also seem to write about Leann Rimes quite often …). But also because Rihanna’s whole weird S&M-princess-meets-Tammy-Wynette-thing fascinates me.

Last week on Blisstree I wrote about how Rihanna and ex-boyfriend, abuser and musical collaborator Chris Brown both grew up witnessing domestic violence. Rihanna’s dad abused her mother, and Brown’s stepdad abused his mother. I think that’s important to any musings on what’s up there. Also:

I think Amanda Dobbins at Vulture nails it here, with “The Argument You’re Having With Yourself About Rihanna and Chris Brown;” it’s also a nice summary of the argument the Internet is having about Rihanna and Chris Brown. Clearly, the publicity is good for both their albums (Perez Hilton’s post about it was pretty accurately titled “Rihanna & Chris Brown mind-fuck the world”). And who are we to say … yada yada yada. But in the end, what it keeps coming back to is: Maybe Rihanna is in an abusive relationship. Maybe Rihanna is ‘a very famous, very rich, very talented 24-year-old in an abusive relationship.’

So, that. Or maybe she’s not, you know? This is a woman who’s recorded songs about abusive relationships and whips and chains and talked about being sexually submissive in Rolling Stone magazine. In short: She’s no shrining violet.

Which is what makes this whole Rihanna and Chris Brown narrative so puzzling. When we saw pop divas of previous generations stay with men who abused them, the women were usually somehow dependent on their abusers. Think Tina Turner. Or even Whitney Houston. (Yes, she was already famous by the time she married Bobby Brown, but drugs are another kind of dependency—or, enabling someone can make them dependent on you). Rihanna, however … She’s the bigger celebrity. She’s in no way dependent on Chris Brown. And she seems to have her shit together. She seems to have her shit together and she chooses to work or be with a man who nearly killed her. And she’s kind of defiantly proud about that.

A few days ago, I read about how she tweeted a line from her 2009 song “Hard” in the midst of all the ‘open letter to Rihannaetc. etc. etc. hoopla and the rumors about her and Brown’s upcoming collaboration.

They can say whatever, Ima do whatever…No pain is forever<—–YUP! YOU KNOW THIS

The first thing I thought of was “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do,” the early female blues standard written by  Porter Grainger and most associated with Bessie Smith, who recorded the song in 1923 (it was also recorded by Billie Holiday and bunches of others). Here are a few lines:

Well, I’d rather my man would hit me / Than follow him to jump up and quit me / Ain’t nobody’s business if I do

I swear, I won’t call no copper / If I’m beat up by my papa / Ain’t nobody’s business if I do

A long time ago I wrote a paper I’ve long-since lost about early female blues singers. It turned me on to folks like Bessie Smith, Trixie Smith, Lucille Bogan and Ma Rainy. Pandora has since turned me on to many others. If you haven’t heard much classic female blues, you will probably be surprised by how dirty! it can get. Bogan in particular—whew. There’s also a wonderful playfulness, though, and an awesomely feminist bent. They challenged prevailing gender roles and ideas about sexuality and femininity. Rainy—billed ‘the Mother of the Blues’—was married to a man but slept with women. Here’s Rainy’s “Prove It On Me”:

I went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
It must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan
Talk to the gals just like any old man

Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me.

Lesbians were fairly common on the classic blues circuit. Mike Rugan’s ‘Uncensored History of the Blues’ blog introduced me to Bogan’s B.D. Woman’s Blues (She recorded it under the name Bessie Jackson). B.D. stood for bull dyke (or bull dagger).

Comin’ a time, B.D. women they ain’t going to need no men
Comin’ a time, B.D. women they ain’t going to need no men
Cause they way treat us is a lowdown dirty sin

B.D. women, you sure can’t understand
B.D. women, you sure can’t understand
They got a head like a sweet angel and they walk just like a natural

And, just for fun, here’s “Shave ‘Em Dry,” a song recorded in 1935 by Bogan:

I got nipples on my titties
Big as the end of my thumb
I got somethin between my legs
That’ll make a dead-man come

So—lots of sex. Lots of lesbians. Also lots of honesty about what it was like to be a black woman at the beginning of last century. Some of the songs are camp. Some of the songs are heartbreaking. And “Tain’t Nobody’s Business” wasn’t the only song defending or celebrating an abusive lover. Not only was early female blues full of lesbians, it was full of women “repeatedly left, beaten, cheated on, and ignored, only to forgive their lover because of his sexual prowess. Here’s Trixie Smith’s “You’ve Got to Beat Me to Keep Me” (also written by Porter Grainger; clearly dude has some issues):

You’ve got to beat me to keep me, cause mama loves a hard boiled man
So don’t you let no man cheat me, if he’s got a good right hand.
Beat me up for breakfast, knock me down for tea,
Black my eye for supper, then you’re pleasing me.
You’ve got to beat me to keep me, cause mama loves a hard boiled man.

