Rihanna has a new song called 'Man Down'. In it, she grapples with her decision to kill a man. Violence is regularly glorified in music, yet this song is different. Rihanna seems to genuinely struggle with her decision and its consequences, making her song less like those of many of her hip-hop counterparts and more like the corresponding verses of Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody'.
The video for this song has caused a great deal of controversy. It begins with the fatal shooting, then backtracks to the events leading up to it. The twist to the video is that the man Rihanna shoots is her rapist. Those condemning the video aren't complaining that sexual assault is too violent for a video, though the assault in this video isn't graphic. They are complaining that it's too violent for a woman to kill her attacker.
WRC doesn't condone the use of violence by anyone, yet we hear from several women every year who are forced to kill their batterers to escape the abuse. There are battered women's clemency projects across the country who work with these women to help them escape jail time and rebuild their lives. It is never a decision that a woman makes lightly and it is rarely one that they celebrate, other than to sigh in relief that the abuse is finally over. Taking a life shouldn't be easy and the women we talk to don't find it so. They grapple and struggle with their decisions, too. Yet in a country where domestic violence battery is a misdemeanor that often doesn't result in jail time, many women with truly violent partners can never feel safe while those partners are still alive. Most continue to try to live their lives while constantly looking over their shoulders. Others feel forced to take more drastic measures.
Conviction rates for sexual assault in many Caribbean nations are abysmal (about 1% of reported cases) and many of those islands are small. With her attacker free to roam, would Rihanna's character ever feel safe again?
The homicide in this video could easily be interpreted as a revenge killing, yet we don't think it is. Our work with women who have killed their partners emphasizes that it isn't a triumphant attempt at vigilante justice. It is a tragedy that affects a woman for the rest of her life, whether she ends up in jail or not. We don't think violence should be glorified, but we also don't think this video does that. It shows a hurt woman who makes a choice out of pain that hurts her even worse. She now has to flee her home and the community she clearly loves. The vibrant happy woman of yesterday has become the shell-shocked woman who today must leave everything behind. This video doesn't glorify violence, it just shows one realistic way that such an encounter might end, and how devastating a sexual assault and its consequences can be for a survivor.
The video also shows that women have a right to wear whatever they want, to go out dancing, to be sexual, and to walk alone at night without deserving to be raped. That is something that should definitely be praised, but is being overlooked fairly consistently amidst the controversy.
Finally, we have to remind our media friends again not to totalize Rihanna by her experience with dating violence. She did not ask to become a poster child for the violence against women movement and we should not reduce her to that by examining everything she does in the context of Chris Brown's famous assault on her. Because of her past, that gives her a powerful voice when she discusses violence against women, and it probably influences her to give issues of violence against women a prominent place in her art, but there is no one way that a survivor should act, and we shouldn't hold Rihanna up to some false standard that we have created. She deserves to move through her life without judgment as much as any other woman.
See also: Independence Day by Martina McBride or Good Bye Earl by the Dixie Chicks