Now worth $1.7 billion, according to Forbes estimates, Robyn Fenty, known to the world as Rihanna, is the wealthiest female musician in the world. But it’s not her music that’s made her so wealthy. The bulk of her fortune—an estimated $1.4 billion—comes from the value of Fenty Beauty. Much of the rest lies in her stake in her lingerie company, Savage x Fenty, worth an estimated $270 million… and her earnings from her career as a chart-topping musician and actress. So let’s talk: feminism, Black capitalism and #EatTheRich.
It seems like feminists everywhere are celebrating Robyn Fenty’s latest billionaire status. The @feminist Instagram account broke the news with this caption. “Rihanna is now a billionaire, the wealthiest female musician, and making #HERstory”. (One wonders about the unironic use of “#HERstory”.) But we have to ask: is becoming a billionaire feminism? To answer that question, it’s worth thinking about what becoming a billionaire entails. Now, being a billionaire doesn’t actually mean Rihanna has a billion dollars. It’s her net worth, which means it’s a combination of her assets. And she’s far from the ranks of the richest people in the world, who are “worth” hundreds of billions.
Still, it’s an absurd amount of wealth. The media, and many fans and non-fans alike, say that she “made” it. That she made her wealth. And that she started from nothing. So she’s a so-called, “self-made” billionaire. But as US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explained before, in this capitalist system, “no one ever makes a billion dollars. You take a billion dollars.” We’re not here to villanise billionaires (except, maybe, Bezos). But we need to talk about billionaire worship, the glorification (versus the truth) of wealth accumulation, and how it’s not good for us… even if it’s Rihanna.
How did Rihanna become a billionaire?
To start: let’s talk about Rihanna’s brands. We all know that Fenty Beauty has paved the way when it comes to diversity and inclusivity.
VOGUE claims that Fenty Beauty changed the state of play in the industry. “From unrealistic beauty ideals to the blatant lack of representation reflected in campaigns and product offerings, the beauty industry’s relationship with diversity was problematic at best. The messaging essentially that “if you don’t fit an age-old Eurocentric ideal of beauty, you are not welcome” – was the white elephant in the room of a tone-deaf business. Fenty Beauty didn’t just address this, it blew the conversation wide open.”
Citing the brand’s opening gambit of a 40-strong foundation range, VOGUE contends that Fenty has changed the game. Now, beauty brands have to be inclusive. But beyond this, it claims that Fenty did something deeper. That is: make darker-skinned women feel seen by the industry. And we also saw this with Fenty Beauty’s sister brand, Savage x Fenty. With its use of plus-sized models, to creating gender-neutral products, to catering to consumers of all ages, Savage x Fenty seems to be following in Fenty Beauty’s footsteps, governed by the same ethos of inclusivity.
But that’s where the good part ends. When AOC says that you don’t make a billion, you take it, this is what she means. The amount of wealth accumulation is only possible through unethical labour practices, which—surprise, surprise—Rihanna is guilty of too. (Or, more accurately, her brands are.)
Fenty Beauty isn’t actually ethical, and neither is Savage x Fenty
Fenty Beauty is cruelty-free, and offers vegan products, according to Ethical Elephant. That being said, the brand isn’t entirely vegan. (Which is already a low enough bar, especially considering how much money it’s making.) And if this is too much to ask from a major beauty brand? Let’s look at one of the biggest controversies in ethical makeup: mica.
Much has been written and produced about this. But the short of it is that mica is the holy grail mineral that gives cosmetics their shine. And it’s been associated with dangerous mining and even child labour. As to Fenty Beauty’s policy on mica? Ethical Elephant found that while the brand is making “every effort to ensure the traceability and transparency of [their] supply chains”… “Unless the company discloses its mica mining policy, we have no way of knowing whether its mica is ethically sourced without child or forced labor.”
