The Rihanna ‘Man Down' Dilemma

When Rihanna’s controversial new video for ‘Man Down’ debuted earlier this month, it immediately garnered criticism from several advocacy groups who accused the singer of releasing what was essentially “an inexcusable, shock-only, shoot-and-kill theme song”.

The Anthony Mandler-directed clip, which opens with Rihanna gunning down a man who attacked her before exploring the events leading up to the shooting, was slammed by the Parents Television Council, Industry Ears and the Enough Is Enough Campaign, all of whom joined in an attempt to encourage the BET network to pull the video from its playlist. This was ultimately unsuccessful, though it certainly warrants further discussion.

In response to the controversy surrounding ‘Man Down’, Rihanna called into BET’s 106 and Park last week to give her take on the video’s concept, insisting that it should be seen as “art with a message” and defending the motivation behind the frank and disturbing portrayal of abuse and its aftermath:

“Rape is, unfortunately, happening all over the world and right in our own homes. We can continue to cover it up and pretend it doesn’t happen. Girls and boys feel compelled to be embarrassed about it and hide it from everyone, including their teachers, their parents and their friends, and that only continues to empower the abuser. I personally don’t condone violence or murder. I’ve been abused in the past and you don’t see me running around killing people in my spare time. I just want girls to be careful.”

It’s not a far leap to associate the events shown in ‘Man Down’ with Rihanna’s own personal brush with violence at the hands of ex-boyfriend Chris Brown in 2009, but is it really fair to discount the video as simply a personal revenge story? I don’t think so.

Much has been said regarding the double standard which still exists, particularly in the industry in regards to gender. Would ‘Man Down’ be at the center of so much criticism had the song been made by a male performer? Would it even have gotten similar attention had Rihanna not been attacked by Brown? Perhaps. But Rihanna’s personal experience with the topic at hand makes it far too easy for detractors to discount the wider message behind the track, the purpose of which she herself has insisted was a way to offer a voice to a group that is often underrepresented and largely ignored.

We also shouldn’t fail to recognise that art is, at its core, a method of self-expression which is by and large metaphorical and certainly not meant to be taken literally. Is Rihanna encouraging girls to go out and seek violent revenge on their attackers? I don’t think so. Rather, it portrays one woman’s personal choice and the repercussions of the path she chooses to tread, offering not only a tale of caution but ultimately seeking to begin a dialogue about an issue which is more common than we might think and deserves our attention.

What did you make of ‘Man Down’? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

  • Jess McKechie

    I personally think people have seriously overreacted to this. And I honestly believe that it wouldn’t have gained as much attention if it were say, a rappers video. (which by the way, can contain a lot worse)
    I do think that rape is largely overlooked, and although perhaps not necessarily in the way she wanted it to, Rihanna has raised awareness with this video.

    • Joni Heylens

      I couldn’t agree more!

  • Mackenzie Coleen

    I think that this song is not only beautiful, but unique in that women don’t often have get to sing about “manly” things like this. If she wants it to be “art with a message”, that’s absolutely how I see it. That’s how I saw it from the start, and that’s how I continue to see it. It is such a good song.

  • Pam Newman

    Jennifer, good article, lady!

    I really think the video is awesome, and I don’t think it’s any more shocking than any of the violence-oriented music from the 90’s. Emeniem & Ri-ri presently have a video where he’s basically kicking the ass of the actress from Transformers, and I don’t remember a big outcry from that. Maybe there was and I was too stoned to pay attention?

    Seriously we all know most people don’t even see music videos on tv anymore,they’re on the internet. The complainers should bugger off, imo. If I can download porn from online onto my Android, I’m gonna say the internet is fair game for this video.

    The video is awesome, she looks great, and I love the song.

  • Brenna Harvey

    I don’t see how this is anywhere as bad as any song Eminem has ever written about women. Y’know, lyrics about stuffing a pregnant woman into a car trunk is slightly more disturbing than, “I shot a man down in Central Station,” whilst expressing regret over killing someone’s son. The lyrics speak for themselves – it’s not a bravado-based, I’m-totally-a-badass thing – she’s regretful, which is never the case when a man writes lyrics about killing someone. As much as I love Johnny Cash, even HE has lyrics about gunning down his woman. HOW IS RIHANNA’S SONG ANY WORSE? Yes, the video is graphic – but if you watch the whole thing, it tells a story, and I don’t know any rape victims, but I know if I had been sexually abused myself, of course I’d like to kill whoever did it. She using the video as a metaphor for what a rape victim would like to do. And it’s a video – it’s not like she went out & killed someone for real. Sheesh, people.

    • Melissa McMinn

      Perfectly said! Especially the part about her feeling remorse, which is something you don’t typically see in males singing about killing.

