Last week, Rihanna broke a new barrier of sexuality in high fashion when she was featured in the Harper’s Bazaar of Arabia… fully dressed! Stunning as usual, ‘ Rihanna of Arabia’ couldn’t possibly get naked in this context and the publication made this ultra-clear, captioning her cover-shot: “The New Modesty, Cover Up In Style.” Concealed head to toe and accessorized in a series of sexy yet tasteful veils, masks and headscarves, she was still Rihanna, still posing in a lascivious and provocative way. In almost the same breath, pop star and sexual icon Madonna shared a picture on instagram, wherein she’s wearing a full face-concealing burqa, hashtagged #unapologeticbitch.
To understand why these two moves from pop culture’s biggest stars should be so attention-grabbing, we should pull back. In the last 20 years, we have witnessed a marked escalation in terms of sex and women’s self-representation–almost to the point of pornography. The rise of raunchiness and increasingly sexual music videos equates the portrayal of sex with the normal in a trivializing way. Nevertheless, a brief history of hypersexuality is order:
Back in 1983, one young girl shocked the neo-Puritan censors of Reagan’s America. At 26 years old, Madonna announced her second album with the lead video and single Like A Virgin. Directed by Mary Lambert, the music video portrayed Madonna as a particularly knowing virgin, wearing a wedding gown and a number of Christian symbols, while moving in a suggestive way. Sheila Whiteley, author of Women and popular music: sexuality, identity, and subjectivity, felt that Madonna’s image signified a denial of sexual knowledge, but also portrayed her in simulated writhing on a gondola, thus underpinning the simulation of deceit. The intrusion of a male lion, confirmed the underlying bestial discourse of both mythological fairy tale and pornographic sex. At the time, J. Randy Taraborrelli –the author of Madonna’s biography–said: “she was a street-smart dance queen with the sexy allure of Marilyn Monroe, the coy iciness of Marlene Dietrich and the cutting and protective glibness of a modern Mae West.” The shock value created a global sensation and hypersexuality as we know it was born.
Founded on the misappropriation of Christian decorum and morality, the wave of hypersexualization began to spread in the ’80s and the use of sex purely as a means of provocation was a well-established market value by the ’90s. Taken to the next level by many artists including Madonna, Britney, Christina Aguilera, and Li’l Kim amongst others, everyone tried to outdo the last in breaking sexual taboos (and in the process sold millions of albums).
In 2004, Janet Jackson created a controversy when Justin Timberlake exposed her breast during the Superbowl’s halftime. The news spread quickly all around the world the morality of the American national culture and the indecency in broadcasting was again the center of conversation. At that time, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) sent a fine to CBS that was later voided. They referred to a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ and Janet Jackson apologized publicly, effectively saying “just this one time won’t hurt.” Only a year later, a new star was born, Rihanna, who would later became the new ambassador of hypersexuality in the 2000s. A new arms race of sexual imagery was launched, ensnaring Nicki Minaj, the over-the-top Lady Gaga and the new post-traumatic Disney star, Miley Cyrus, who seems condemned to simulate porn in order to sell tickets on her world tour. Even the R&B pop star Beyoncé followed the trend and displayed a confident sexual image in her newest album. Some have even gone so far as to say that Queen B became an ornament during her “Drunk in Love” performance with Jay Z during the Grammy Awards.
Despite the increased competition, RiRi has set up her throne and stayed well ahead of the times. She knows how to keep her crowd interested and nudity has been a central part of her recent global press blitz comprising an editorial in the French Lui Magazine, her spread in Vogue Brazil and most recently her naked CFDA’s gown. But the tour de force was definitely last year when she attended the Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque, wearing a headscarf with her body totally covered. Up to this point, ironically, her high fashion nudes had created little in the way of negative backlash. But when she posed–fully clothed–next to the Grand Mosque, Rihanna was asked to leave for compromising the sanctity of the site. Finally, somebody was shocked again.
Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001 and America’s subsequent War on Terror, signifiers of Islamic faith have been represented in a new and ominous light in the west. Rihanna undoubtedly understood the formation of this new taboo and used it to her advantage–and no surprise, the whole world is talking about it, a genius for calculated timing that is only underscored by Madonna’s “me-too” moment.This gesture is surely not just for western eyes however. Countries like Qatar, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates, among others, represent the world’s largest pools of disposable income; a market no culture worker can afford to ignore. Accordinly, RiRi’s Harper’s Bazaar spread strikes a more acceptable compromise with local decorum–but whoever the customer is, there’s no question that what’s for sale is still sex.
While many women in conservative Islamic societies fight for the right to walk in public un-veiled, in the West we are observing an ever-increasing wave in skin exposure. The trivialization of sexuality to the point of emotional meaninglessness has in fact gone so far, that our iconoclasts must resort to the ‘anti-sexual’ to make sex tendencious again. But when the veil, that symbol of anti-sexuality, is itself sexualized, we have to wonder–what’s left?