And as to Savage x Fenty? According to Impactful Ninja’s investigation on the brand, instead of what you’d expect to find from an ethical brand (such as a list of sustainable suppliers, partnerships with fair trade organisations, charitable donations), there’s no indication of any sort of attempt to be sustainable. On the website, you’ll find statements about confidence, inclusivity, fearlessness, and expressing yourself. (What about all of those things, for the people who make the garments? If Savage x Fenty’s feminism is inclusive only up to the point of the consumer, it’s not feminist at all.)
More worryingly, there seem to be negative feedback (unaddressed) about the membership shopping model that the brand uses. And trawling the web, it also seems there’s been disappointment with the “size-inclusivity” of Savage x Fenty. People have tweeted, and Reddit users have pointed out the same.
“But aren’t there other unsustainable brands?”
To be fair to Rihanna, as some have pointed out (such as in this Reddit thread), Fenty isn’t the only brand that’s problematic. And neither is Savage x Fenty. As the COVID-19 pandemic revealed, most brands actively perpetuate ongoing injustice against garment workers. Yet, at the same time, it’s precisely because Rihanna’s brands are so influential, that they should be held to a higher standard. Granted, again, Rihanna isn’t as much of a billionaire as the other fashion moguls like Phillip Green, but she’s still a billionaire, and her brands are still influential.
And if influential brands don’t pave the way towards worker and supply chain justice, then who will?
Disappointing to see self proclaimed feminist pages announce Rihanna becoming a billionaire like some sort of girlboss win, how dare they insert 'intersectional' feminism into their bios?
Capitalism is not feminism, you simply can't be a billionaire and be a feminist
— rose_may_scribble (@shannonrmp) August 5, 2021
Becoming a billionaire isn’t feminist, period
We return to Rihanna’s being called a “self-made” billionaire. Considering the unethics of the brands she’s built her fortune off of, and considering the workers, these brands have had to exploit to get to this point… Can we really call her “self-made”?
As user @akshata_sastry commented on the @feminist post: “Self-made? Did she package my products and print the shipping label too? Give each order a kiss before delivering it? She put her name on a product and took the profits”. At the end of the day, like how we can’t see Jeff Bezos as a self-made billionaire—he stepped all over his Amazon employees, and doesn’t pay his taxes—we can’t see Rihanna as a self-made billionaire either. The term “self-made billionaire” is an oxymoron. It just can’t exist.
Billionaires exploit people. Through wage theft, under-compensation of labour, unethical practices, and more, in order to get to that amount of wealth. The truth behind the glorification of such wealth is just that. And feminism is about liberating women, and all marginalised people, from systems of oppression. If that’s the case, being a billionaire isn’t feminist. Because being a billionaire means that marginalised people are being oppressed by the existence of these billionaires within the capitalist system.
If becoming a billionaire isn’t feminist, why is it celebrated as such?
To understand why, we have to revisit #Girlboss feminism. Even though the term can feel a little outdated (given the fact that it’s been subjected—rightfully—to criticism) its effects still linger today. The term itself refers to a particular brand of “feminism” that essentially equates feminism to women rising the corporate ranks and becoming powerful CEOs, business leaders, political representatives, etc.
In itself, this is a good thing. Women rising to positions of power is something worth celebrating. Because for a long time, these positions were dominated by men, and women had no say, nor rights. However, this sort of feminism alone isn’t enough. If we’re only looking at feminism with this lens, then the best outcome is we replace all men in powerful positions with women. And in our world, because the capitalist system only allows for the upward mobility of some over others, we would end up replacing all men in powerful positions with mostly white, cis-gendered, straight, abled, and upper-class women.
This is exactly why #Girlboss feminism became problematic. It was feminism up to a point. Kind of like how some brands just think that by having a sustainability department is enough to check the “sustainability” box. In other words, these women who rose to the ranks didn’t actually end up dissolving the power structures that oppressed them. They played by the rules of the (rigged) game, and won it. Instead of changing the rules.
What should it be about, then?
