“Ain’t I a Woman?” – Rihanna’s Challenge to the Patriarchy

Disclaimer: This article was written from and for a femme-presenting perspective.


Diversity, inclusivity. These terms have been discussed countless times in the last half-century or so, with various degrees of success. More recently, the beauty industry has incorporated these values in their marketing campaigns. Nevertheless, the diversity and inclusivity of campaigns rarely spilled-over in the core of the product, leaving it a mere publicity stunt. 

In this post I would like to discuss the importance of Rihanna’s launch of her beauty and lingerie lines (Fenty Beauty and Savage X Fenty), which must be understood in terms of a critique of Western standards of beauty and its overarching patriarchal structure.

These two product lines are particularly relevant as an example of products that embody diversity and inclusivity, from the development process to the marketing campaign. For this specific purpose, the analysis will be structured within a feminist framework, exploring ideas of both Second and Third Wave feminism.

The Feminist Framework

By definition, ideas of what is beautiful are always developed around a dominant cultural ideology. As such, the standard of beauty for the female body has historically developed in order to reflect cultural dominance at a certain point in time. This standard of beauty is usually exercised through two modes: the shape of the body, and its skin colour.

In regards to shape, there is considerable historical variation over the ‘preferred’ shape for the female body. However, it is clear that by the turn of the 20th century, in order to be considered beautiful, a female body had to adhere to impossible standards of slimness, reaching an almost childlike figure, characterised by a silhouette that differs greatly from the reality of women’s body (Bartky, 1990, p. 66). Thus, women’s body are policed into partaking established practices of performance of beauty and femininity: from shaping their silhouettes through dieting or exercising, to gathering specific knowledge of skincare and makeup routines. As such, ideals of beauty enforce on women disciplinary practices that create what Foucault called ‘docile bodies’ (Foucault, 1977, pp. 135-138).

Sandra Lee Bartky takes Foucault’s idea and refers it specifically to the modern oppression of women in the creation of a gendered docile body. In her critique, she brings forward Foucault’s idea of the pervasiveness of modern forms of power, declaring that the ancient use of force is replaced by intrusive psychological control that operates similar to Bentham’s Panopticon: fearing of being observed, women start policing themselves by regulating body size, appetite, etc. in an attempt to adhere to feminine practices (Bartky, 1990, pp. 78-79). Furthermore, Bartky considers the way in which the involvement of visual media has expanded the ‘discipline of beauty’ to all social classes (Bartky, 1990, p. 80).

When discussing the reason for women to submit themselves to this imposed definition of femininity, Bartky rejects previous explanations of women being in a state of ‘false consciousness’. Women do not submit to patriarchal prescription of beauties because they are lead to believe that it is the best for them, but because their subjectivity is defined by the structure itself. If women did not conform to said standards, they would be punished by society. As a result, women are reluctant to part with the rewards of compliance and keep the desire to be perceived as a sexually desirable object (Bartky, 1990, pp. 76-77).

Furthermore, in her critique of the patriarchy, Simone de Beauvoir defined an ulterior variable to this complex relationship: women are reluctant to stop adhering to patriarchal standards of femininity because they find themselves in a dependent relationship of master and slave with men. This relationship is characterised by material and economic protection provided by the male, so that, according to de Beauvoir, women would be free of the material/economic risk (Beauvoir, 2015, pp. 6-8).

While these feminist critiques still retain a certain degree of relevance, it could be argued that women nowadays possess a high degree of economic independence that should grant them emancipation from feminine discipline of the body. However, this is largely not the case. A possible explanation provided by Angela McRobbie is that with the rise of neo-liberal feminism, a ‘sexual contract’ was established between women and the state: the feminist critique was substituted by the government – which granted women support, while women on the other hand rejected ideas of hegemonic masculinity and retained a double-role of being active in the workplace while still being the primary caretakers at home (McRobbie, 2007, p. 729).

