B-Sides Open Thread: Rihanna's “Man Down”

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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]


by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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16 Comments Have Been Posted

i just saw this video for the

i just saw this video for the first time and haven't even finished reading the article but the video puts voice to how i'd like to do my rapists and abusers. i don't think i'd have any regrets though.


I feel almost guilty about this, but...I watched the video yesterday, and if I hadn't already read in multiple places that the video is about rape, I don't think I would have interpreted it that way. It didn't seem very clear that a rape happened. It looked closer to physical intimidation, maybe the beginning of a violent act...but then the guy left. So yes, Riahanna is scared and upset, which is very natural, but...blargh.

I'm usually not that good at interpreting art, anyway. Did anyone else interpret the video differently?

The problem is that the

The problem is that the videoclip doesn't present a rape or history of abuse beyond intimidation. Is there anything in the lyrics that I'm missing? I confess the song doesn't appeal to i just skimmed the video.

Compare it to Janie's got a gun, by Aerosmith. Same idea but much much clearer, and in my opinion a lot more intense. Still, perhaps this will communicate to women who are abused or possibly raped* that the best reaction is to grab your armaments and let loose, which we'll all agree is her god-given right as a Merican. Of course, bad luck if one of the bullets takes out some kid standing nearby.

*was that part censored? the clip is just not showing a provocation for that level of response. If we know that she was raped because we are told it outside the song and video, then it's a story told in a pathetically weak way.

the sexual assault is very

the sexual assault is very strongly implied. you're supposed to read it in between the moment when the man shoves rihanna against the wall with his hand over her mouth, and the following shot where she falls to the ground.

play the events out chronologically in your head with the assumption that nothing was omitted. the man follows rihanna out of the club just to push her against the wall, throw her to the ground, and then walk away? does that even make sense? why would she shoot him, then? because he pushed her? in what world would this happen?

watch the way he pulls at her outside the club; the way he covers her mouth. there are very strong sexual undertones running through this whole scene. especially in light of the scene before it, inside the club. if you look closely, the last thing we see before the omitted moments where the assault takes place is the man appearing to shush rihanna, running his lips dangerously close to her face. when she falls, she is crying, and her makeup is smeared. the action has slowed down at this moment; he no longer needs to be fast and rough, because rihanna is terrified enough now.

why would you even want to watch a video that included a graphic depiction of a sexual assault, anyway? even as-is, i am sure that the contents of man down were very triggering for many people. i for one was grateful that rihanna/anthony mandler chose to stop when they did; i didn't NEED to watch it happen, and to include a graphic sexual assault would be gratuitous and completley unnecessary. besides, don't we have enough eroticized sexual assault in our media already? you don't need to watch it to know it happened.

Still Confused

But that's the part where I get confused. No, I have no desire to watch a music video sexual assault either, but I honestly didn't catch it. I'm not trying to say that Rihanna *wasn't* singing about rape (she makes it pretty clear in the statement she made that she was) I'm just saying that I didn't get it. Does it make sense for Rihanna to shoot a guy cause he intimidated her? Of course not. But that's the point; to me, the video doesn't really make a lot of sense, specifically because I did not interpret the rape.

It doesn't seem like anyone else had that problem, though.

Wait a second....

<p>Hold on here. You use Eminem as evidence that men don't receive public scrutiny regarding violence against women? Are you living in a different world than the rest of us? Eminem received a <em>ton</em> of scrutiny over his violent words against his wife at the time, Kim. He was constantly scrutinized, criticized, and ostracized (and he should be, those were horrible words) for a <em>concept</em>&nbsp;album. It doesn't excuse it, but the Slim Shady LP was a character that Eminem created that was criticized up to the political level.&nbsp;<br><br>Men get it too, honey. And to use Eminem as an example just means that you really don't understand the music that you're deconstructing. Or even pay attention to the news. Maybe you just forgot. It was about 10 years ago....we can understand.</p>
<p>The fact is, neither person was right in this context. Rhianna's character for exacting the revenge-- OR the abuser. Both were in the wrong. Neither instance should have happened. Violence, in any way/gender/form is wrong. We should be focusing on <em>that</em>. Teach men not to rape instead of teaching women how to not get raped. The world would be a better place.&nbsp;</p>

your condescending tone is

your condescending tone is seriously not awesome.

men may very well receive critique for their vengeance narratives, but i think the OP's point is actually about the WAYS we punish and talk about women vs men over such things; as this part is absolutely not the same. the way we talk about violence in the public sphere is still very gendered.

also, the whole point of the video is that rihanna herself and the character she's created for this song don't actually believe that the revenge exacted was RIGHT. the whole song is about rihanna's character reacting to her own actions, feeling guilt, pain, confusion and regret over them. she's not trying to promote violence against abusers, she is trying to open up a dialogue about sexual assault and the ways in which we cope with it both publicly and privately. and i for one think that these are conversations that we would have done well having ages ago.