The crux here is that feminism has to be about, ultimately, liberating all of us from the capitalist, hetero-patriarchal, and white supremacist system. And we won’t get there just by #Girlboss feminism. Yes, there’s a place for working within the system, which is what #Girlboss feminism is about, but the feminism we need to be moving towards is one that works towards thinking beyond the system instead. So celebrating Rihanna getting rich and beating the system is #Girlboss feminism. Alone, that’s problematic. We want to see feminism that celebrates more than that.
We want to see feminism that celebrates redistributing wealth. That celebrates ethically paying workers, and not engaging in unethical labour practices. One that doesn’t celebrate the massive success of one at the expense of many others weaker and poorer than the one who comes out on top.
And speaking of problematic, non-feminist feminism, we need to talk about Instagram feminism. The @feminist Instagram account, the one that celebrated Rihanna’s becoming a billionaire? People flamed the account in the comments, citing the arguments above, about why Rihanna being a billionaire isn’t feminism. But it’s worth taking the time to talk about the kind of feminism that the account encourages, and unpacking why it’s problematic.
As Carmina Masoliver details for The Norwich Radical, two cisgender white men (Tanner Sweitzer and Jacob Castaldi) run the @feminist account. The owners also own @itsfeminism, @march, and @chnge. The last of which is a fashion brand that donates 50% of their net profits to charitable organisations. Though the transparency around donations has been… questionable. Masoliver highlights that yes, it shouldn’t matter that cisgender men own the account, but contends that its feminism is performative. Especially because the account doesn’t produce much of its own content, and allegedly has previously even reposted without credit.
This becomes more unethical when we take into account the positionality of these cisgender white men. They’re profiting off what essentially is cultural capital. (And this whole saga is reminiscent of the @soyouwanttotalkabout saga that’s going down right now.) It’s worth noting also that there wasn’t much transparency around the issue up until they issued an open letter, claiming to have listened, and promising a women-based, queer, BIPOC team managing the platform by the start of 2021. The open letter has since been deleted (the link is dead). But it appears that the team actually has changed, according to one of their latest Instagram posts, and their website.
In this regard, it’s great that the account has taken steps to change its ways. But the lack of transparency regarding its history is still unsettling, to say the least.
How does this tie back to Rihanna being a billionaire?
The notably diverse (new) team is the one behind the post about Rihanna. So perhaps we should see the two issues (supporting Rihanna being a billionaire and the @feminist team’s problematic history) as separate.
But looking at these issues, together or separately, begs a rethink of feminism in our contemporary moment, and certainly feminism online. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why all of this is unsettling. But maybe it’s the performativity of this Instagram feminism that we see today. The Instagrammification of feminism, maybe? That allows cisgender white men to profit off Instagram posts raising awareness of issues from a feminist perspective? That allows them—us?—to Instagrammise issues to begin with? All of which allows for watered-down feminism, almost cheapened, to the point of celebrating billionaires just because they’re women. (And for even anti-capitalism to be sold back to us.)
At the end of the day, you can’t say that you’re anti-capitalist, then turn around and also celebrate people for being billionaires. Instagram accounts can’t say they’re feminist, and then turn around and cheer Rihanna on…. without the nuance. We need to recognise that it’s great that Rihanna managed to gain success, but also that the way she did it leaves much to be desired. That we have much more we need to do.
As user @joanna_lng asks in the comments of the @feminist post: “Why are we celebrating the extreme accumulation of wealth under capitalism? How is it a feminist topic when women, white or of color, contribute to extreme inequality and amass insane fortunes?” As funny as the tweets that have emerged since the announcement are, celebrating billionaires, of any shape, size, or form, just isn’t. And we ought to question how we’ve gotten to this point.
I wish you guys would just say “I like Rihanna so I don’t care” instead of the mental gymnastics of trying to show us how billionaires can be ethical (whatever that means)
— mands (@MandyKinZz) August 5, 2021
We need to talk about Black capitalism…
And speaking of billionaires of any shape, size, or form… let’s talk about something that’s more difficult to talk about—Black capitalism. As gal-dem tweeted: “As Rihanna reaches billionaire status, we remind ourselves why black capitalism will never equate to black liberation”, quote-tweeting an article written by educator, creative, and new economics organiser Nonhlanhla Makuyana for gal-dem.
