Recently, 23 year old R&B singer Rihanna released the music video for her song, “Man Down” in which she sings of the agony and terror she feels after killing a man who raped her. In response, at least four media watchdog groups have called upon music video channels to refuse to play her video arguing that this video depicts “premeditated murder” and “offers no positive message for rape victims except for vigilante justice.”
Leaving to the side the question of whether art–whether music, poetry, literature, or visual art–should only depict morally perfect characters and what exactly the difference is between depicting moral ambiguity and celebrating it, I want to focus on whether or not Rihanna is being held to a double standard and, if so, why.
Adding a note of reality to the whole affair is the fact that Rihanna was victim of a high profile and rather vicious beating by her superstar former boyfriend, Chris Brown. Whether the similarity between Rihanna’s real life victimization and that of her musical protagonist are part of the reason these groups are so singularly upset over this one video in particular is hard to know.
I find their outrage selective and potentially motivated by a double standard of some sort for several reasons. First of all, contrast Rihanna’s video for “Man Down,” in which she expresses sorrow and even regret at killing her rapist, with the violence depicted in her earlier collaboration with rapper Eminem, in which each singer glorifies domestic violence by portraying it as evidence of intense and therefore authentic romantic love. Eminem’s verses can be paraphrased as: “I’m hitting you because I love you so much” while Rihanna, who sings the chorus (and the gender dynamics of male rapper and female who sings the hook are also standard and interesting to think about) can be paraphrased as: “I like it when you hurt me because it lets me know you really love me.”
The most shocking line from the entire song comes when Eminem (who, by the way, is a nearly 40 year old man singing to and with a 22 year old woman) raps, “if she ever tries to fucking leave again, I’ma tie her to the bed and set this house on fire.”
I could find no evidence of media watchdog groups expressing similar outrage over this video–even though it was much more popular than Rihanna’s “Man Down.” That this video was Rihanna’s first big hit after the Chris Brown incident would seem to make it even more offensive, but I have no memory nor could I find evidence of similar outrage.
So, what, if anything, is going on here? I’m tempted to say that violence of men against women is seen as “less bad” or even normal in a way that women committing violence against men is not. Why is it ok for kids to watch videos where men hit the women they claim to love but not to watch videos where women kill the men who rape them?
However, potentially disproving this thesis is the fact that, especially in country music, there have been several songs in which women enact a sort of vigilante justice on men who have harmed them. See Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” which was perhaps the most lauded country song the year it was released or the more comical and similarly well-loved “Goodbye Earl” by the Dixie Chicks. From what I can tell, the only real difference between McBride’s song and Rihanna’s is that the protagonist in McBride’s song incinerates a man who beat her while Rihanna shoots a man who raped her.
Perhaps we see a woman setting a man on fire as being a more feminine and therefore less threatening way for a woman to kill a man than by shooting him? Perhaps we see domestic abuse as a more legitimate reason to kill than rape? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that McBride is a white woman and Rihanna a black woman? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that McBride’s song is literally wrapped in the American flag and portrayed as being a declaration of independence akin to that declared in 1776 while Rihanna’s song, both visually and musically, is Afro-Caribbean?
Needless to say, I find this whole thing strange and significant, but I am really at a loss for why this particular case of a person singing about violence has been seen as so threatening.