It is worth noting that the aforementioned examples are mainly representative of white feminist, and while aspects of said critiques are relevant for all women’s experiences, the intersectional movement within feminism must also be introduced for this analysis. Intersectionality was born from the efforts to include the experiences of black women into the spotlight. As such, the movement drew attention to black women’s multidimensionality, and thus the interaction of race and gender as a ‘double’ mean of oppression for this historically marginalised and overlooked group (Crenshaw, 1989).

Case Study: Fenty Beauty & Savage x Fenty

On September 2017, Rihanna launched her makeup line Fenty Beauty (Rihanna, 2017). She received an immediate overwhelmingly positive response, with products being sold out in a matter of hours, and a nomination for TIME Magazine as one of the ‘25 Best Inventions of 2017’ (TIME, 2017). The TIME’s nomination in particular is a reflection of the truly innovative nature of Fenty Beauty: the brand lived up to its motto of ‘beauty for all’, presenting forty different shades of foundation and other inclusive products, advertised by racially and ethnically diverse models. Diversity is the key to the innovation and revolution brought forward by Fenty Beauty. A similar stand was taken by Rihanna in the release of her lingerie line Savage X Fenty. The branding is in fact particularly body inclusive, presenting models of different body types and shapes, without editing body features like stretch marks (Savage X, 2018). In a similar fashion to Fenty Beauty, the products of Savage X have an innovative and inclusive connotation, in so far as it is a type of lingerie that caters for different body types and tastes. Even the fashion show of the mark launch was implemented with a focus on inclusivity and women’s experiences: for instance, it presented women of different ethnical backgrounds and body types, including pregnant women – challenging the stigma around women’s sexuality (Kurutz, 2018).

Case Study 1: Fenty Beauty

The aforementioned feminist critique shall provide the larger framework within which to discuss the political relevance of Rihanna’s launch of her beauty and lingerie lines. As such, three main aspects will henceforth be analysed: racial diversity, body inclusivity, and centrality of women’s needs and experiences.

Firstly, racial and ethnical diversity shall be considered. In order to do so, the first product that shall be taken into consideration is the Fenty Beauty foundation, ‘Pro Filt’R’ (Fenty Beauty, 2017). Historically, beauty has been defined around the ideal of white or pale skin. This is particularly evident when considering the evolution of foundation, a form of makeup used to provide a uniform, even colour to the complexion – and thus required, to be effective, a similar shade to one’s complexion.

While different techniques of foundation have been used since ancient times, the original formula of the one used today was invented by German actor Charles Baudin, who created a flesh (white) coloured paste by mixing lard with zinc white, yellow ochre and vermilion (Marsh, 2014, p. 37). Baudin’s remained the standardised formula in theatrical makeup, until 1937 when Max Factor created ‘Pan-Cake’. With the development of Technicolor, movie actors and actresses needed a new form of foundation that could resist the sharp lighting of the new technique, and thus Pan-Cake was invented. A foundation and powder at once, Pan-Cake had corrective and lasting capabilities that made it a revolutionary product. As such, it was also the first commercially available foundation: after its release, sixty-five competitors tried to profit from the new trend, yet Pan-Cake’s sales were greater than the sixty-five combined (Basten, 2012).

However revolutionary as a product in its own right (as clear from the advertisement in Figure 1), Pan-Cake foundation catered for the needs of a very specific demographic, namely white women, for a very specific purpose of enhancing women’s body to attract men. Therefore, what the product implies is that the only women who need to be beautiful (and hence, need makeup) are white middle class women. Furthermore, a product that was thought of for both men and women (as both were actors), was now marketed to larger audience as solely for the needs of women. This implies that their body is the only one that should be subject to a specific routine of enhancement as it is supposedly the only body that is not ‘enough’ in every-day life. Such a trend has, unfortunately, been carried forward into modern day society.

It appears clear that, in this context, Rihanna’s makeup line was completely revolutionary. The brand launched with forty shades of ‘Pro Filt’R’ foundation, which it later expanded to fifty (Fenty Beauty, 2017). As shown in Figure 2, Rihanna built her product to cater for the needs of virtually all women, by representing shades from the opposite ends of the spectrum – as such, it is the most inclusive line of foundation as of April 2019.

