Some of you will already have seen on Rogue Classicism that the current edition of GQ features a portfolio of shots taken by Damien Hurst of Rihanna… as Medusa. I saw these photos and thought ‘well, that’s interesting’, but what with my whole Medusa and monsters and space thing, those thoughts just sort of kept going, and here I am, writing a blog post on Rihanna in GQ. Which, somewhat embarrassingly, I keep on mis-typing as CQ, and I can only hope that the editors of that august journal would be amused rather than offended. I’m putting a copy of the front cover picture below the cut to make this vaguely SFW, but if you’ve found this post with the predictable search terms – prepare yourself for a bit of cultural analysis to go along with your mildly salacious picture.
So, here’s the picture. You can see it, in bigger form, along with some other images from the photoshoot at the GQ website.
Oh, where to begin.
Let’s start with the really obvious stuff, which is to observe that this is a clear, slightly tired development of the Beautiful Medusa theme. You know the sort of thing – Caravaggio’s Medusa is usually cited at this point to illustrate a long artistic tradition of portraying Medusa as a woman who just happens to have snakes for hair, picking up on the mythic tradition that she was stunningly beautiful before her transformation. (Ray Harryhausen deliberately kicked against this tradition in Clash of the Titans, bless him.) In turn, the Beautiful Medusa plays into the trope of the monstrous feminine, representing woman as a monster who must be overcome or conquered, as Medusa will eventually be beheaded by Perseus, and who is made in some ways monstrous by the very fact of her actualized sexuality. In Medusa’s case, what this means is that she becomes a monster because she is raped by Poseidon; her execution ensures that the virginal Andromeda can be rescued, and she is thus safely written back into the narrative of heterosexual marriage as a conquered threat rather than an active alternative. (I’ve written quite a bit about this both in the forthcoming Harryhausen article and the Barbies conference talk if you want a bit more detail.) One of the photos on the GQ site shows a full body shot of Rihanna wearing a wee silver sequined thong for modesty; I knew I was probably going to write this blog post when my first thought upon seeing this was “gosh, that looks a bit like a scallop shell placed over her pudenda; I wonder whether that’s a deliberate allusion to her rape by Poseidon.” Classicist problems.
Anyway, on this reading, the choice of Medusa to go on the front cover of GQ is a totally predictable choice from classical mythology – she’s a figure of feared sexual desire, representing ambiguous feelings about women and their sexuality which are part of GQ’s stock in trade as a magazine, fitting in nicely with all those things we generally think about lads’ mags, the objectification of women, the harmful effect these images have on society as a whole, etc etc etc. Rather than rehearse this here, if you’re not familiar with these sorts of arguments, go read the brief summary offered by Lose the Lads’ Mags and you should see how this cover fits into that whole sphere of… stuff. Job done.
But the more I thought about it, the more it niggled at me that there was more going on here. Let’s start with the other big thing that lads’ mags are often accused of, that is, presenting unrealistic images of the human body, thus training young men into expecting their female peers to possess pneumatic bosoms, a lack of pubic hair and no marks of aging, and creating parallel pressures on young women to conform to those false expectations. See, while I can see how this image could have been base-produced without using Photoshop (the big python is obviously real, the eyes can be done with contacts, the hair might conceivably have been done live), there is no way this came out of a camera looking like that. She’s got damn snakes on her head, for a start. It’s a picture that deliberately calls attention to its own artificiality. That’s not true of all of the photos in the sequence (one of the three sample images on the GQ site doesn’t feature the snake-hair), but the tone is set by the cover, which is unambiguous about the fact that this picture will have been mucked about with between being snapped and being printed. Which leads you to think about what else has been mucked about with besides Rihanna’s hair. (Given there’s not much else in the picture bar her body and the snakes, you can see where I’m going with this.)
This is where the thoughts I’ve been having about the monstrous and space come into play. By placing such an obviously artificial image on the front cover, Medusa-Rihanna stands as a marker of boundary-crossing. She signals the transition from the ‘normal’ world into the world of GQ, which ultimately contains fantasy and myth. This picture offers a commentary on the tales the magazine spins its readers – I can’t help but think the chance offered on the bottom left to ‘win the GQ life!’ only reinforces this. By opening the front cover, you step into the world of fairy tale, constructed to promise you dreams, but impossible without the helpful hand of the photoshop artist. Did GQ realise that they were putting a critique of their own product on their front cover? This is only reinforced by Medusa’s ambiguous relationship to sight; as you will recall, she turned men into stone by looking at them, which thus creates a dilemma when we look at her – are we about to be turned to stone at any moment? Her threat is both to potential readers of the magazine, who dare to look despite the risk, and to the magazine itself, whose artificiality is exposed by her presence.
This also raises interesting questions about how this image got produced in the first place. The credit goes to Damien Hurst as the photographer… but who was the photoshopper? Who else was involved in the production process? Did Hurst decide to go with this because he knew about the beautiful Medusa trope and figured it was worth a punt? Did Rihanna for some reason suggest it? Did a bright spark working in the GQ planning office who did classics as an undergraduate put the idea forward at a brainstorming session and watch his idea get picked up and run with? The question of why this image got to the front page and what the editorial team thought it was going to be doing (other than selling magazines, obviously) is probably not one we’ll get answered, even if the magazine features an interview with any of the participants. There are always more threads running into the tapestry and influencing the process than get revealed.
When I talked this out with G, he quite reasonably said that he wasn’t sure that the cover could hold up this amount of semantic weight. Maybe he’s right. Maybe it was a random decision predicated on somebody’s ability to get hold of a python at short notice. The fact that Rihanna’s Egyptian-influenced tattoo remains very much present suggests that there wasn’t an overwhelming wish to be totally Greek. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something interesting going on here, in the fact that Medusa turns up on the front cover. At the very least, it’s a brave choice for Rihanna, although she may not have realised it. For a woman whose identity as a victim of domestic violence has been widely publicised, debated and dissected in the celebrity gossip press, Medusa offers a quietly pointed opportunity to comment on what it is like to be defined and embodied in those terms.