Here’s Ma Rainey’s “Sweet Rough Man:”

I woke up this mornin’, my head as sore as a boil
My man beat me last night with five feet of copper coil

… But the way he loves me, makes me soon forget

There are tons of fascinating things about early blues ladies I want to ramble on about, but! that is not the point here. The point is about Rihanna: She’s certainly not the first female singer to defend being with someone who beats her. She’s just the first in a while.

The point is also agency: They were reclaiming it.

So is Rihanna making a feminist statement in flaunting her friendliness with Chris Brown? I certainly wouldn’t be the first to point out that by being so publicly congenial to Brown, by defining the terms of their relationship, she could be trying to reclaim agency, to set herself up as not-a-victim, to show she was not afraid of him.

I also wouldn’t be the first to point out that no one’s sure whether they are friends, lovers or trying to stir up a lot of publicity for their new songs.

But Rihanna isn’t just friendly to Chris Brown. She doesn’t just project forgiveness. After (reluctantly) leaving Brown, she puts out a hot violent sex song with Eminem. She puts out her own song called “S&M.” She says things like:

“Sometimes whips and chains can be overly planned – you gotta stop, get the whip from the drawer downstairs. . . . I’d rather have him use his hands.”

Clearly she gets some level of enjoyment from being roughed up and being submissive.

… And she’s, like, not afraid to talk about it? Which is … cool. But also not cool because rough sex shouldn’t really have anything to do with actual violence, and people get easily confused.

But it doesn’t really matter. She’s not asking us to like her decisions—she’s just kind of making us acknowledge that she is making decisions. For personal or professional or whatever reasons, she is choosing what she’s choosing, and she believes in these choices. She believes that making them doesn’t disempower her.

Cause it ain’t nobody’s business if we do

And maybe that’s right. If we believe women are fully-autonomous people and all of that—well, we have to respect the choices they make, even when we don’t agree with them. Which doesn’t meant we can’t talk about them. If you collaborate with an ex who nearly killed you on two songs released the same day, you have made the discussion part of the pop culture public domain. And I do think issues like this are instructive. On the one hand, it’s pop gossip. On the other hand, the stories we tell about celebrities both reflect and resonate with the society who tells them. They become allegories. Rihanna and Chris Brown have no reasonable expectation of bloggers, entertainment TV hosts and kids on Twitter not talking about them. But!—

Maybe “not blaming the victim” isn’t the point. Maybe the best way to not take away a woman like Rihanna’s agency is to blame her fully—to acknowledge/accept that she has reasons for making the choices she’s making and doesn’t care if we approve or understand.

Just some thoughts …


Written by ENB

February 26, 2012 at 10:16 am

Curio: Gender Myths Edition

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1. Timing, Meaning of ‘I Love You’ Differs by Gender … and it’s not us ladies getting all lovey first.

Men actually are more likely to utter those three loaded little words first, and men admit thinking about confessing love six weeks earlier than their female partners, according to an article to be published in the June issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

This is obviously, however, only because men think it will help them get laid, the researchers conclude. Because, you know—what else?—ev-psych and stuff …

The researchers theorized that a pre-sex love confession may signal interest in advancing the relationship to include sexual activity — which is what men want, evolutionarily speaking, so as not to lose an opportunity to spread their genes. They want to “buy low,” as the article put it. Women, who have more to lose if they get pregnant, prefer a post-sex confession as a signal of long-term commitment. They prefer to “sell high.”

Despite birth control and egalitarian values in modern society, these primitive patterns persist in the subconscious, Ackerman said.

At least the researchers clearly have a sense of humor:

The researchers hope exposing the biological underpinnings of these behaviors can help people understand the hidden meanings and motivations behind professions of love, which are ripe for misinterpretation.

Which brings us to ..

2. Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine

… and this awesome, whiskey-fueled review of it from The Rejectionist:

Cordelia Fine is not just smarter than you, she is funny as shit. For every study John Gray drags around the playground, about Men and their Mars of warlike thrusting vs. the Planet Veeeeenus where ladies embrace their vacuums and emote gently across that moist and pinkly lit landscape, Cordelia Fine has thirty more studies that tell you what a bunch of shit that study is, also with jokes.

