Rihanna’s new music video, “Man Down”, chronicles a girl’s struggle to make her world right again after being sexually assaulted. Her way to make it right (in her mind, at least) is to shoot her rapist – something I think every rape survivor has thought (fantasized?) about doing.
The video is being criticized for promoting violence, not encouraging girls to go for legal help, and for being sexist (because a man would never be able to make a video about shooting a woman – except that’s not actually true; read on).
Attacking the video for being violent misses the point. The world is violent, and asking a pop star to refrain from talking about uncomfortable topics doesn’t make them go away.
Rihanna’s character was struggling with anger, shame, depression, and all the other confusing feelings that follow being assaulted. Instead of accusing Rihanna of being needlessly violent, why don’t we examine the world that would allow this to happen to someone?
There’s a phrase in a lot of feminist literature, “rape culture”. This basically means a society where glamorizing assault is ok and even encouraged. A culture where girls are raised to appreciate men who “need” them so badly than they’ll rip the very buttons off her shirt, where he’ll sneak into her room to watch her sleep because he misses her, where he’ll fight (with fists) other men for her affections. This isn’t healthy.
Instead of criticizing a society that romanticizes acting like that, some parental groups say Rihanna shouldn’t have talked about it. And rumor has it that Rihanna is considering re-shooting the video to cut out the violence (both the shooting and the rape).
Some are going on to say that her behavior is sexist, because a man never gets away with violence towards women in their music. I would like to take a moment to reflect on: Love The Way You Lie by Eminem and Rihanna (where Eminem’s character kills Rihanna’s character when she tries to leave him), and about a zillion other songs.
There seems to be a trend with parental watchdog groups to try and suppress books, music, and movies that bring up topics they don’t want to talk to their kids about. (For example, And Tango Makes Three, a children’s book about gay penguins who adopt a chick, topping the banned books list every year – because, as one critic said, how are they supposed to explain homosexuality to their kids?)
As NPR pointed out this morning, banning teens from reading about or listening to dark topics – like violence, rape, drug use, self-loathing, or any of the other popular themes in teen media – doesn’t keep them from knowing about them or even experiencing them. One in three women is raped in her lifetime – and a third of those are raped more than once before they graduate high school – and 90% of them never report it. If we say this is a topic we can’t talk about, then what are we saying to the survivors? That they need to be quiet too?
Surrounding teens with happy images all the time doesn’t change the reality of what they see on the news and at school – a reality of No Means Maybe, of being scared to say no, of being ignored or bullied when she has the courage to report what happened.
I hope that more musicians will take it upon themselves to talk about these issues – they’re on a unique platform to talk to young people, and often they’re not much older than the teens who admire them. Instead of changing the video, let’s change reality. Rihanna’s character can re-shoot to a happy ending, but 33% of girls don’t have that option.