It could be argued that a few other competing makeup brands already had also a range of forty shades at the time of Fenty’s release. However, none of them presented such a vast range of shades. A clear example of this is the case of Make Up For Ever. Following Fenty Beauty’s debut, and its overwhelmingly positive response, Make Up For Ever, posted on Instagram (the picture in Figure 3), pointing out precisely that what Fenty was being praised for, was something that they had been doing since 2015. Despite Make Up For Ever’s foundation being quantitative the same as Fenty, its qualitative coverage is not.

Comparatively, Fenty Beauty covers a larger range of skin tones, particularly the lighter and darker sides of the spectrum (Li, 2018). Rihanna, in fact, admitted that she started this project with the desire to cater for all the skin tones, but specifically those who were underrepresented like albinos and women of colour. Specifically women of colour often resort to mixing different products together in order to achieve a satisfactory level of evenness, as their preferred shade is usually not readily available for purchase in stores (Caisey, et al., 2006, p. 435).

In an interview for TIME Magazine, Rihanna said that the most surprising aspect of the release of Fenty Beauty was the “emotional connection” women had with the brand, particularly citing the case of women who became emotional as they were purchasing for the first time a shade of foundation that suited their complexion (Lang, 2017). As such, Fenty Beauty answered the growing demand that was expressed by the movement #NotMyNude, calling for a re-definition of what companies both in the fashion and beauty industry defined as ‘nude’ (Turner, 2015). Furthermore, when considering following trends in the industry, it appears that Fenty Beauty’s release of forty shades of foundation has created a ‘benchmark of inclusivity’ for makeup brands, with ‘Fenty Forty’ as the golden number (Rodulfo, 2018).

It is also worth noting that Fenty Beauty is both inclusive in terms of shade range, and accessible when it comes to price. As a brand that markets itself between low and high-end products, Fenty Beauty offers quality within a non-prohibiting price range, proving itself once more socially aware of the necessity of women at all levels (Morris, 2017).

Case Study 2: Savage X Fenty

Another aspect that is worth noting is how Rihanna used inclusivity also when selecting models for both her Fenty Beauty and Savage X Fenty campaigns: specifically, racially and ethnically diverse models, with different body types. The Fenty Beauty campaign, in fact, featured several women of colour, a model with a hijab, Asian and East Asian models, and so on. (Simmons, 2017). Meanwhile the Savage X Fenty website presented a similar level of diversity, whilst also doing something almost unprecedented in the lingerie industry.

  1. The line caters for all women by providing a large range of sizes.
  2. The models’ bodies featured on the website are not heavily edited.

Therefore, the brand’s marketing was built with the desire of providing an accurate and realistic representation of women. This was achieved by showing, for example, women with cellulitis or stretch marks. This simultaneously affirmed that beauty comes in all sizes and shapes (Anderson, 2018). This type of representation is particularly important for women as it increases self-esteem and creates relatable and positive role models (Dovi, 2002, p. 730).

In both campaigns of Fenty Beauty and Savage X, it is worth noting that there is an effort to affirm the centrality of women’s experiences. In the case of Fenty Beauty, for example, shades match a vast array of skin tones, but, in addition, all products were studied to cater for warm or cold undertones. This is apparent in the quiz, the ‘Fenty Face Shade Finder’, provided on the website to select the user’s shade of foundation (Fenty Beauty, 2017). The Shade Finder, in fact, consists of a series of questions centred on singling out the user’s ideal foundation by asking first to identify the closest skin tone from a selection of models, the preferred tone of jewellery, the way the skin of the user reacts to the sun, the colour of the veins on the user’s wrists, etc. As such, it is clear how Fenty Beauty has structured its branding around a makeup experience with the precise aim of inclusivity, and to cater for real women’s needs.

