Why we should take a deeper look at Rihanna’s ‘Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 3’

OPINION: If we consider that she has also been characterized as the “queen of philanthropy," we might conclude that RiRi is doing some good along with the bad

Rihanna thegrio.com
Rihanna attends the premiere of Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 3 presented by Amazon Prime Video at The Glasshouse on September 22, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Savage X Fenty )

Criticism notwithstanding, we shouldn’t sleep on the inclusivity, genre defiance and business savvy on display in Rihanna’s 2021 Savage X Fenty lingerie show. 

After Amazon Prime Video dropped Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 3 on Sept. 24, social media commentators were quick to take RiRi to task for styling two actresses, Vanessa Hudgens and Emily Ratajkowski, in Black braided hairstyles and for accompanying images of Ratajkowski with the lyrics “mad ethnic right now” (from Rihanna’s collaboration with N.E.R.D., on the song “Lemon”). 

It’s not the first time that Hudgens, who is of Filipina, Irish, French, and Native American descent, has been accused of wearing culturally insensitive hair styles. Ethnicity scholars might contest the notion that Ratajkowski, who is of Polish Jewish, English, Irish and German descent, should not be described as “ethnic” because it runs the risk of otherizing only people of color as members of ethnic groups. But the hair, make-up and lighting that coincided with these women’s appearances, which played up their olive complexions while adorning them with cornrows and slicked down baby hairs — can be interpreted as a subtle form of Blackface.

Vanessa Hudgens is seen during Rihanna's Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 3
Vanessa Hudgens is seen during Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 3 presented by Amazon Prime Video at The Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites in Los Angeles, California; and broadcast on September 24, 2021. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 3 Presented by Amazon Prime Video)

This lapse in judgement speaks to the minefield that Rihanna negotiates as she attempts to inject multiple industries with much-needed new definitions of beautiful, sexy, and fashionable. 

The trans actress and activist, Laverne Cox, who was featured in the very first Savage X Fenty Show, praised Rihanna for casting trans models once again in Vol. 3. Even though the dust has settled on both the clapbacks and the kudos, Rihanna’s accomplishment has perhaps still not been fully recognized. Savage X Fenty Show is a bold, genre-blurring artistic feat that mashes up fashion, music, and architecture.

The singer-turned-fashion tycoon resuscitates two vehicles that had long passed their heydays — the music video and the lingerie fashion show (this is a far cry from the televised Victoria’s Secret shows of yesterday) — seamlessly wedding runway fashion and music, staged within iconic architectural sites which play integral roles in the choreography rather than acting as mere backdrops. And all of this is done while infusing body positivity into both the fashion world and the music video realm, via a cadre of models, dancers and performers with diverse body types, and from multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds.

In contrast to the aesthetics of haute couture runways so long obsessed with stick-figure models and music videos reliant on a hip-hop body that has idealized impossibly tiny waists and voluptuous butts, the show’s models and dancers come in all stripes and shapes, including a model with prosthetic legs, a pregnant dancer, and a model with vitiligo — all strutting their stuff. 

Rihanna's Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 3 presented by Amazon Prime Video - Show & BTS
In this image released on September 23, a model is seen backstage during Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 3 presented by Amazon Prime Video at The Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. (Credit: Getty Images)

The recent charges of racial appropriation are, of course, not the first time that Rihanna has come under fire. In 2020 the singer/mogul apologized to the Muslim community after using sacred Islamic verses in a song played during the Savage X Fenty Show. More recently, RiRi held her ground when news about her having achieved billionaire status was met with criticism. Her reaction? An Instagram post of her in bed, sporting a hoodie, braids and sunglasses, while eating caviar, with a caption that read “How I woke up.”

This act of defiance highlights Rihanna’s astronomical rise, just as Savage X Fenty exposes the double-edged sword of her success: How can she earn billions by marketing her products to everyday people without undercutting the very inclusivity she aims to champion?

Rihanna's Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 3 presented by Amazon Prime Video - Show
In this image released on September 23, Sabrina Carpenter is seen during Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 3 presented by Amazon Prime Video at The Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. (Credit: Getty Images)

Savage X Fenty Vol. 3 lays bare Rihanna’s business strategy, one that had already earned her millions with Fenty Beauty — a cosmetics line that caters to women of all colors and hues. She has established herself as a designer who understands the fashion world enough to prominently feature Cindy Crawford, one of the most successful and recognizable super models.

But by casting Crawford to open a lingerie show at age 55, then juxtaposing old-school R&B, hip-hop and Latin music luminaries like Erykah Badu, Busta Rhymes, Nas and Ricky Martin, alongside more contemporary performers such as Normani, Jade Novah, and Bia, Rihanna eschews fashion and hip-hop conventions that place age limits on relevance, and simultaneously demonstrates that she has a finger on the pulse of current trends.

Appearing fleetingly in the show, Rihanna’s only solo shot is about 35 seconds in duration; the showrunner herself seems content to call the shots rather than bask in the limelight. But as the credits roll, she is there, soaking up applause within a circle of male dancers and models perched high atop the Los Angeles skyline. We get the message: Rihanna is a boss lady who thrives both on shining a light on underrepresented folks with whom we can all identify, and from revealing her mastery across industries. 

Rihanna's Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 3 presented by Amazon Prime Video - Show & BTS
In this image released on September 23, Erykah Badu is seen during Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 3 presented by Amazon Prime Video at The Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. (Credit: Getty Images)

All of this, while unapologetically underscoring that Savage X Fenty is for everyone, from young white ingenues with deep pockets, to people whose beauty and sex appeal has long been marginalized within fashion and popular representations. RiRi may well be eating caviar in bed while marketing make-up and sexy lingerie that suits every body.

And, if we consider that she has also been characterized as the “queen of philanthropy,” with global initiatives focused on healthcare and education in impoverished communities, we might conclude that @badgalriri is doing some good along with the bad. 


Oneka LaBennett

Oneka LaBennett is Associate Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. She has published books and articles on Black girlhood, hip hop, and race/gender formations. Her OpEds and public commentary have appeared in Ms. Magazine, Politico and  Black Perspectives.

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