*I understand why the Parents Television Council is outraged by Rihanna’s “Man Down” video — the image of the pop princess shooting a guy in the back of the head is disturbing — but I’m troubled by the PTC’s lack of anger over the onscreen rape that triggers the video’s retaliatory crime.
The “Man Down” clip opens with Rihanna’s character gunning down a man in a crowded train station. Then, through flashbacks, we see her meet this same dude in a club. They dance, drink and make. When the guy tries to take things further than Rihanna wants, she attempts to nudge him away. But he doesn’t stop. So, she pushes him back hard with both hands and walks out of the club. Angered by Rihanna’s rejection, the guy follows her to a secluded area, throws her to the ground and rapes her.
The rest of the video blends images from the rape and the shooting as Rihanna sings out her regrets: “I didn’t mean to hurt him/ Could’ve been somebody’s son/ And I took his heart when I took out that gun.”
“Man Down” depicts the kind of heinous sex crime that is all too common in our society. Like far too many men and boys, the guy in Rihanna’s video feels he has the right to take what he wants, and he has the right to punish a woman who refuses his advances. He thinks it is wrong for a woman to share her passion only up to a certain point. He believes that he has the right to determine her limits. He believes, in effect, that women belong to him – that because he is a man he can say and do anything he wants to a woman and she has to go along. Or else.
That’s the statement being made about certain men in the “Man Down” video. But the Parents Television Council didn’t sound off about that. Instead, the PTC went after Rihanna for daring to imagine that a woman might actually be shattered and angry enough to seek revenge on a man who had raped her. PTC communications director Melissa Henson condescendingly suggested that since Rihanna was the victim of domestic violence (she was brutally by then-boyfriend Chris Brown three years ago) she should have made a different statement. “Rihanna’s personal story and status as a celebrity superstar provided a golden opportunity for the singer to send an important message to female victims of rape and domestic violence,” Henson wrote in a statement. “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.”
Of course, premeditated murder is not acceptable. Not even for a woman who has been raped. But we ought to sympathize with any woman who, after having her body and spirit thus violated, would seethe with rage and a yearning for payback. Considering that she was beaten bloody by a man who was supposedly in love with her, it makes perfect sense that Rihanna would feel that kind of wrath. It’s to her credit that she never sought any kind of direct revenge on Chris.
In scolding Rihanna, the PTC glosses over the fact that many women who “seek help” after being raped are unjustly blamed – in courts of law as well as the court of public opinion — for the crimes committed against them. This is surely one of the reasons that some 60% of sexual assaults go unreported (according to Justice Department figures).
As I said up front, I understand why the Parents Television Council is upset over Rihanna’s latest video. They’re right one level – vigilante justice is dangerous for society because whenever individuals take the law into their own hands they undermine the system that is needed to keep us all safe. But if we, as a society, are worried about unleashing the kind of reasonable (if not legally justifiable) “Thelma and Louise”-style revenge dramatized in Rihanna’s “Man Down” video, then we’d better make sure that the system works. We must extend justice and genuine empathy toward women and we must teach our boys and young men that women are equals to be respected, not underlings or objects to be controlled, used and dominated.
Thanks for listening. I’m Cameron Turner and that’s my two cents.
Watch Cameron Turner’s video essay on Rihanna’s “Man Down”: