- Rude Girl, Big WomanPower and Play in Representations of Caribbean Women
Women’s roles in the English-speaking Caribbean have historically centered on the image of the English “lady.” Since Emancipation in the 1830s, class structures have encouraged Afro-Caribbean women in the “right” behaviors and modes of representation. The circumstances of employment, education, and “upward mobility” often hindered most women from performing this role. In her 1982 study of stereotypes of Caribbean women, Jamaican scholar-artist-activist Erna Brodber finds “especially for Barbados and Jamaica, that the ‘right behavior’ not only was not culturally prescribed for the majority of the population but in the early time segment especially seems not to have been performed by them. The models, however, were internalized as ‘right’ if not just as ‘possible’. Today they are part of woman’s psychic landscape and are influencing women’s behavior.”1 Throughout the twentieth century in particular, many of these models retreated into conversations of respectability.2 Most women on these islands, then, lived under the shadow of a foreign unachievable ideal.
There have been quite a few Afro-Caribbean women who have (in)famously made a name for themselves outside of the idealized image of “appropriate” womanhood. From Nanny to Rachael Pringle Polgreen,3 Jamaican and Barbadian women have embraced, reworked, and outright rejected the figure of the English “lady.” Often not able to find themselves within the strict confines of such a foreign image that had been imposed so vigorously, they built their own images, reputations, and ultimately their own legacies by negotiating spaces and images of power in the public eye. Such negotiation has at times involved a violent rejection and/or mastery of global capitalist practices that center the [End Page 191] female body as a site of contestation. In the case of Nanny, her legend as a maroon leader able to catch and return bullets with her behind marks a violent rejection of Jamaica’s slave system and the possibility of her capture within it, while marking her body as a battlefield.4 Moreover in securing land rights for her people, Nanny agreed to fight on the side of the English crown in the event of a slave insurrection on the island.5 Thus, her legacy posits her body (and particularly her backside) as both a protector of the maroons and, if necessary, an enemy of those who might seek to join her. Rachael Pringle Polgreen mastered the system in Barbados. The historical icon was said to have escaped the abuses she suffered under slavery using her beauty and sexuality to secure marriage before going on to own (and at times brutalize) her own slave women at the Royal Navy Hotel. Her body, whether receiving or inflicting violence, was the means through which she became a capitalist, owning a well-known brothel and cementing her image in the popular history of Barbados.6 The legacies of both of these individual women underline how they used their bodies to fight against and participate within a larger capitalist structure based on the English Atlantic slave trade.
This article begins with a history of Caribbean iconicity, the role that the black female body has played in images of the region, and their use in a global capitalist market. Tracing the consumption of Caribbean images from the postcard to the contemporary music market, I end with close readings of pop star Rihanna’s videos “Rude Boy” and “Man Down.” As one of the most popular Afro-Caribbean women in the twenty-first century, Rihanna successfully entered into the U.S. pop music market before taking her career across the globe. In crossing national, regional, and cultural borders, Rihanna has consistently pushed against the boundaries of respectability in her ever-changing public image. Within these two videos (from Rihanna’s 2009 Rated R and her 2011 Loud albums, respectively), Rihanna’s Barbadian heritage is wrapped in Jamaican aesthetics for a global audience. I argue that these videos tell a history of the visual presentation of Caribbean women’s bodies, discourses of Caribbean femininity and respectability, and the ways in which sexuality, violence, migration, and cultural interchange have influenced...