A similar focus can be found in the marketing of Savage X Fenty, and in particular its launch party. The benchmark, and arguably one of the most famous lingerie fashion shows, is the one by Victoria’s Secret (Victoria’s Secret, 2018). This high-budget annual runway show is characterised by displaying the same body type, and being, historically, white prevalent. For the 2018 edition of the fashion show, only sixteen out of the sixty-six models casted were women of colour or racially diverse (Matera, 2018).

The launch of Savage X Fenty presented the brand as a polar opposite of the Victoria’s Secret show. Held during the 2018 New York Fashion Week, Rihanna played with an innovative concept for the launch of her lingerie line: an ‘immersive experience’ (Yotka, 2018). As such, Rihanna’s fashion show was not thought as a static experience where the guests look at hyper-sexualized models walking down the runway; instead, the guests had to walk around in order to see the different designs. Therefore, the focus of the show was not solely on the models’ bodies, but the women themselves: the models in Savage X Fenty’s show were performing and dancing. Furthermore, the show was a celebration of all types of women, with different body types, shapes, and ethnicities.

Rihanna disrupted a mono-thematic conceptualisation of lingerie for the pleasure of others and re-focused the experience on women, by putting up a show that celebrated womanhood in all its forms. The show included women of colour, women of Asian descent, plus size and curvy models, and even a visibly pregnant model. Thus, with this show, Rihanna tried to push back against the stigmatisation of women’s sexuality and providing a platform for its celebration (Ogunnaike, 2018). Similarly to the Fenty Beauty campaign, the fashion show had a significant impact because the models employed were a good representation of the reality of women’s body.


Ultimately, this post has attempted to argue that, through her makeup and lingerie lines, Rihanna has established and invigorated a trend to challenge Western standards in the beauty industry. Such a position is in favour of re-centring it around the experiences and needs of all women.

This was achieved in three stages.

  1. A theoretical framework for the contextualisation of the experience of women representation in the beauty industry was provided. In this section, ideas from Second and Third Wave feminism were brought forward, particularly the exercise of femininity as an imposed practice, the master-slave dialectical relationship between men and women, and the importance of inclusivity.
  2. Rihanna’s lines were introduced by highlighting their place in their respective industries. This section was therefore characterised by the consideration of the brands’ racial and ethnic diversity, body inclusivity, and focus on women’s demand.
  3. The responses to the launch of Fenty Beauty and Savage X Fenty were highlighted to analyse the way in which they responded to an already existing call for inclusivity. In these sections, comparisons with industry competitors were brought forward. In the case of Fenty Beauty, the comparison has shown how the brand followed an already existing trend for inclusivity – however, it re-shaping its discourse. The comparison with Savage X Fenty, on the other hand, demonstrated how the brand challenged the industry’s ideas of standardised beauty and the objectification of women.

In conclusion, this article has demonstrated how the introduction of Rihanna’s cosmetic and lingerie brands challenged the normalised discourse in their respective industries, and particularly ideas of inclusivity, femininity, and agency.


Anderson, M., 2018. Rihanna’s lingerie ad celebrates ‘rolls’ and ‘stretch marks’. [Online]
Available at: https://www.revelist.com/body-positive/rihanna-lingerie-ad/12606
[Accessed 7 April 2019].

Bartky, S. L., 1990. Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power. In: Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. s.l.:Routledge, pp. 63-82.

Basten, F. E., 2012. Hollywood. In: Max Factor: The Man Who Changed the Faces of the World. New York: Skyhorse Publishing Inc., p. 184.

Beauvoir, S. d., 2015. The Second Sex. London: Penguin Random House.

Caisey, L. et al., 2006. Skin color and makeup strategies of women from different ethnic groups. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, Issue 28, p. 427–437.

Cambridge Dictionary , 2019. Definition of Foundation. [Online]
Available at: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/foundation
[Accessed 7 April 2019].

Crenshaw, K., 1989. Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. The University of Chicago Legal Forum, pp. 139-167.

Dovi, S., 2002. Preferable Descriptive Representatives: Will Just Any Woman, Black, or Latino Do?. American Political Science Review, December, 96(4), pp. 729-743.