In the article, Makuyana dives deep into why Black liberation should not buy into representation politics. She highlights the example of Kamala Harris, noting that though Harris has faced extensive racist attacks, she hasn’t challenged the system. And that this is exactly why Black capitalism is problematic. She explains: “Representation politics tells us that Black people can be and do anything. In reality, only a handful of people are put in those positions, which uphold suss institutions, corporations and the status quo – all while still being racialised.”
Further, she adds that celebrating how Black people have reached the top of the system “places the blame and responsibility on the individual to win at a rigged system instead of playing a completely different game.” In other words, not only does it stop the system from being changed, it further pressures Black individuals into having to individually face the oppressive structures and overcome it, and equates success to that, which ends up creating even more pressure.
Ultimately, Makuyana shares that she believes that instead of investing in “extractive systems, institutions or corporations”, that Black people should instead strive towards freeing and investing in each other: “[c]oming together to make sure we all have access to good quality housing, healthy working environments and substantial, sustainable food sources”. Makuyana highlights that there are organisers, activists, and new and past generations of Black young people who are, and have been, doing this work.
Again, how does this tie back to Rihanna being a billionaire?
In some ways, what Makuyana is saying about Black capitalism is the same as what critics of #Girlboss feminism are saying. We shouldn’t be celebrating women, nor Black people, for playing and winning the rigged game, just because of their identities, if in the end, they aren’t changing the system. Yes, we can appreciate their efforts, but we have to acknowledge that this has to be the start of further, systemic change.
As Akin Olla, Nigerian American political strategist and organiser writes in an op-ed for The Guardian: “Sorry Rihanna. I can’t celebrate billionaires – even if they are Black”.
Olla shares that “[i]t is worth celebrating [the wealthy Black American’s] ability to overcome adversity and compete against the white ruling class, especially those… who used their money to support poor members of their community. But we must always hold that celebration in tension with the inherent corruption of the system… Black billionaires have fundamentally different interests from other Black people, and we cannot let our love of them get in the way of seeing the role that they play in perpetuating the system as it is. Rihanna is a brilliant, talented and extraordinary individual, but she does not deserve to be a billionaire, and her success should not be used to further the acceptance of the super-wealthy.”
Olla makes a good point. There are many layers to this issue, and many reasons why Rihanna becoming a billionaire is so hard to comprehend. Rihanna is a woman, she wasn’t born into family wealth, she’s Black, and on top of all that? She’s a popstar.
Just because she’s a celebrity, doesn’t make it any better
Let’s not forget Rihanna’s celebrity status. This brings us to the final point here.
Just because someone is a celebrity? Just because someone is well-known, personable? Doesn’t mean that they can’t oppress and exploit—because that’s how you become a billionaire. We can’t let the celebrity status fool us into looking at the issue with rose-tinted glasses. This is the same kind of celebrity culture that has led us into normalising, accepting, and even adoring people like the Kardashian family. It’s also the same celebrity culture that makes Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk acceptable—and they know it, which is why they keep trying to seem relatable, personable, or on the other end of the spectrum, entertaining.
Again, as Olla put it: “[Rihanna’s] success should not be used to further the acceptance of the super-wealthy.”
IMAGE: Via @meg__etc on Instagram | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A text post on a gradient background (pink, yellow, purple), with text that reads “I want to say that something is going wrong, but that’s not the case—the system is working exactly how it’s supposed to. The majority of people remain proletariat and even in absolute poverty, whilst a select few make billions. Someone like Rihanna becomes a billionaire, and the media says: ‘Look, women can become billionaires too!’ Regular people think this is an achievement, even something to aspire to. They are reminded that they are supposed to think the system is fair and equal. But diversifying the oppressor does nothing for the oppressed. Regular women are still as far away from making a billion as they were yesterday. Poor women are still struggling to put food on the table.”
