Is kink the new girl-on-girl kiss?

Rihanna is the latest in a line of pop stars using S/M as an edgy symbol of empowerment. Too bad it doesn't shock

Topics: Sex, Gender, Gender Roles, Love and Sex,

Is kink the new girl-on-girl kiss?Stills from the music videos for "Not Myself Tonight," "Alejandro" and "S&M"

Have you heard? Rihanna likes rough sex. Just in case you didn’t get the message from her recent single “S&M” — which contains the subtle lyrics, “chains and whips excite me” — she clarifies her position, so to speak, in the upcoming issue of Rolling Stone: “Being submissive in the bedroom is really fun.” She adds, “I like to be spanked. Being tied up is fun.”

Oops, sorry, still there? I dozed off for a second. Signaling an interest in mildly kinky sex has become pretty banal. Madonna and Janet Jackson have been there, done that — and now we have a whole new generation of starlets who are acting like they invented the riding crop. Like the women before them, the latest set of kink-loving pop stars are using it as shorthand for female sexual empowerment — the kind that, importantly, is still commercial and alluring to straight men. S/M is like the new girl-on-girl makeout. Forget “I Kissed a Girl” — I fully expect the next breezy summer hit to be something along the lines of “I Was Spanked (And I Liked It).” As with most mainstream depictions of women’s erotic power, I find it sad and totally exhilarating, all at the same time.

In case you’ve missed the recent flood of bondage-themed ephemera, allow me to fill you in. Rihanna is just the latest entrant with her ode to sadomasochism. The song itself is very sexual, of course, but the music video is more TV-friendly. She’s shown trapped behind a wall of saran wrap in front of a bunch of tabloid reporters who are wearing ball gags. A nasty journo scrawls “slut” in capital letters in his notebook; a headline about her “daddy issues” scrawls across the screen. She takes bitchy gossip blogger Perez Hilton for a walk — or crawl, really — on a leash. It’s S/M as a metaphor, a way for Rihanna to punish and humiliate the haters. She’s saved the more literal S/M for her lyrics, wardrobe and interviews.

Ever since her post-Chris Brown reemergence, she’s been playing with symbols of toughness. First it was guns, helmets and tanks (a look I went nuts for); now it’s leather, whips and chains. She went from fearsome superheroine to sexy dominatrix and sometimes submissive. It’s understandable that someone whose battered face went viral would take on just such a sexual persona. She even admits in the Rolling Stone interview that her taste for kink might have something to do with the abuse she suffered from her father; and, while it’s by no means the rule, it isn’t uncommon for people to cope with, and sometimes triumph over, past abuse through S/M. In that sense, Rihanna’s kinky turn has depth — but, make no mistake, it’s also commercial as hell. In one shot from the music video, she’s shown tied up, and everything — her makeup, her outfit, the rope itself — is in bubble-gum hues. It’s rough sex mixed with the Harajuku Girls aesthetic. It’s pop kink.

You Might Also Like

Of course, Lady Gaga has also toyed with bondage. The music video for “Alejandro” shows her mounting and dominating a muscle man clad in high heels; later, he takes a turn manhandling her. She’s incorporated the kinky aesthetic into numerous photo shoots and performances; and let’s not forget her single, “I Like It Rough.” Lady Gaga being Lady Gaga, she manages to make the S/M overtones potentially subversive and threatening by pairing her light kink with some serious gender bending.

The same cannot be said for Christina Aguilera, who premiered her video for “Not Myself Tonight” last year. It’s like she took the entire contents of a fetish store and dumped it on a Hollywood sound stage. She crawls around on all fours in a catsuit, dons a diamond-encrusted ball gag, wields a riding crop, writhes in a face mask, pours liquid latex all over herself — and so on and so forth. (Aguilera is no stranger to attention-grabbing sex tricks, as her “Dirrty” phase proved.) The most authentically sadomasochistic thing about “Not Myself Tonight” is that it’s torture to sit through. Per the usual, it’s just a starlet playing at being bad. She even croons, “In the morning when I wake up I’ll go back to the girl I used to be.” Don’t worry, she isn’t one of those freaks who is actually serious about playing with leather and latex 24/7.

I won’t lie — I love hearing a pop starlet sing unapologetically about how whips and chains excite her. “S&M,” “Not Myself Tonight” and “I Like It Rough” are probably among the top 30 most-played songs on my iPhone. This is because I have horrible taste in music — but also because there’s an element of aggressive female sexuality and subversion in these songs that I can’t help wanting to celebrate. They speak to me on a visceral level. At the same time, I fully realize that the female sexual power in these songs is ultimately empty and limited. But it’s the same as it’s always been: Female pop stars expressing their sexuality in ways that are palatable to the mainstream straight (in all senses) audience. Whether it’s by prancing around in a Catholic schoolgirl uniform or slipping into a latex jumpsuit, it’s fundamentally the same damn thing.

Tracy Clark-Flory
Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>