The musical artist Rihanna is no stranger to controversy and her video for her new single “Man Down” is no exception. The video opens up to show Rihanna in a train station shooting a man in the back of the head. It then flashes back to the previous day, where Rihanna is shown dancing in a club with the same man, before she pushes him away and leaves by herself. He comes after her and while the video does not show anything explicitly, it implies that he sexually assaults her.
The “Man Down” video faces criticism from organizations like Parents Television Council, Fox News and Enough is Enough Campaign who claim that the video is overly violent and sends a bad message to young viewers. According to Paul Porter, the co-founder of Industry Ears, the video is “inexcusable, shock-only, shoot-and-kill theme song”. Organizations like these have often criticized musical artists for including violent images in videos or violent lyrics in their songs, but their criticism of Rihanna has other disturbing implications about the tacit acceptance of sexual assault in our society, as well as the right for a woman who has been victimized to express herself artistically, if it includes violence. From our perspective, there are a few problematic pieces in the backlash concerning Rihanna’s video.
First- criticism tends to focus on the murder that occurs, while only lightly touching on the sexual assault. Without the scene that shows the rapist being shot, this video would likely not have become national news for its overt violence. None of the criticism of the video’s violence mentions Rihanna’s abuser pushing her against a wall, threatening her or throwing her to the ground after assaulting her. These actions apparently don’t qualify as “too violent”. This disregard is alarming because it appears to reinforce the notion that the media fail to acknowledge violence against women as “real violence”. “Real” violence is of course murder, like that shown in the video. But while murder is a horrible crime, it is no less horrible than the physical abuse shown and implied sexual assault in the video.
Another problematic piece of this backlash is the implication that Rihanna is somehow a hypocrite in daring to release a video showing violence when she herself has been a victim of violence. FOXNews’ Marc Rudov said, “Rihanna gets to have it both ways-accuse Chris Brown of domestic violence and be violent herself-because she’s a woman.” The Parents Television Council offered similar thoughts, “Rihanna’s personal story…provided a golden opportunity for the singer to send an important message to female victims of rape and domestic violence. 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.” These reactions are alarming for a couple of reasons. First, the implication that Rihanna’s depictions of violence in her video negates her experiences as a survivor is both cruel and ignorant. While we do not condone violence of any kind, it’s important to recognize that IPV/SA survivors deal with the abuse that they have suffered in a variety of ways, often involving the use of art. Secondly, one could argue that retaliation against a rapist is not the same as the senseless gratuitous violence that many mainstream videos feature. Rihanna’s video doesn’t attempt to glamorize the killing of her rapist but, in her own words , seeks to warn women, “We always think it could NEVER be us, but in reality, it can happen to ANY of us! So ladies be careful and listen to yo mama! I love you and I care!”
Lastly, the media focus of Rihanna exclusively as a victim of violence, as opposed to a successful recording artist who has sold millions of CDs, they rob her of personal individuality as well as the right to heal from her abuse in the best way for her. It’s important to remember that victims of IPV/SA can experience PTSD type symptoms during and/or after their abusive relationship. We also know that victims may also slowly lose their sense of self as a result of the abuse. Victims deal with their abuse in different ways. Consider Elizabeth Smart and Rihanna. Both are “victims” but reconcile their abuse very differently. Both ways are okay. To help all victims’ healing and to be an effective ally, we must respect the choices that they make towards their own healing. As Leslie Morgan Steiner at CNN says, “The only way to eradicate rape and violence against women is to respect victims who speak out, even when their stories are filled with rage and revenge fantasies that are, indeed, excruciating to listen to, because they ring true.”
There are no easy answers to the idea of victims of abuse responding with violence. But by criticizing Rihanna’s video without critically analyzing a culture which condones and perpetuates rape we do a disservice to all survivors.
What do you think about Rhianna’s video? Leave us your thoughts!