Fenty Beauty, 2017. Pro Filt’R. [Online]
Available at: https://www.fentybeauty.com/pro-filtr/soft-matte-longwear-foundation/FB30006.html?dwvar_FB30006_color=FB0340
[Accessed 7 April 2019].

Foucault, M., 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, division of Random House .

Kurutz, S., 2018. Rihanna Talks Lingerie, Body Positivity and Her ‘Battle’ With Social Media. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/13/fashion/rihanna-fenty-savage-new-york-fashion-week.html
[Accessed 7 April 2019].

Lang, C., 2017. Rihanna on Building a Beauty Empire: ‘I’m Going To Push the Boundaries in This Industry’. [Online]
Available at: http://time.com/5026366/rihanna-fenty-beauty-best-inventions-2017/
[Accessed 7 April 2019].

Li, J., 2018. How inclusive are beauty brands around the world?. [Online]
Available at: https://pudding.cool/2018/06/makeup-shades/
[Accessed 7 April 2019].

Make Up For Ever , 2017. Make Up For Ever Official Instagram. [Online]
Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/BZegQavhi5e/?taken-by=makeupforeverofficial
[Accessed 7 April 2019].

Marsh, M., 2014. Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day. London: Casemate Publishers.

Matera, A., 2018. Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show 2018: Every Black Model Walking This Year. [Online]
Available at: https://www.teenvogue.com/gallery/victorias-secret-fashion-show-black-models
[Accessed 7 April 2019].

McRobbie, A., 2007. Top Girls?. Cultural Studies, 18 June, 21(4-5), pp. 718-737.

Morris, K., 2017. How Fenty Beauty Is Leading the Inclusion Conversation for Black Women. [Online]
Available at: https://www.okayafrica.com/rihanna-fenty-beauty-leading-inclusion-conversation-black-women/
[Accessed 7 April 2019].

Ogunnaike, N., 2018. Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty Show Highlights Diversity Without Feeling Desperate. [Online]
Available at: https://www.elle.com/runway/g23062788/rihannas-savage-x-fenty-show-2019/?slide=1
[Accessed 7 April 2019].

Rihanna, 2017. Instagram. [Online]
Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/BXQxruKjG6-/?utm_source=ig_embed
[Accessed 7 April 2019].

Rodulfo, K., 2018. For New Foundation Ranges, “Fenty 40” Is the Magic Number. [Online]
Available at: https://www.elle.com/beauty/makeup-skin-care/a20967710/makeup-companies-40-foundation-shades-fenty-beauty-influence/
[Accessed 7 April 2019].

Savage X, 2018. About. [Online]
Available at: https://www.savagex.com/aboutus
[Accessed 7 April 2019].

Simmons, S., 2017. Who Are The Models In The Fenty Beauty Video? The Internet Is Obsessed With The Campaign’s Diverse Stars. [Online]
Available at: https://www.bustle.com/p/who-are-the-models-in-the-fenty-beauty-video-the-internet-is-obsessed-with-the-campaigns-diverse-stars-80510
[Accessed 7 April 2018].

TIME, 2017. The 25 Best Inventions of 2017. [Online]
Available at: http://time.com/5023212/best-inventions-of-2017/
[Accessed 7 April 2019].

Turner, L., 2015. Afropunk’s ‘Not My Nude’ Campaign Proves That There’s A Problem With The Makeup Industry’s Definition Of Nude. [Online]
Available at: https://www.bustle.com/articles/97877-afropunks-not-my-nude-campaign-proves-that-theres-a-problem-with-the-makeup-industrys-definition-of
[Accessed 7 April 2019].

Vistoria’s Secret, 2018. Fashion Show. [Online]
Available at: https://ww.victoriassecret.com/fashion-show?
[Accessed 7 April 2019].

Yotka, S., 2018. At Savage x Fenty’s Runway Show, All Women Are Goddesses. [Online]
Available at: https://www.vogue.com/article/savage-x-fenty-runway-show-rihanna
[Accessed 7 April 2019].

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s