The bottom line
Are there good billionaires? Is Rihanna a good billionaire? When it’s time to eat the rich, as leftist Twitter would say, will we spare Rihanna the guillotine? Or perhaps the most important question: can we still listen to her music?
In the balance, it’s worth noting that Rihanna has done some good with her money. Throughout the pandemic, Rihanna donated $5 million to the global coronavirus relief fund! But that’s philanthropic capitalism, and that doesn’t make her a good billionaire. Think about it this way: the cost of exploiting people for their labour and not ethically operating the brands that have allowed her to gain so much wealth is nothing compared to the $5 million she donated.
Not to mention, donating money in the framework of charity can sometimes even worsen the inequality. Much has been written about this in scholarship about mutual aid, but the short of it is this. Donating to charity without efforts to change the capitalist system that makes people poor and dependent on charity to begin with, only further reinforces the inequality and system of hierarchy. Here’s another way to think about it. If billionaires donated all of their wealth to charities, while continuing to make people poorer by not actually paying people who work for them ethically, the system doesn’t change. Poverty and inequality will still exist.
And the truth is, no amount of good deeds will make her a good billionaire: because good billionaires don’t exist.
There are three main categories of existence:
1. Things that exist, like dogs.
2. Things that only exist in the mind, like Clifford the Big Red Dog.
3. Things that don't exist at all, like good billionaires.
— Existential Comics (@existentialcoms) August 8, 2018
The existence of billionaires is a system problem
Let’s not kid ourselves: billionaires are policy failures. Becoming a billionaire isn’t something to celebrate. Not when we live in a time of extreme wealth inequality (which billionaires actively benefit from).
As Dan Rifle, senior counsel and policy adviser to AOC, explains: “You know the New York Times Q and A where they asked the candidates [“Does anyone deserve to have a billion dollars?”]? Other than [Sen. Kirsten] Gillibrand, who flatly said nobody should be a billionaire, the candidates who addressed it best said something like, “My concern is not how much money Jeff Bezos has or Bill Gates has, but whether or not every American has access to affordable health care, education, housing, and basic human rights. And if those things are in place, then I don’t really care how much somebody else has.” Well, those things are not in place, and they’re not in place because Bill Gates has $107 billion and Jeff Bezos has $120 billion. Those two things are inherently intertwined, and you cannot fix one without the other.”
In other words, billionaires are rich because a system exists that exploits and benefits from poorer, marginalised people and communities. And to return to Rihanna… It’s possible to say that it’s not Rihanna’s fault entirely: she’s part of a system that’s allowed this to happen. And we have to embrace that tension: recognising that this is a system problem, and recognising that Rihanna, wealthy as she is, has a part to play in it too. Framing it as one or the other would be doing injustice to the complex problem that this is.
So where does this leave us?
With more questions than answers, as always. But the point of this inquiry is to reexamine how popular culture has taken to this piece of news, and uncover the problematic notions we have of wealth, celebrity, identity that led to the way the discourse has panned out.
And as to Riri? Yes, Rihanna beating the system is somewhat a good thing. And yes, at least she’s doing something with her wealth. But there’s so much more that she, and other extremely wealthy people, can be doing. And celebrating her being a billionaire isn’t enough. We need to demand more radical systems changes. Though, as Reddit would say, when the time comes to eat the rich, we’ll probably hide Rihanna. (But still, #EatTheRich.)
And as to her album? For those of us who’ve been waiting since 2016… this is a sign to just listen to her old music, and cease the hope. But who knows? I could eat my words in a few years. Let’s hope that happens before we have to actually eat the rich.
FEATURED IMAGE: Via Twitter | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A paparazzi shot of Rihanna in a vibrant orange outfit (turtleneck and nylon-looking jacket) with several silver chain necklaces (some with crosses on them); Rihanna’s earrings are shiny hoops, and she dons a full face of makeup while her hair is straight and long; she is facing the camera but looking away from it
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