In Defence of Rihanna’s ‘Man Down’.

Written for Bad Reputation, 8.6.11
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Another week, another women-in-music controversy, and another hotly debated video from Rihanna. Having ticked domestic violence and sadomasochism off the musical list, she’s responded to recent accusations of being a major player in the oversexualisation of pop by upping the ante, making her latest offering a blend of sexual violence and violent retribution. The video for Man Down, which opens with Rihanna shooting a man who is later revealed to have assaulted her after they dance at a club, has kicked up a predictable media dustcloud. It’s all a far cry from ‘Pon de Replay’.

Amid calls for the video to be banned, it’s interesting to see how much of the outrage centres on the murder, rather than the rape. Granted, the shooting and its aftermath is shown far more explicitly than the hinted-at assault, but commentary such as that of media watchdog Paul Porter:

“‘Man Down’ is an inexcusable, shock-only, shoot-and-kill theme song. In my 30 years of viewing BET, I have never witnessed such a cold, calculated execution of murder in primetime…”

appears to be divorcing the shooting from its context, concentrating on Rihanna as the agent and perpetrator of a crime, rather than as the victim of one. This wilfully ignores one of the video’s central messages, which is the ease with which these roles can be merged.

Sex and violence, and sexual violence, as themes in art and entertainment are as old as art and entertainment themselves. To be flippant for a second: maybe it’s just the use of the word ‘Mama’, but the chorus of ‘Man Down’ put me in mind of that certain section of Bohemian Rhapsody where the narrator, having just killed a man, ruminates on how ‘life had just begun and now I’ve gone and thrown it all away’. And while I don’t think Freddie Mercury was ever actively described as a positive role model, neither was he castigated for encouraging cold-blooded cod-operatic executions among 1970s youth.

Is Rihanna coming in for particular criticism because of the publicity previously given to her real-life encounters with violence? Those of you following along at home will of course have noticed that she didn’t respond to her own experience of assault by offing Chris Brown on the concourse of Grand Central Station. Surely no one seriously believes ‘Man Down’ to be advocating that the victims of violence engage in violent reprisals – any more than that was true of Thelma & Louise, or Straw Dogs, or, to really stretch the analogy, Death and the Maiden? ‘Man Down’ is, on one level, a revenge fantasy which relies on the dramatic and the sensational to get its message across.

Roger Ebert wrote of Irréversible, whose backwards chronology ‘Man Down’ recalls, that the film’s structure makes it inherently moral – that by presenting the vengeance before the acts that inspire it, we are forced to process the vengeance first, and therefore think more deeply about its implications. Might the same apply to ‘Man Down’? Throughout the lyrics and video, the song’s protagonist may contextualise and explain her actions, but she’s not free of regret, she isn’t gleeful or exultant, and she acknowledges her actions as a crime with implications for the rest of her life. She calls herself a ‘criminal’ and reflects that her rapist and victim was ‘somebody’s son’. The narrative doesn’t glorify murder, but it recognises that we live in a world where this kind of fantasy-vigilante approach might often seem more accessible and plausible than relying for justice on the state or the police.

Art and entertainment don’t exist in a vacuum. Art will be asked to justify itself, particularly when it touches on themes that are an everyday reality for many of us and which feed into issues like the space which women, particularly women of colour, have to express themselves, and the perpetuation of negative stereotypes versus the impetus, the desire, and perhaps the moral duty, to openly discuss the conditions under which we live.

The complex intersections of race and gender hardly lend themselves to being cleared up in the confines of a blog post, but ‘Man Down’ has sparked plenty of engaged and informative discussion online – at Crunk Feminist, The Beautiful Struggler, and Red for Gender for starters. This is a naive and non-industry view, no doubt, but I’m just glad debate is happening and that we have a mainstream artist who doesn’t shy away from instigating it.

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