Different kinds of criticism

I think the author was trying to point out that the criticism that Rihanna has received has been a lot different. Not only is the violence she sings about connected to things like domestic violence or rape, but as a black woman she isn't supposed to be singing about this stuff in the first place. Plus, she isn't even presenting it as titillating or exciting. She's playing it all wrong, and that bothers people.

Something I noticed about the criticism of Eminem (and other rap artists with violent lyrics) is that while there was criticism, they also had a ton of support, especially from the hip-hop/rap communities. People expected Eminem and other men in the hip-hop community to include violent lyrics. But Rihanna starts singing about violence and all of a sudden...Hell, Rihanna's lyrics were regretful (as many people have pointed out.) Often, violent lyrics from male hip-hop artists aren't regretful so much as congratulatory or threatening. That's a huge difference.

Was the patronizing "honey" really necessary?

I'm not sure that

I'm not sure that pre-meditated murder isn't exactly what a rapist deserves. What I am sure about is how offended I am that the outrage is over this video and not the state of victim's rights. I invite any of the MTV people or whoever is upset about this video to come down here and try to be a rape victim in Mississippi or try to be a gay person who has been attacked here. If you still have room for outrage at a video then we'll move on to Africa until you get the picture.

I am totally with you, Jenni,

I am totally with you, Jenni, on your comment about victims' rights. I just want to clarify what you mean at the end, "If you still have room for outrage at a video then we'll move on to Africa until you get the picture." I don't want to assume what you intended but I'm not sure what you mean with that, and am curious.

Creating a Conversation

Rhianna and Anthony Miller demonstrate in this video the importance of creating a space for conversations about sexual assault and domestic violence. Absent dialogues like this one, victims will take problems into their own hands, and in extreme situations, fight violence with more violence. It is our responsibility, Rhianna and Miller show, for women and men to talk about the importance of safe relationships and personal respect, so that this cycle of violence will end.

male and female violence

The main difference I've noticed regarding violence in the music/videos of female as opposed to male artists is that female violence is largely done in retaliation, while male violence is done "just because." I notice that in film, as well. Instances of violence against women as described by male artists in song are far more often portrayed without reason other than that this violence proves the singer's, or the singer's persona's power, where a lot of media about violence done by a female is typically in retaliation for harm done against her person, as is the case here. I'm always interested in the way it seems female violence must be excused or is seen as a great, often emotional reaction, while male violence is allowed to be a day-to-day occurrence without the need for deeper motivation. This suggests to me that violent tendencies are still seen as a male trait, and if a woman wants to depict violence in her art, she routinely needs a good reason for it. I'm not trying to diminish the story presented here, I'm just wondering what would happen if Rihanna started capping people without any clue as to why.

Also, while Rihanna's experience with intimate partner violence has no doubt shaped parts of her life, I'm getting kind of tired of it being the one lens everyone looks through whenever she comes out with a new song. When "S&M" came out, I remember people saying, "Oh, but after what happened with Chris Brown, is this okay for her to be singing about???" Obviously her experience is something relevant to think about in a video like this, but I'd like to see her free of constant association with domestic violence and Chris Brown already.

I am not a lawyer (but how

I am not a lawyer (but how many of the Concerned Citizens weighing in on the subject are?); but the phrase "pre-meditated" doesn't seem optimal for describing this murder. "Reactionary" is less evocative of the police-stings where people are caught in the act of hiring a hit man to kill their spouse or other circumstances come to mind when I hear the phrase "pre-meditated." It seems like Rihanna has landed somewhere on the spectrum between pre-meditated and "heat of the moment"

The idea of murder troubles me.

I understand that Rihanna is trying to build awareness and is trying to showcase the condition in which a person is found when sexually assaulted/abused--with confusion, anger, sadness etc.--which I suppose is what explains her motive to shoot a man? The idea of showcasing murder is too strong for my taste. I applaud those who try and build some form of awareness to try and construct a better society, but does it have to showcase murder in order to get the message out? A lot of people may not understand that message. A lot people may revert the message and think that murder is the solution. I'm not saying that that's what Rihanna is trying to do, but not many people will see this song with a critical eye.
Whether the artist is a man or a woman, I don't think that placing murder in a song, none-the-less a video, is the best way to instill awareness.

I find it so fascinating that

I find it so fascinating that Rihanna gathers so much criticism, while this same subject - killing your abuser - seems to be a popular them in mainstream country music. Often sung as anthems of women's empowerment. Miranda Lambert's "Gunpowder and Lead" is explicitly about shooting an abuser, yet this is performed on American Idol. Dixie Chicks popular hit "Goodbye Earl" also comes to mind. Definitely a double standard. Rihanna is not the first to go there. Yes, her video is more explicitly about rape, but a violent retaliation to abuse has been glorified in other genres of music for years. In analyzing reactions to her video, I think it is more interesting to look at what it says about our discomfort discussing rape and race specifically, rather than to focus on her use of violence.

Bad song

This song and music video are just BAD! Terrible song! Bad lyrics.Weird video.

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