3. Betty White is totally down with men baking her cookies.

Written by ENB

May 5, 2011 at 8:18 pm

On Feminism, Neural Circuitry and Men Being ‘Rapey Enough’

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I just came into the TV show Weeds at the beginning of Season 5, and one of my favorite parts so far was when the Andy character explains to Mary Louise-Parker why it would never work out between them:

(Link) View more Weeds Quotes and Sound Clips and Andy Botwin Quotes and Sound Clips

A few days after watching that episode, my friend Greg said to me, “Dude! [Ed. note: That is really how he talks] Did you read about Rihanna talking about how she likes whips and chains?”

Actually, Rihanna does not like whips and chains, at least not most of the time, at least not if her quotes in Rolling Stone are to be taken at face value. Here is the passage in question:

“Being submissive in the bedroom is really fun,” she says. “You get to be a little lady, to have somebody be macho and in charge of your shit. That’s fun to me…I like to be spanked. Being tied up is fun. I like to keep it spontaneous. Sometimes whips and chains can be overly planned – you gotta stop, get the whip from the drawer downstairs. I’d rather have him use his hands.”

We could get into all the Oh My Oh My Oh My’s about this, in light of … but it all seems too obvious. And this is not a post dedicated to pointing out the obvious. I bring up the Weeds clip, and Rihanna – and while we’re at it, I’ll toss in this post by Jessica Grose at XX Factor about fashion moguls and the submissive ladies who love them – as a little pop cultural S&M appetizer before we get to our wonky, scientific main course: The Neural Circuitry of Dominance & Submission.

Writing on Psychology Today’s “Billion Wicked Thoughts” blog, Ogi Ogaswhose claim to fame seems to be “using cognitive techniques from his brain research to win half a million dollars on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and co-authoring a yet-to-be-released book called A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desiremuses on “why feminism is the anti-Viagra.

Link-baiting much?

But all right, all right, I’m biting; tell me, Ogi, why is feminism the anti-Viagra?

Gender equality inhibits arousal.

That’s a pretty bold statement there, Ogi. But you’ve got a PhD in this stuff; you must have done your research. What kind of hard-hitting evidence have ya got?

From classic romance The Flame and The Flower to classic erotica The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty to Twilight BDSM fan fiction, submission themes are immensely popular in cross-cultural female erotica.

[…] Romance heroes are almost always high status alpha males—billionaires, barons, surgeons, sheriffs. Avon Books and Ellora’s Cave feature no heroes who are kindergarten teachers, accountants, or plumbers. Even though there’s been a trend away from the conspicuously rapey bodice-rippers of the seventies and eighties, women still want strong, dominant men.

Huh. You’re starting to disappoint me a little bit here, sir (I decided I should drop the calling you by your first name; wouldn’t want to start inciting flacid penises left and right). I’m not a doubter about a lot of men and women having dominance/submission fantasies. But … romance novels and Twilight fan fic? It’s just not striking me as a representative sample of human sexual desire. Maybe we could get a little misguided interpretation of evolutionary psychology thrown in here?

“We’re portraying men the way feminist ideals say they should be—respectful and consensus-building,” muses erotic romance (EroRom) author Angela Knight. “Yet women like bad boys. I suspect that’s because our inner cavewoman knows Doormat Man would become Sabertooth Tiger Lunch in short order.”

Ah, there we go! But … then comes this:

One of the most startling findings from our desire research is this: men and women’s brains each come wired with the neural circuitry for both sexual dominance and sexual submission. When Nature builds our brains, it installs both the “male” and “female” subcortical circuits, but apparently only links one of these circuits to the arousal system. Scientists can trigger lordosis in male rats by activating their dormant submission circuitry, and can trigger masculine mounting in female rats by activating their dormant dominance circuitry.

In humans, the hormonal vagaries of prenatal development appear to cause a substantial portion of men to be born with active submissive circuitry. These men find sexual submission as arousing—or, quite often, far more arousing—than sexual dominance.

Wow. That is actually interesting. And seems to actually, scientifically, tell us something about the neural circuitry of dominance and submission. But in order to get to this – in order to get to this in a blog post on Psychology Today, not some lad magazine or MRA-site, mind you – we’ve had to sift through several rounds of feminist bashing, romance-novel-based evidence and bastardized ev-psych theorizing. On behalf of all folks (and feminists!) who truly are interested in the neural components of sexual arousal… it’s just insulting, Ogi.

