This isn't Rihanna's first murder. She walks through a strip club's red velvet curtains in her new (and NSFW—again, this is a strip club) music video "Needed Me," holding a gun with a silencer. She has a practiced hand. In the backroom, she hits her mark, a man who throws a wad of cash towards her. One shot and he crumples. Two, he falls to the floor. She fires a third for good measure.
"Didn't they tell you that I was a savage?" she sings earlier in the song. But nobody had to tell us. We know Rihanna—at least, the music video version of Rihanna—is bad. Just last year, we watched her kidnap a rich man's wife and torture him to death in the "Bitch Better Have My Money" video.
Because of its violence (and also, to a lesser extent, its blatant sexuality and drug use), the reception of Rihanna's "Needed Me" hasn't been all positive. The Daily Beast questioned whether it was unnecessarily gratuitous. So did The Atlantic. But Rihanna's been accused of these things before: too sexual, too violent, too powerful, too everything. Her "Man Down" video—in which she shoots down a rapist—was condemned by the Parents Television Council in 2011.
Though these depictions of murder are the most explicit crimes against men committed therein, Rihanna's entire visual discography is actually a master class in misandry. Not in how to hate men, per se (and certainly not in how to literally murder them), but in how to act like they really, truly could not matter less to you. If there's anything Rihanna doesn't give a fuck about in her videos, it's men.
From the very beginning of Rihanna's career, misandry has bubbled under the surface. In her first music video, "Pon de Replay," Rihanna is the boss. The first words out of her mouth are "I'll make him turn it up." Rihanna, rebuking a man for doing his job poorly. She then finds a raised platform in the middle of the dance floor and dances alone for the rest of the song. Some men can be seen in the shadows beneath her, but that's as close to the spotlight as they'll ever get.
With the exception of that first line, "Pon de Replay" falls into a well-established genre of Rihanna music videos: those with no significant male characters. Of the 38 music videos Rihanna has created from her own albums, 16 of those don't feature a single man. Think: 2005's "If It's Lovin' That You Want", 2007's "Don't Stop the Music," 2008's "Disturbia," 2009's "Wait Your Turn," 2013's "Stay," and 2016's "Kiss It Better." Then there are another 12 videos in which men either function as back-up dancers or seem simply beside the point, like Jay-Z's brief appearance in "Umbrella."
One of Rihanna's greatest acts of misandry is that she sometimes excises men from her story entirely. If she allows them to remain, they function as little more than props, like in the 2006 video for "SOS," in which a man passively allows Rihanna to grind up against him and use his arm for balance while she spins.
In 2010's "Only Girl in the World," Rihanna is singing—presumably to a man—about how lucky she is. But there are no men in the video. "No men here," she seems to say. "I am the only girl in the world and there are no men and everything is just dancing in my personal desert utopia!"
In revisiting Rihanna's visual canon, what really struck me was that the most intimate, most loving, most blissful we ever see Rihanna isn't with a prop man, or even with Drake (more on that softboy later)—it's with a woman, in the 2010 video for the B-side single "Te Amo."
The lyrics of "Te Amo" tell a slightly different story, about a woman in love with Rihanna whose feelings Rihanna doesn't reciprocate. But in the video, Rihanna looks comfortable, content, happy. Almost as happy as she looks dancing on a throne in "Pour It Up," or bossing around military men in 2009's "Hard."
So yes, part of Rihanna's misandrist doctrine is the exclusion of men, who are extraneous to the story she's trying to tell: a story about herself. But the second part is about men who get in her way. Some of these men get murdered; most of them visibly annoy Rihanna. It's not just the lyrics of Rihanna's songs about men that make them seem like assholes (for instance, "We Ride," about her relationship with a cheater), it's her utter impatience with them, demonstrated through both her actions and her body language on screen.
Here she is in 2006's "Unfaithful."
In "Unfaithful," Rihanna describes how sorry she is that her guy has to know that she's sleeping with other men: "I might as well take a gun and put it to his head / Get it over with," she sings. Prescient? Maybe!
In 2008's "Take a Bow," she texts her ex to come over under the guise of hearing him out. Instead, she lights his shit on fire on her kitchen table.
Look at this cold shoulder in 2008's "Rehab," featuring Justin Timberlake.
Could she be any farther away from this man, in 2010's "California King Bed?"
The video for 2011's ostensibly happy song "We Found Love," featuring Calvin Harris, pairs blissful images of a couple in love with a spoken introduction about the pain of a failed relationship and bleak moments like this:
Even in the case of her cute little thing with Drake in February's "Work," the video is still dismissive of Toronto's favorite son. He's never the center of the shot. And Rihanna's sexiness doesn't even seem to be directed at him so much as at the viewer, at her own reflection in the mirror.
And then there's "Russian Roulette," a dark, creepy video that surpassed even "Disturbia" in its strangeness. In it, Rihanna sits across a table from her love interest (played by Jesse Williams) and they pass a revolver back and forth. We don't see either of them shoot. We only see blood begin to seep from Rihanna's chest.
This video came out years before "Man Down," before any of Rihanna's onscreen slayings. The first person shot in a Rihanna music video is actually Rihanna herself.
When we talk about Rihanna's misandry, when we talk about why she shoots men in music videos, we're well aware of the elephant in the room. We know that, in 2009, there were reports that Rihanna's boyfriend Chris Brown beat her violently. We know the reports are true because we saw the photographs. He was arrested, sure, but we saw her weak and vulnerable and broken. Before we saw her shot on film, we saw her brutally attacked in real life.
And the "Russian Roulette" video, with its bullets in water and blood on Rihanna's chest, was seen at the time as a direct commentary on her relationship with Brown. Writing in Rolling Stone soon after the video's release, Daniel Kreps called the speeding car seen at the 1:43 mark "a moment that seems to mirror the events immediately following the assault." It's fitting, then, that as Rihanna's star has risen, and she herself has become stronger, the gun that shot her in "Russian Roulette" has been picked up off the table and re-aimed.
Since 2009's Rated R, Rihanna has done everything. She's objectified men, loved them, and killed them. There is only one major exception to Rihanna's otherwise consistently misandrist videography: 2010's "What's My Name," wherein Rihanna and Drake clink glasses of white wine and snuggle.
If anything, the videos in which Rihanna shoots men—2011's "Man Down," 2015's "Bitch Better Have My Money," and 2016's "Needed Me"—are fully in line with the message Rihanna's work has long been sending: She doesn't need a man, in any way, at any time. "Fuck your white horse and your carriage," she sings.
"Needed Me" is darker than Rihanna's ever gone before. Directed by Harmony Korine, most recently of Spring Breakers, it's a beauty: all greens and reds, glittering waterways, and grimy shadows.
It's also a natural progression of the misandrist doctrine we've just revisited. Watch Rihanna's expression as she pulls the trigger in "Needed Me." She doesn't look crazed, or furious, or excited. She looks, well, incredibly bored by her murder of this man.
Rihanna isn't preaching a kill-all-men sermon. Her misandry is subtler than that. It's built on a canon of songs where men have fucked up, where they've made women feel subservient and powerless, like victims in their own lives. "All of my kindness / Taken for weakness," she sings in "FourFiveSeconds."
But there's nothing weak about where Rihanna is right now as a pop star. She's a powerhouse, with the number one song in America. On tour, she's nice to her fans. She's relatable in her banter and her interviews. But in her videos, she's a misandrist with no time for games. You can silence her guns, but you sure as hell can't silence her.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.