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!

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