"Hard" Times: Analyzing Rihanna's New Video

The new video for Rihanna's track, "Hard," hit the web late yesterday afternoon. The message she's sending comes through loud and clear: She's hard. As in tough. But as we all know, there's more to this story.

"Hard" Times: Analyzing Rihanna's New Video

They can say whatever
I'ma do whatever
No pain is forever,
Yup, you know this.

These are the opening lines to "Hard." And the images we see in the beginning of the clip are of Rihanna in military gear. She wears a helmet — the function of which is to protect. She is also dressed as a sergeant, or some kind of ranking officer, addressing her (all male) troops.

For a woman who was beaten by a man, taking on war imagery and a position of power over men makes perfect sense.

"Hard" Times: Analyzing Rihanna's New Video

In addition to her helmet, she wears a flesh-colored top with the nipples blacked out. On the one hand, there's only so much nudity you can get away with. But this could also be an acknowledgment of the boundaries she is setting: You can see this much, but you can't see everything. It's a tease — putting her, again, in a position of power. She chooses how much you can see.

"Hard" Times: Analyzing Rihanna's New Video

Images of Rihanna walking through a literal battlefield not only mirror the minefield of her relationship with Chris Brown, but the dangerous territory of being in the public eye, with "bombs" about your private life dropping all around you. The lyrics here are:
I'ma rock this shit like fashion, as in
Goin' til they say stop

She's not afraid to forge ahead (or she wants you to think she is). The lyrics continue:
And my runway never looked so clear
But the hottest bitch in heels right here
No fear
And while you getting your cry on
I'm getting my fly on

It's as though she has picked herself up, dusted herself off, and realized her self-worth. She knows she is too special to let anything stop her. While we might be "crying" over her assault, she's busy getting back to — or keeping up with — the business of being fabulous.

"Hard" Times: Analyzing Rihanna's New Video

The "stay away" spikes and warrior make-up hammer the point home.

"Hard" Times: Analyzing Rihanna's New Video

And then there's a gun. Rihanna got a gun tattoo in March; she was assaulted in early February. Was the former a reaction to the latter? Some commenters on this site called the tattoo "advocating violence," "sad" and "misguided" and wondered if she didn't have any positive role models. Others noted that we don't actually know the significance of her gun tattoo and what it means to her. One commenter pointed out: "People get tattoos for all sorts of reasons and I think 'helping me get through a tough part of my life' is a pretty good one."

If you see a tattoo as a visual marker of a dream or ideal, her desire to be seen as a weapon — dangerous and to be handled with respect — makes a lot of sense. And firing off a machine gun in the video has the same effect; she is telegraphing a warning and taking a stance — refusing to be portrayed as a victim, but instead, the opposite.

"Hard" Times: Analyzing Rihanna's New Video

On this rampart in the battlefield, she is the only one without a weapon. Either she is the weapon, or her army's one mission is to defend her. Or both.

"Hard" Times: Analyzing Rihanna's New Video

Playing games with the other (lower-ranking) soldiers, Rihanna, of course, holds all the cards. At every turn, she feels the need to remind us that she is a winner.

"Hard" Times: Analyzing Rihanna's New Video

Rihanna made this "small" gesture when she sang "Hard" on Good Morning America in November; our brother site Gawker called it "The last word on Chris Brown." She did it again when she was on SNL. The lyrics here are:
It's gonna take more than that
Hope that ain't all you got.

Insulting Chris Brown's penis size and therefore his manhood may seem like a cheap shot, but it's her prerogative. And she's making it clear that she's taking no prisoners.

"Hard" Times: Analyzing Rihanna's New Video

The styling here — Mickey Mouse-eared helmet, paired with bandoliers — seems to say, I'm fun, not that you want to fuck with me. It's basically the driving theme of the entire video.

"Hard" Times: Analyzing Rihanna's New Video

The tank, I think, is a misstep. It reads as penis envy — and maybe the smaller guns do, too, but a big pink phallus between her legs dilutes her message. Because if this song is about a woman declaring her strength and sexuality, she shouldn't need a cocked and loaded dick replacement to do it.

On the other hand: If someone like 50 cent made a video in which he was half-dressed and toting guns, would we accuse him of using phallic symbols? Or would we simply view it as being about power?

"Hard" Times: Analyzing Rihanna's New Video

Toward the end of the clip, Rihanna waves a flag, declaring that she has conquered her territory. For someone who has spent the year being identified as a victim, this seems like a way for her to take back and reshape her identity.

She recently did an overtly sexual shoot for GQ, and she is topless on the cover of the magazine. Some people made comments like "I'm losing interest." But Rihanna's strategy — the manner in which she is maneuvering through this year is very interesting: She doesn't want to be someone you beat up and throw away. She doesn't want to be a victim. But she doesn't want to have to be a "good girl," either.

On the GQ photo thread, one comment read, "She makes boring pop music and boringly shows off her boobs. I fail to see what's new here?" Perhaps "new" is not the point. Or what's "new" is that she was beaten to a pulp and is moving forward the only way she knows how. Someone else wrote: "All of this Rihanna sexification as of late makes me think she's trying to reclaim a sense of power after the whole Chris Brown debacle. I think she's a beautiful and talented woman, but there has to be a better way for her to demonstrate her strength instead of just posing nude and making provocative comments in every interview." Maybe there is a "better" way, but maybe this is the way that feels right for her? When she hit the scene, she was a clean-cut, long-haired 17-year-old "Island girl," but that was mostly who her record label wanted her to be. In November, she told The New York Times:

Her appearance, down to her lipstick color, was monitored by the label, she said. "I was like, ‘What do you mean, I can't cut my hair? It has to be long and blond, like every other female singer in the game? No, I'm not doing that.' "

Is it any wonder her third album was called Good Girl Gone Bad? It's always tricky to channel and manage the feelings and urges one has when transitioning from a teenager to a fully-grown adult. To do it when you are a product/pawn in a capitalist/corporate structure must be even harder. As one commenter in the GQ thread put it: "…This is the way that works best for her so I'll support her on it. Taking control of her body (getting tattoos, posing nude, etc.) is probably empowering to her after being under Chris Brown's domineering thumb for so long. I think she feels powerful by being able to make these choices and decisions regarding her body."

"Hard" Times: Analyzing Rihanna's New Video

Love it or hate it, she's doing it her way. As "Hard" goes:
And I want it all…
… I need it all
The money
The fame
The cars
The clothes
I can't just let you run up on me like that…

Right now, she's all about not letting anyone take anything away from her. But she's only 21, and she's had a tough year. Who knows what message she'll want to send next year, or in five years?

This morning Maggie Gyllenhaal was on the Today show. She said — and I'm paraphrasing — "In my 20s i felt like I had to be so strong, and that to seem strong was the most important thing." Now she is 32 and says, "Now I see that being vulnerable and open and emotional takes so much more strength." Maybe given time and perspective, Rihanna will be in a similar place?

Rihanna — Hard [MTV.com]
Rihanna: ‘Hard' Video World Premiere! [JustJared]
"Hard" Lyrics [Rihanna Now]
Rihanna: Fiercely Introspective [NY Times]
Related: Rihanna Goes Topless For GQ's January 2010 Issue