Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘submission

‘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
man

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 Elizabeth

February 26, 2012 at 10:16 am

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 Elizabeth

April 28, 2011 at 11:26 pm