  • Ashley Lynn Cook

    I do appreciate the fact that she is trying to make girls aware of the horror that it out there. It IS an artistic piece, and we have the freedom to express our opinions, views, etc. I think if she feels it is her calling to become a spokesperson for the fight for awareness on the issue, then that’s wonderful. MY issue with this is that she sends mixed signals to all her fans. She gets a tattoo of a gun, sings about being sexy and bad, grinds onstage in skimpy outfits but then suddenly tries to be a role model. I’m not condoning her new video or saying it’s bad but I think if she wants to be a role model and a spokesperson to raise awareness, then do that. But it contradicts when she’s in another video saying that she likes to be tied up, don’tcha think?

    • Holly Olivo

      I agree with Ashley. Her messages are extremely mixed. Let her sing about whatever she wants, but in my opinion, she is not being a role model for young women.

    • Melissa McMinn

      I hear you both, but I’m not so sure she’s trying to be a role model. Rather I think she’s trying to stimulate dialogue about a particular issue. I used to be adamant about all people in the spotlight being cognizant of the fact that they’re role models, but is that really fair? She’s an artist and that should not automatically force her into being anyone’s role model. She’s experimenting with her art and finding her voice. Nothing wrong with that. :)

    • Ashley Lynn Cook

      Melissa, Hi, I’m so sorry, I was trying to click that I liked your comment, and my arrow wasn’t exactly on it, and it clicked the Not my Fav instead. Just wanted you to know in case you saw that. Actually, you’re right, I stand corrected on the fact that DOESN’T want to be a role model. That it’s an important issue she just wants to address. I still feel like it’s too much of a mixed message though from song to song. I mean, she is putting herself out there, wanting so much attention and dressing very revealing which can lead to UNWANTED attention that can lead to ::ahem:: sexual violence and assault. I just believe there are steps you can take to avoid those situations, and if you are placing yourself out there, overexposing yourself and acting trampy then you are inviting it. I understand she’s a rock star, and she’s extraordinarily talented, but I don’t understand why she would dress and act that way and then try to make awareness of such an issue. But you were right Melissa, she’s not wanting to be a role model. But she needs to realize that she IS one to an extent since she’s in the spotlight.

    • Katharine Hardy

      I completely disagree with your last comment. The whole argument that women dressing ‘revealing’ leads to unwanted attention and sexual violence is incredibly harmful and destructive. My choice of clothing should in no way “invite” the horrors of sexual violence. A woman should be allowed to dress however she wishes and not fear sexual violence. Men are privileged to walk the streets in whatever without that fear, but women have to cover up?? The whole sexual violence issue lies in the basic commodification of women’s bodies. Until both Men and Women understand the detrimental effects of this “blame the victim” mentality – ie “she dresses trampy and therefore invites it” we cannot make progress. Awareness, although a great start, is not enough unless the dialogue is shifted and a head change occurs.

  • Becca McGowan

    if people are so concerned about violence in music videos, then why hasn’t there been this much uproar over kanye’s video for monster?? Its a hell of a lot more disturbing than this vid. People need to get a life and start worrying about things that actually matter. Im pretty sure no one is going to go out and shoot someone up after watching this video. Giving it so much attention only gives it more power, and it should be obvious to these PTC idiots that they are being counter productive to their own cause, stupid as it may be.

  • Igpy Kin

    I think organizations such as the PTC should be paying more attention to music videos made by male artists that reduce women to gyrating, disposable scenery. This is another instance of victim blaming — of course we can’t explore the possibility that after a woman has been assaulted, she would have the (very human) urge to fight fire with fire. Of course we can’t admit that human beings have faults, and that after having someone rape you, you might feel, for a time, less than inclined to respect their right to a painless life. Of course it’s a music video by a woman about dealing with the repercussions of sexual violence, rather than a music video by a man that contributes to the dehumanization of women, and therefore encourages sexual violence against women.

    The video obviously doesn’t condone murder as a solution to rape — the protagonist visibly regrets her actions and is overwhelmed by both what her assaulter and what she herself has done. The lyrics speak of intense emotional agony over having committed a violent act. Compare that to any number of songs by male artists which quite unabashedly talk about violence left, right, centre — against men, women, whoever — and I think it becomes abundantly clear that the PTC is not targeting the right issues here.

  • Brittany Woodell

    Wow… did these people completely neglect to watch the video or even listen to the lyrics?? She’s not going out an gleefully killing some random dude. The whole song is about how she killed this guy who raped her, and she regrets it. If anything, this a perfect song for showing that actions have consequences (for both victims in this video/song).

    Not to mention how much outrage there should be over almost every other male rap song that talks about violence in any way – generally, without that note of regret to it even.

  • Lizz Templeton

    I love the song and the video. I believe it is inspired by her hell with Chris Brown, and I believe she has every right to express herself regarding that however she sees fit. I imagine she also thought about other abused women when she sang this song. . .I think simply watching it is therapeutic for any woman who has been abused, treated like shit, neglected, cheated on. . .etc. Let the ‘haters’ critique it all they want, this song is going to be a huge success!!!

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