Shifting the Conversation Over Rihanna’s “Man Down” Video

Published on The Daily Femme – Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Contributed by Annamarya

When I first watched Rihanna’s video for her latest single, “Man Down,” I cried. I cried so intensely because, in its depiction of an implied rape, Rihanna’s eyes seemed to bewail an abdicated pain–an impression of distressing desertion sexual assault survivors often experience after their attack. I wanted to reach out and help, to do something. To ease the pain.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, this verity, as well as the song’s message, was ignored when Parents Television Council decided to criticize and condemn the video for its portrayal of retaliating violence. In the video, Rihanna makes the choice to gun down her attacker in a crowded train station while she sings of remorse and the devastating aftermath of being raped: “‘Cause I didn’t mean to hurt him / Could’ve been somebody’s son / And I took his heart when / I pulled out that gun…Look, I never thought I’d do it…What ever happened to me“. In its statement, PTC said the video is among “several frequently played on Viacom music video networks that lyrically or graphically glorifies violence and other behavior inappropriate for teens and youth,” and that “instead of telling victims they should seek help, Rihanna released a music video that gives retaliation in the form of premeditated murder the imprimatur of acceptability.” And, in an almost duplicated response, former voice of BET and co-founder of watchdog group Industry Ears, Paul Porter, said it’s “an inexcusable, shock-only, shoot-and-kill theme song. In my 30 years of viewing BET, I have never witnessed such a cold, calculated execution of murder in primetime.” Other critics are chide her for her influence over young girls, claiming that “she is in a unique position to use her starpower to expand the conversation with media mindfulness or at least ‘do no further harm’.”

The hard truth is, critics are missing the point. They see the violence but not the context. They see the residuum and not the motivation–the agent. She is not glorifying violence, nor indicating that it’s a congruous response to being raped. What she is doing is focusing attention on the actuality of rape and the grievous consequences which follow. As Rihanna tweeted in defense of her video: “I’m just a girl, I can only be your/our voice…Cuz we all know how difficult/embarrassing it is to communicate touchy subject matters to anyone especially our parents!… And this is why! Cuz we turn the other cheek! U can’t hide your kids from society, or they’ll never learn how to adapt! This is the REAL WORLD!” If Rihanna faulted anywhere, it’s that she did not include a public service announcement before or after the video, but that is something that could–and should for the benefit of proper expression–be amended.

But there are two important points I want to make concerning this controversy:

1. With regards to Porter: The entire Law & Order franchise, the entire CSI franchise, NCIS & NCIS: Los Angeles, Criminal Minds, The Killing, Numb3rs…These shows depict a “cold, calculated execution of murder” each and every episode. How is their artistic expression so dramatically different from Rihanna’s that you’d disregard their brutal delineations? (Short answer: They’re not).

2. This is how the conversation needs to shift in regards to the video: If revenge is the only solace a victim feels they can find in the torment they experience daily, then how have we failed them? Where are we lacking in providing victims the resources and support to heal? How ignorant are we of the struggles and anguish victims experience? Where does the law fall short in ensuring justice and safety for the victim, and how can we reform it? And, with that, do we imprudently believe the law is always 100 percent on the victim’s side, or that it is always 100 percent effective in seeking justice? After all, as we’ve written many times before at The Daily Femme, we often see the victim losing out, with the attacker receiving the minimum sentence or no sentence at all (when you factor in unreported rapes, only 6 percent of rapists will see prison time according to Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network). Furthermore, the victim becomes the target of damaging re-victimization, whether covert or overt. Why are we not inciting dialogue about rape culture? Why, even with an implied rape, are we still victimizing the victim?

We cannot ignore the reality of Rihanna’s “Man Down.” There’s a terrifyingly real history of victims freeing themselves of abuse and torture by enacting violent revenge because they were failed by the justice system. Actress Gabrielle Union, in defense of Rihanna’s video, admitted that she, too, tried to shoot her rapist but missed, saying “every victim/survivor of rape is unique, including how they think they’d like justice to be handed out…The Desire to kill someone who abused/raped you is understandable, but unless it’s self defense in the moment to save your life, (it) just adds to your troubles.” Spewing such hateful, victim-blaming words as this one commenting at Clutch magazine did only shows how deeply we’ve failed to sympathize with and help victims, and does not allow much room for affirmative and efficacious healing. Instead, it fuels the feelings of abandonment, loss, anger, shame, self-blame and other post-trama emotions relative to grief, and is the primary reason most rape survivors do not report their attack. What we should do is provide the never-ending constructive and compassionate support they need in order to rise above their trauma. And we are clearly failing at that as a society. “Man Down,” and the response to it, should be the evidence of that.

Huffington Post: Rihanna Fires Back At ‘Man Down’ Video Critics, Parent’s Television Council, BET

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