Fortunately, Linda Young, also writing for Psychology Today, offers a much less sensationalistic (and idiotic) take:

To say “feminism” is causing loss of desire and damping male arousal is totally misleading. In fact, there is research that supports the opposite. Rudman and Phelan (1) found that men who had feminist partners reported being in more stable relationships and greater sexual satisfaction.” Brezsnyak & Whisman (2), showed that more egalitarian decision making was associated with elevated levels of sexual desire. Schwartz and Young summarized a number of studies showing a relationship between equitable couples and greater sexual satisfaction (3).

Feminism is about social, economic and political equity and is independent of what turns someone on in a bedroom or fantasy. Ogas, like lots of folks, finds it easier to parse people and ideologies into black and white polarities than to consider the complex grays that don’t fall neatly into categories. A feminist with cleavage in high heels who wants to be ravished in bed is not a contradiction!

And neither is a man who’ll smack you around one minute and beg to be tied up the next. I mean, so I’ve heard …

Written by ENB

April 28, 2011 at 11:26 pm

“Macho’s Just Not In Style Right Now”

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Maybe I am just posting this because I enjoy anything casting an even slightly negative light on Dave Eggers’ brand of innocence and whimsy (which I detest):

The current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex. Prototypical is a scene in Dave Eggers’s road trip novel, “You Shall Know Our Velocity,” where the hero leaves a disco with a woman and she undresses and climbs on top of him, and they just lie there: “Her weight was the ideal weight and I was warm and wanted her to be warm”; or the relationship in Benjamin Kunkel’s “Indecision”: “We were sleeping together brother-sister style and mostly refraining from outright sex.”

… Rather than an interest in conquest or consummation, there is an obsessive fascination with trepidation, and with a convoluted, postfeminist second-guessing.

Or maybe Kate Roiphe has a point. I haven’t read enough Mailer and Roth and all the rest to know. Perhaps today’s youngish male novelists just feel more comfortable expressing anxiousness about sexual conquest and masculinity, a comfort not allowed in the 1950s and 60s from our Hemingway-descendant men?

But what about F. Scott? He’s surely more an ancestor of the Eggers/Kunkel/Chabon line than the others. I can’t think of any particular passages – perhaps if I were a better blogger, I would look – but Fitzgerald was surely never a paragon of sexual conquest and bravado. Maybe there were always two templates. Yes/no?

My first impulse is to also disagree with this:

The younger writers are so self-­conscious, so steeped in a certain kind of liberal education, that their characters can’t condone even their own sexual impulses; they are, in short, too cool for sex. Even the mildest display of male aggression is a sign of being overly hopeful, overly earnest or politically un­toward.

There must be some younger male writers not writing about sex in this whimsical, anxious, navel-gazing way? But I can’t think of any (straight male writers, that is; gay male writers, or women writers are a different story). Help me out? I asked my boyfriend, just now. “South American writers,” he said (there are some lovely sex scenes in our beloved Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai). “But not here. Writing about sex will always be macho, and macho’s just not in style right now.”

I agree with (and lament?) the latter part of that sentence, not necessarily the middle.

Written by ENB

January 9, 2010 at 12:20 pm

My One Suggestion Is She Pick a Better Pseudonym than ‘Hermione Gray’

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Yesterday on Ladyblog, someone using the pseudonym ‘Hermione Gray’ posted a response to Charles Blow’s NYT op-ed on “hooking up.” I’m disinclined to take anyone who uses the words “hook-up culture” seriously in the first place, so I’ll spare you my thoughts on Blow’s op-ed (let’s just say Ding, Dong, Laura Sessions Stepp* is dead, and see Gawker for the rest), but I will say I thought Gray’s response was relatively harmless. After criticizing the lack of originality of Blow’s topic, she wrote:

Critics of hooking up rely heavily on the unsupported myth that women are more interested lasting romantic attachments than are men. But according to a 2003 survey of 12,000 men and women, Nearly 66% of men, compared with 51% of women agree with the statement, ‘It is better to get married than go through life single’.

She went on to suggest that “the ritual of traditional dating—in which you took an attractive, near-stranger to dinner to get to know her better—was popular in the era of gender-segregated colleges and workplaces,” but that “a cultural shift that has permitted men and women to form more and deeper platonic attachments” naturally leads to less of this sort of thing and more blurring of romantic/sexual lines between opposite-sex friends. Not exactly radical stuff, here. The most inflammatory, from a cultural conservative view point, part of her post was probably the last paragraph, which cited an academic paper showing people usually hook up with friends rather than strangers, and suggested “the hook-up culture may encourage more rather than less responsibility” and “today’s paradigmatic hook-up partners know each other better than a typical 1950s couple on a third date at the drive-in movie theater.”

