RetroPop: On the Manhunt with Rihanna's “Where Have You Been?” and Agatha Christie's Miss Marple

Rihanna with Agatha Christie

Hi there everyone and welcome to another installment of RetroPop, the guest blog in which I provide mashups of thematically similar female-performed Billboard charting radio tunes and great feminist works from the past and say, “WOW, you’re both making some nifty and sorta related social commentaries! How about that?!”

Today I’d like to spread my arms in a big bear-hug embrace for two of my favorite artist ladies hot on the manhunt (different kinds) and ask another question: “WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE?!”

In my right arm, I’ll be cuddling the provocative and prolific Rihanna with her song “Where Have You Been” video below, lyrics here.

In my left arm, I’ll give a little snuggle to the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, and her countryside whodunit, Murder at the Vicarage. You can watch a few versions of TV adaptations of the story on YouTube, or check out the synopsis here. There is also the option of reading the book, which you could surely do very quickly if you, like me, are compelled by murder and English gardens and tea-times full of suspicion.

Now, neither of these women is widely regarded as an explicitly feminist figure. Rihanna’s reputation is mired in provocative musical moves (“S&M,” her “Love The Way You Lie” duet with Eminem, etc.) and scandalous events in her personal life (Chris Brown’s abuse and her subsequent reactions to it, including the most recent Oprah tell-all) with all sorts of gender- and sex-related assumptions and expectations heaped on every side. Christie, meanwhile, is widely considered to have been an unforgiving xenophobe (a Chally Kacelnik post here on the Bitch blog called Christie’s novel, The Orient Express a “racism fest”) and propagator of various types of hate-related attitudes, including those regarding gender.

Miss MarpleHowever, some recent criticism has begun to explore the proto-feminist tendencies in Christie’s work, and I’d have to agree that, while lacking a clear feminist agenda, her stories often subvert patriarchal structures, and her characters live in a world of “unconscious, intuitive” feminism. Miss Marple, the elderly maid with a brilliant mind for solving mysteries, is one of the most enduring female figures in the mystery genre, with a reputation made on subverting expectations of the police and other patriarchal figures who dismiss her as a little old lady.

As for Rihanna, girlfriend certainly knows how to drop singles that inspire controversy. Bur regardless of her political intentions, her work has certainly led to some interesting conversations about weighty issues including sexual liberation, healthy sexual communication, and the complicated emotions behind domestic violence, to name a few. With them, she’s engaged listeners in a dialogue about feminist issues, even if her songs aren’t explicitly feminist.

I wouldn’t say the same for her latest chart-topper, “Where Have you Been All My Life.” Sure, it’s got a funky, dirty kind of groove, but the verses are very non-specific and repeat the same phrase over and over; no real story unfolds. She’s just running around looking for this person with passionate abandon.

That’s fine with me. Sometimes nonsense (or little-sense) lyrics are just great to shout out in a dance song. RiRi’s latest hit might lack poetic prowess, but it reminds me of another lady who knew a lot about searching for the right person. Yep, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.

In Murder At The Vicarage, in a very typical Marple criminal conundrum, there is a group of eccentric characters in the town who all had one motivation or another to kill a certain Colonel Protheroe.

What’s especially cool about Miss Marple’s manhunt, which differs from the Rihanna song’s speaker’s extremely active approach, is that it’s so calm. Marple’s MO in general is to quietly watch and wait, letting all the bumbling detectives make rushed accusations while she takes the time to put together the story of the crime by herself. In Murder at the Vicarage she’s even more chilled than usual, having severely injured her ankle (in a suspicious swipe from a car), thus having to sit at home and piece things together through peeks through the garden and bits of conversations. While normally Marple would closely follow the activities of the police force, this time she has to turn her thinker and her intuition signals way up. It really is a feat of puzzling, and perhaps an argument from Christie for the power of “women’s intuition.”

RihannaHere’s what Marple has to say about it: “You’re laughing, my dear,” said Miss Marple, “but after all, that is a very sound way of arriving at the truth. It’s really what people call intuition and make such a fuss about. Intuition is like reading a word without having to spell it out. A child can’t do that because it has had so little experience. A grown-up person knows the word because they’ve seen it often before. You catch my meaning, vicar?”

This treatment of intuition as a key to Marple’s power, I believe, hints at the proto-feminism for which Christie’s oeuvre is now being considered. And Marple’s reliance on quiet, watchful analysis is something the poor subject of Rihanna’s tune might benefit from if she doesn’t want to run herself ragged. She could end up with an injured ankle or something! But, then again, I know a certain old lady who would be more than happy to keep her company and make a nice cuppa.

Previously: RetroPop: Getting Dumped with Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift; RetroPop: Is Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” a riff on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?

by Brianna Goldberg
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