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.
I can’t imagine what the double standard is here. You can include in the list of country songs Miranda Lambert’s Gunpowder and Lead.
Speaking from the viewpoint of someone who has been in the situation, I’d never – not ever act this out. But these are power ballads that many women can find strength in. Are they politically correct? Are they morally just? No, but they do give a sense of empowerment that women can free themselves of these kinds of relationships. No one of sound mind would say a song caused them to become violent. That’s like saying that if you watch Law & Order you’re going to go out and do what’s on there.
For the record, I like Rihanna’s “Man Down” as well as the Martina McBride song. I wasn’t criticizing them as much as I was expressing confusion and irritation as to why Rihanna’s song is being criticized when other violent songs haven’t been.
Does that make sense?
Sure it does. I didn’t take anything you wrote as a criticism of the songs. I took it precisely as a commentary on the criticism of Rhianna. I hadn’t actually heard the song, but I like it. There does seem to be a double standard there, though I did hear a bit of criticism of the Dixie Chicks on “Goodbye Earl”. But the criticism I mainly heard was about them making a joke out of such a serious subject.
I think it’s human nature to daydream about seeking retribution. It doesn’t mean you’ll ever actually do it, but it’s somehow empowering. If I’m honest there were times when I did just that. I would daydream about my husband having an accident on his way home and what a relief that would be. I also envisioned myself using a kitchen knife to defend myself whereby the whole scenario ended in his demise. Never in a million years would I have actually done that, but it was a catalyst to my being empowered to leave him. I’ve since learned that that’s perfectly normal when you’re in an abusive situation.
I totally get what you are saying, D’Ma.
Thanks for sharing your story with us and I’m sorry you had to go through something like that.
by the way, D’Ma, thanks for sharing this video. I hadn’t seen it yet and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
and i would say, especially with the “shotgun blast” sound at the end after we see her digging his grave, this song is AT LEAST as violent as Rihanna’s.
That’s what I thought as well. It’s a pretty graphic song. So I’m not sure why Rhianna is getting such criticism over hers. Though I will say that the video to “Gunpowder and Lead ” isn’t Miranda Lambert’s. This was a video put together by a girl doing a class project for college. All in all the song has some very violent imagery, though.
thanks for the clarification. I noticed that the actress wasn’t miranda lambert but I thought maybe that was just an artistic decision they made.
I agree whole heartedly that Rihanna is being unfairly targeted here. There are many videos by men depicting violence with no backlash whatsoever. This song is about regret, fear and sadness. I think the video expresses the story beautifully and sheds light on a subject that many are afraid to talk about. Rape and sexual assualt.
I agree with you, Rebecca!
Ps- I was just talking about this the other night! Even in videos such as Gaga’s Bad Romance and Gaga/Beyonce Telephone they end up killing men with no simlar backlash. Is it because Rihanna uses a gun and her song is more “ethnic”? The whole thing is so confusing. I don’t think she was glamorizing the violence either, maybe that’s why people are up in arms, because the situation seemed so REAL and we all know men out there that will see a girl dressing cute, flirting and dancing sexy as a sign that he can have their way with her. Sadly, it happens every day.
oooh! Good point about the “Telephone” and “Bad Romance” video. Doesn’t Gaga also kill her boyfriend in “Paparazzi” or am I thinking of something else? You’re totally right that the violence in that video is cartoonish and completely random and therefore unbelievable. I think you are on to something with Rihanna’s video being both more “ethnic” and more “real.” I think you might also be right that the fact that she is lamenting the violence she did paradoxically makes this video more frightening to people.
“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.”
Nope, there is also McBride being white, and white males like Sean Hannity using it as their theme song since it has rings of nationalism, i mean, patriotism to go with it. Violence under the American flag is seen as way tolerable. Maybe Rihanna should have gone with the ole red, white, and blue!
haha, I definitely agree!
Of course, we don’t really have to choose between the “race” and “patriotism” angle here, because, so often “American-ness” and whiteness are seen as identical and mutually reinforcing, which, is your very well-taken point. I think that’s what I was getting at with the whole “wrapping in the flag” point.
So you think that’s the whole explanation for the difference? I’m trying to recall if there have ever been any popular song sung by black women about taking violent revenge upon a man who beat or raped her…I’m looking for a “control” sample I guess.
and maybe there is something in mcbride’s song that allows even the male listener (aka Hannity) to put himself in the place of the justice-seeking woman in a way that Rihanna’s song does not.
Perhaps also, to echo what Rebecca was saying, perhaps also the fact that Rihanna’s song is not a triumphal and confident/certain celebration of the righteousness of one’s violence, but a lament, also makes it harder to turn Rihanna’s song into an anthem celebrating “just violence” of any sort, which is I think why Hannity uses it. Whereas the triumphal nature of McBride’s song more easily allows the listener to make it a celebration of “righteous” violence of any kind…aka that which the US military does. (Again, I am suggesting that this is Hannity’s view about righteous violence, it is certainly not my own).
I will have to think about how much of a lament the video represents (violence wise). However, the lyrics from McBride’s song represent what I referred to as “the disreputable situational ethics of conservatives” when it comes to war: http://politicaljesus.com/2011/03/24/but-but-what-about-hitler-what-about-qaddafi/
“Now I aint saying if its right or its wrong but maybe its the only way; talk about your revolution, its independence day”
Its definitely triumphalist in every sense of the word, oh and the religious reference to “roll the stone away” yeah Christus Victory/Military victories anyone? Compared to Rihanna’s, McBride’s is much more obvious. Hannity uses it because it is a song about “righteous” revenge and all the problems that that entails as someone who confesses Christ.
