Pop-star Rihanna’s new single “Man Down,” is making waves and opening up conversations about depictions of sexual assault.
The video starts off with a young woman (played/represented by Rihanna) shooting a man in the back of the head in a crowded street. After this scene, we are taken back to “Yesterday Morning,” and the song begins. The scenes alternate between the young woman going about her business (playing with children, visiting with vendors) and singing the song (from a hazy bedroom, a blue-tinted coast, and darker, red interior). Later in the video, the woman is dancing with the man from the opening shot at a club. While they are into each other at first, she eventually rejects his advances by pushing him (non-violently) away from her and leaving the club alone. He follows her and grabs hold of her as she fights back. But he pins her against the wall and we see her, looking very scared, shrink slowly under him. We see her thrown to the ground crying and the man walking away. At the very end of the video the young woman runs home and gets a gun from her dresser. While the lyrics of the song talk only of retaliation (not motivation), from viewing the video, including an an alternate version featuring Eve (“Never put his hands on me again man life gone”), and reading the Internet, natch, it’s clear “Man Down” about a woman killing her abuser. Rihanna’s no stranger to public scrutiny of her music and image. People are ready and willing to say what she should and shouldn’t do given her very personal (made all-too public) experience with intimate partner violence. “Man Down” is no exception. A rep from Parents Television Council said, “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.” Someone from Industry Ears dared to say “If Chris Brown shot a woman in his new video and BET premiered it, the world would stop…The video is far from broadcast worthy.” (Both see the woman’s violence in the song as the main issue, not the man’s). Of course, artists like Eminem, Guns’n’Roses, and Odd Future—to name just a few male performers who have deeply troubling and violent music—don’t get nearly the amount of criticism (especially in regards to violence against women), which reinforces a kind of insidious (and dangerous) form of “boys will be boys” in the music industry. And as karnythia at Esoterica wrote, white women who have also sung about exacting revenge on their abusers were not met with the same pushback as Rihanna. Crunktastic at the Crunk Feminist Collective connected the controversy around the video to how the stories of black women are more often than not unjustly disregarded when it comes to sexual violence:
Whether it be Rihanna’s teenaged fans, immigrants working as hotel maids all over this country, eleven year old Latina girls in Texas, or the Black girl next door to you, women of color are deemed deviant even for voicing our narratives of rape and sexual assault, especially when our stories insinuate that we are morally complex human beings. That is unfortunate, dangerous, and frankly infuriating.
(Commenters at CFC also have pointed out [Parents Television Council are you listening?] that women often do not take issues of abuse to the police for good reason, and that women are far more penalized for their self-defense by the criminal justice system than men are for their abuse.) The video itself has also been criticized for its depiction of Caribbean life. CODE RED showcased multiple reactions to the video, including the following from Tanya:
Rihanna is cashing in on the cultural capital of dancehall—the rough, edgy ‘cool’ of dancehall—of course without any of the experiences of being part of Jamaica’s underclass. (And she is by no means the first. Global capital has been cashing in on brand Jamaica and brand Caribbean for quite some time). In part, this perhaps represents the contradiction of how black popular culture is consumed, packaged and sold while many black people are considered expendable bodies…The images in the video are indeed nativizing and stereotypical…we’ve seen them before in other Caribbean artists’ portrayal of the region. It is perhaps the music video version of the Caribbean picturesque updated to include sexual violence.
As Isaac Miller recently wrote on Racialicious, it’s important to contextualize how Western media-makers use the Global South. I think it’s worth mentioning that the director of “Man Down” is Anthony Mandler (who appears to be white, but I do not know how he identifies), who has collaborated with Rihanna many times, and who also shot Drake’s video “Find Your Love” in Jamaica. Blackamazon shared her thoughts on the video, touching on how Rihanna defies the assumptions of media consumers in the video:
[…] this is a young woman of a specific location emphasizing agency and personhood (in admittedly violent ways) in a locus where she should have NONE. […] She’s a West Indian Woman who is being vulnerable , not speaking for the entire Caricom entity, and airing the dirty laundry. She’s also loving however metaphorically a place most people see as their hedonistic playgrounds. She’s a celebrity who casts her self as neither hero or villain but as person. Things she is not supposed to do around identities that are supposed to be agreed on as worthless or cartoonish or for public consumption first and foremost.
Rihanna herself told BET quite clearly that the video and song are meant to open up discussions about sexual assault and abuse, viewing it as “art with a message”:
We decided to hone in on a very serious matter that people are afraid to address, especially if you’ve been victimized in this scenario. Rape is, unfortunately, happening all over the world and in our own homes and we continue to cover it up and pretend it doesn’t happen. Boys and girls feel compelled to be embarrassed about it, and they hide it from everyone, including their teachers, their parents and their friends. That only continues to empower the abusers.
What are your thoughts on the video? And don’t forget to check out the following: “Rape Culture & Racism” [Esoterica] “Man Down: On Rihanna, Rape, and Violence” [Crunk Feminist Collective] “Man Down: Biting Brand Jamaica” [CODE RED] “I think I know what’s the ‘problem’ with Man Down” [Blackamazon]