Defending Rihanna’s “Man Down” Video – The rapist murder controversy

Fans of Rihanna will remember in her early hit Unfaithful she sings a line “I don’t want to be a murderer.” In a deliciously ironic twist, Rihanna finds herself portraying a murderer in a very dark and serious new video which has the stuffy idiots at the Parents’ Television Council up in arms yet again.

What’s the fuss about?

The video for Man Down starts by showing Rihanna gunning a man down in a busy railway station. The scene backtracks to a day earlier, showing a carefree Rihanna wandering around a Jamaican town. But at a club that night, she dances with a guy who comes on strong and she rejects him, uncomfortable with his advances. This culminates in a harrowing scene where he follows her outside and forces himself on her.

Paul Porter, of the watchdog group Industry Ears was quoted as saying

If Chris Brown shot a woman in his new video and BET premiered it, the world would stop. Rihanna should not get a pass, and BET should know better.

Melissa Henson of the Parents’ Television Council made a lengthier critique of the video, saying that without the murder scene at the beginning, it might have been more acceptable. She went on to say:

Rihanna needs to recognize that she has a substantial fan base. She’s probably one of the most visible victims of domestic abuse. She could be serving a very responsible position. She’s not sending the right message.

Rihanna’s response

The singer sensibly took to Twitter to address the controversy surrounding the video, reminding people that she’s not a parent and that she has the right to make art, especially out of real life situations:

I’m a 23 year old rockstar with NO KIDS! What’s up with everybody wantin me to be a parent? I’m just a girl, I can only be your/our voice! Cuz we all know how difficult/embarrassing it is to communicate touchy subject matters to anyone especially our parents!

The music industry isn’t exactly Parents R Us! We have the freedom to make art, LET US! Its your job to make sure they dont turn out like US.

My response (and why I applaud Rihanna)

Let’s start with this: in a world drowning in mindless, throwaway pop ditties, a major pop artist has broken with tradition and released a song which tackles rape: a real and serious issue. While I think the furore surrounding Rihanna’s S&M single was justified, Man Down is a perfect example of a pop song with a message.

We don’t get many of those these days – and I actually take issue with the Parents’ Television Council choosing this song rather than the plethora of tasteless sex videos that are being made by popstars. Why pick on Rihanna? Same reason they pick on [[Glee (TV Series)|Glee]] – it’s a mass-market, high-profile pop culture phenomenon.

Listen to the lyrics of the song – the “I just shot a man down” refrain in particular: I can think of two classic songs by male artists that this mimics. The first is obvious – I Shot The Sherrif by Bob Marley. And the second is the Jimi Hendrix track, Hey Joe, in which the protagonist “shot [his] woman down”. I don’t ever remember there being such a scandal about either of those songs. They’re clearly an example of artists telling a story through song. A fantastic tradition, and one which Rihanna’s single fits into beautifully.

But the controversy is all about the video, isn’t it? Sure it is. But here’s the rub – don’t we see people being ‘killed’ in TV dramas all the time? Once again, I don’t see the PTC campaigning against the CSI series, or even soap operas that feature murders. Sure, this video features our well-known pop crumpet with a gun in her hand, traumatised by a violent attack and committing a murder. Will her fans be able to separate fact from fiction? Will vulnerable young women take this as free reign to gun down anyone who’s frightened them or attacked them in the past?

The way I see it, the Parents’ Television Council (and Paul Porter) have done more to promote the Rihanna video than any amount of advertising. And they’ve made the agenda be about the murder scene rather than the very real danger of rape toward young girls. And if you want to read an excellent feminist perspective on the Man Down controversy, jump to the Crunk Feminist Collective’s page. Here’s an excerpt:

Yes, Rihanna may simply be a good celebrity target, but it is utterly disturbing the manner in which any portraits that offer complicated, three dimensional representations of Black women are now unceremoniously banned from the air. These days, Black women and our experiences of rape and sexual violence are forced into invisibility when they don’t fit mainstream, pristine narratives of how to cope.

And no, I don’t believe Rihanna released this video hoping for controversy. No-one hopes for the awful Parents’ Television Council to come along and subvert the message in their music. Man Down was a prime opportunity for adults and teenagers of all races to sit down and have a sensible discussion about rape and violence. I honestly feel that the PTC sensationalise their targets in the media in order to justify their objective. But they always, without fail, pick the wrong targets. Where is the campaign against Snoop Dogg for being sleazy in his videos? 

What’s the take-away lesson here? Stick to the inconsequential pop music and the advocacy groups will leave you alone. Don’t use your music to make social or political statements, or to tell stories that people might be able to relate to. Do not attempt to be intelligent or to spark discussion about subjects that are just too damn inconvenient for a mainstream audience.

Parents’ Television Council? Patronizing Twats Committee, more like. Support Rihanna, folks. Watch the video. Talk to your friends about it. Consider what it means and what the message is. These sensationalist groups actually do more to promote the things they campaign against. They’d do a better job if they just shut the hell up.

Note: I fully intend to do a proper single review for Man Down. For the moment, it’s important that we talk about the themes in the video and speak out against these groups.

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