It was a short post and, as you can probably gage from the above selections, well-written (content aside, it was pieced together logically and coherently, and in a relatively even-handed and cordial tone). But things got weird. Joe Carter, managing editor of Culture 11 (where Ladyblog is hosted), deleted the post, and offered this by way of explanation:

I was embarrassed to have the post on our website. It’s not just that the supporting premise (women are no more interested in lasting romantic attachments than are men) is weak or that that conclusion (the hook-up culture may encourage more rather than less responsibility) is unsupported by both empirical evidence and common experience. In fact, my decision has less to do with Gray’s post than my preference, as both a conservative and an editor, for discouraging moral stupidity.

In the comments section, Ladyblog editor Jillian Bandes noted:

For the record, the removal of the post was not my decision. I was very much looking forward to other posts that countered Ms. Gray’s, which I know were in the pipeline until Joe took it down.

And Will Wilkinson took us into a discussion of whether this was an affront to the “intellectual integrity” of C11:

Man, what a huge embarrassment. This is an instance of moral stupidity. Ladybloggers: You’re on notice! You are NOT taking part in a forum where free inquiry and open debate are valued. Think twice before posting an independent thought, because your reactionary, lady-policing editor might send it down the memory hole! God forbid this blog become interesting. I know and respect a lot of people who write for C11, and I hope they’ll honor their sense of intellectual integrity and push back against a very effective attempt ruin this website’s reputation.

J.P. Freire responded:

Will Wilkinson, you know what editors do. They decide whether something fits in with their publication. It’s Joe’s prerogative as an editor to make that determination.

Which is fair enough. It is certainly within Joe’s prerogative as a managing editor to take down Gray’s post. I’m just wondering why he exercised it in this instance. As Philip Primeau noted:

It can be argued that an editor is a censor, an enlightened one. Editors, broadly speaking, have the right and the responsibility to play gatekeeper. They can not (must not!) publish every submission. They are smartly empowered to weed out garbage logic, shoddy writing, threats and libel, anything grossly shocking or incendiary (unless, I suppose, that’s the essence of the project). This culling function is entirely legitimate, entirely necessary. It is crucial to attracting ad money, pleasing subscribers, growing readership, and generally maintaining a solid reputation.

Hermione’s post was not illogical. The writing was fine. It contained neither threats nor libel. It was not grossly shocking or incendiary. Was it offensive at all? Sure, the title was vaguely confrontational, but what of the content? Pretty vanilla. Smart, perceptive, but vanilla verging on boring.

Perhaps I shouldn’t point this out, but I regularly write posts on Ladyblog that I imagine would be much more offensive to cultural conservatives then Gray’s tepid defense of casual sex. As a libertarian, I’m unabashedly socially liberal, and most of my posts there reflect that. I once even called Joe Carter’s position on gay couples and children “unspeakably cruel” in a post there and, to his credit, Carter simply responded in the comments section. Phoebe Maltz has also regularly engaged with Carter on Ladyblog about gay marriage.

So it just seems very strange why, in this instance, Carter didn’t simply respond exactly as he did (denouncing Gray’s opinion, stating his embarrassment, distancing it from the prevailing C11 view) but while leaving Gray’s post in tact. Then, if Gray regularly continued to post things that Carter felt ran radically athwart of C11’s mission, further action could be taken (although, I would hope this wouldn’t happen; as Jillian mentioned, every time someone posts a slightly liberal viewpoint on Ladyblog, it spawns a slew of comments and reacting blog posts, and it makes the whole endeavor more interesting. A whole bevy of social liberals on the blog would certainly mar C11’s editorial mission; but a blog entirely of social conservatives and you’ve got every prevailing Republican Web site).

And I know this is one of those strange and insular situations that probably only other bloggers and journalists could love, and even then only a very small segment … but it’s perhaps (somewhat?) interesting in a broader sense because of the meta-argument on what responsibility upper-level editors at online publications should take for the blog content on their sites, as well as for what it means for the ongoing evolution of Culture 11, which I think a lot of people in the conservative/libertarian DC and journo and blog arena are watching with interest.

[Marianne has a good post about the actual content of Blow and Gray’s posts here]

[*In another blog life, I did a little research on some of the girls quoted in one of Stepp’s articles—and the way she sort of exploited them—which I think is worth linking]

Update: C11 CEO David Kuo to the rescue!

Written by ENB

December 15, 2008 at 6:47 pm

Posted in Culture, Feminism

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