Perhaps Rihanna’s video is about her former desire for vengeance but now she has gotten over it? Or is it more of a publicity stunt, where gun violence and domestic are discussed, but not in healthy ways?
My cynicism leans me towards the latter.
YES! Gaga kills her boyfriend in Paparazzi too! No similar backlash. It really upsets me actually because this video is beautiful, emotional, REAL and important and deserves to be treated as such. Also, the lyrics are very similar to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. . . I’m not aware of the same level of backlash for that song either.
ps- I’m Andrew Prevot’s sister… love your blog and this post in particular because this issue has been bugging me ever since this video came out!
I totally have your back on this and I think you are right-on!
And hello Andrew’s sister! I’m glad you identified yourself. 🙂
by the way, I just came across this reflection on Rihanna’s video from the women at Crunk Feminist Collective (written a day or so ago) and I thought I should pass it on. Had I seen it before I wrote this, I would have included it in the text of my post.
I find it interesting that the genre of musical style hasn’t really been addressed, or only mentioned in passing – now I’m not a huge Rihanna listener and only know her popular singles – but it seems that this is the first big hit that has clear reggae influences. Not only does the music have reggae influences, but so do the lyrics. Reggae has a few different themes, but the big ones are justice, social criticism – generally controversial issues of the time. I find it very interesting that she picks to fit these questions, lyrics, into a musical form known for this.
One of Bob Marley’s biggest songs is I Shot the Sheriff, where he admits his crime but fights against being wrongly accused of the deputy’s murder. Similarily, Rihanna is admitting fault and regret, and both are asking for ‘contextual justice’. Both are responding to an earlier situation, and Marley expresses it this way: “Reflexes had got the better of me / And what is to be must be”. Reggae is not exactly a mainstream genre (often because of the themes), and has been criticized before for promoting violence, is this just another example of it? Of the predominately white culture not understanding the importance of a musical genre that they are not active in, that is not their own?
So I’m not surprised that this seems to be the only song undergoing such criticism – it fits the genre.
Katie, while the discrepancies you note certainly merit further consideration, it strikes me as implausible that the singling-out of Rihanna’s “Man Down” by the four watchdog groups mentioned above is traceable to a gender- or race-based double standard.
As to the first (gender), both you and other commenters have noted the prevalence and popularity of other songs/videos that are similar in their depiction of woman-on-man retaliatory violence, only some of which have come in for comparable criticism. This would seem to establish that the present situation cannot be *simply* a matter of gender-bias.
As to the second (race), the majority (3 out of 4) of the groups criticizing BET’s airing of this video are primarily black organizations, two of which have as their primary purpose the monitoring of race-based bias. With the exception of the Parents Television Counsel (which hates literally everything aired since Leave It to Beaver), the criticism is chiefly coming from black men and women, all of whom generally make it point to call this sort of thing out.
Following Honey’s parallel with Bob Marley, I suppose the only issue left would be to see it as a combination of both gender- and race-based double standards trading on her Bajan “otherness” (coming through in stereo here), which I suppose could be conjectured as effectively marginalizing and othering her for African-American blacks and women alike. This is a needlessly convoluted explanation, however, and one which depends, at least implicitly, on execrable stereotypes of African-American bias toward other minority ethnicities. I believe Occam’s razor would rather have it as a simple coincidence of convergence for four groups focused on preventing violence and monitoring how minorities are portrayed by mostly white-owned media.
Just my two cents.
PS – a more satisfactory answer might likewise be found in attending to genre-difference across the videos mentioned–not their musical genre, principally, but rather their video genre and that of the violence they depict (e.g., irony, camp, realism, etc.). I know this doesn’t lend itself to critical deconstruction, but at least then you might have an answer.
yea, i would agree with you that it’s not just race or gender (in fact, that’s precisely what I said in my post) but some sort of intersection between the two. I would direct you to commenter Rod of Alexandria’s comments for more on that.
And as to the Parents Television Council hating everything since Leave It To Beaver, I actually scoured their website in addition to doing a google news search to find out what other music videos they had criticized recently and I really couldn’t find any. (please show me if I missed anything.) Most notably, I could find no evidence of their being outraged over the Eminem/Rihanna video I posted.
As to your larger claim: the fact that “primarily black” organizations are criticizing this doesn’t really mean that this video is not being singled out for race and gender issues. First of all, is it not possible that there is a double standard for women within the black community? (This wouldn’t be surprising of course since there is a sexual double standard in pretty much every racial and ethnic community.)
Also, I would be interested in seeing how many women are on the boards of these organizations.
Also, black people are raised in a white supremacist society just as women are raised in a sexist one. It is therefore quite possible that women will have internalized the sexist values of the larger society. Same with black people and racism.
And if these groups were dedicated to monitoring how “minorities are portrayed a mostly-white owned media” (a worthy goal) then shouldn’t they have been particularly outraged at the Rihanna/Eminem video which glorified “Rihanna’s” being physically abused by a much older white man? I mean, I don’t have to say too much about the history of white men’s violent sexual domination of black women to understand why this should have been seen as highly outrageous, do I?
And I don’t think the genre explanation really works. While the Dixie Chicks song was clearly camp/comical, the McBride song was intended to be “real” and so I’m not sure how that would explain it. Again, I would direct you to Rod of Alexandria’s comments. The currently-playing Miranda Lambert that our other commenter, D’Ma posted, is also illustrative.
I don’t dismiss the impact of racism and sexism (and their intersection) as easily as you do.
and just to add: I would have still written this post even if it was only the Parents Television Council criticizing it.
also what did you mean by “this sort of thing” in your line “they make it a point to call this sort of thing out.” What sort of thing is this video?