Archive | June, 2011

Man Down: On Rihanna, Rape, and Violence

2 Jun

Earlier this week, Rihanna released the video for her song “Man Down” in which her character struggles with the choice to kill her rapist. In Hip Hop and pop culture where rape is glorified and celebrated, this is a welcome intervention. The video reinforces a very basic point: the choice to be sexual and sensual on the dance floor should not be read in any way as consent for future sexual activity. For once, the critique of rape is unambiguous. It is wrong; it is not the woman’s fault; and it should be punished. 

Hat/tip to Rihanna for offering a complicated portrait of womanhood. On Twitter, in response to the video, she said in part, “Young girls/women all over the world…we are a lot of things! We’re strong innocent fun flirtatious vulnerable, and sometimes our innocence can cause us to be naïve! We always think it could NEVER be us, but in reality, it can happen to ANY of us! So ladies be careful and #listentoyomama! I love you and I care!”

That is good, accessible advice for young women who are bombarded with mixed messages about the value of their bodies and lives.

Yet, controversy has ensued, with a range of parent-led media watchdog groups including Mothers Against Violence and the Parents Television Council calling the video violent and asking for it to be banned. These critics say that Rihanna perpetuates violence rather than urging young women to get help. The most ignorant and illegitimate of these critics argued that ‘If Chris Brown shot a woman in his new video, the world would stop. Rihanna should not get a pass. The video is far from broadcast worthy.’ That statement is what one would call “an exercise in missing the point.” Porter needs to Go.Sit.Down and rethink his position. Period. There is no need to dignify such inanity with a further response.

As a child survivor of domestic violence, I believe in non-violence as a way of life. In American culture more generally and in Black communities in particular, we have to commit to non-violent ways of loving, disciplining our children, and addressing conflict. At the same time, this video shows a young Black female rape victim, vulnerable and hurt, struggling with how to make sense of the act of violence perpetrated on her. She makes a choice that many would and have made, and rather than banning this video, we need access to grapple with its moral and political implications as a community.

Somehow, I do not believe the outrage would be comparable if this were a white woman, although this rampant rape culture shows its white victims no love either. 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. Whether it be Rihanna’s teenaged fans, immigrants working as hotel maids all over this country, eleven year old Latina girls in Texas, or the Black girl next door to you,  women of color are deemed deviant even for voicing our narratives of rape and sexual assault, especially when our stories insinuate that we are morally complex human beings. That is unfortunate, dangerous, and frankly infuriating.

Rihanna is apparently considering re-shooting the offending scenes: namely the rape and the shooting. That’s unfortunate, because it makes more sense to me that we would be interested as a society in pursuing actual alternative endings for young women that don’t involve rape and brutalization in the first place, rather than creating “nicer,” “more palatable” endings in video land.

Please share your thoughts about the video with us. Does this video open up the space in Hip Hop and (Black) popular culture to have a conversation about rape and consent?  Is retaliatory violence a legitimate and effective response to rape? Since Rihanna is considering re-shooting the most violent scenes in the video, can you offer some alternate endings? We’d love to hear from you.

A Cause You Can Support:

If you are interested in helping to equip young women to deal with the realities of sexual violence, please consider supporting the Girl/Friends Summer Leadership Institute sponsored by A Long Walk Home, Inc. and “sponsor a girl”for the program. Your contribution will help support our girls as they become leaders in the movement to end sexual and dating violence against girls and women and become role models to their peers. 

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