Watchdogs, Outraged Over Rihanna's New Video, Give Kanye's Misogyny a Pass
Without a visual, “Man Down” is simply one of the better songs on Rihanna’s latest album, Loud. Honoring her Caribbean upbringing and written in the tradition of reggae/dancehall “badman” anthems -- a descendant of what is arguably the most famous, “I Shot the Sheriff” -- it’s the reserved confessional of someone who’s just killed a man on a lush downbeat. The lyrics are in the first person, but other than the refrain describing the gendered name of the gun -- Peggy Sue -- it’s strangely disassociative, as though Rihanna’s reading us a found diary, singing the tale of someone else’s crime. In the song, there’s no indication as to motive, why someone would shoot “a man down in Central Station in front of a big old crowd.”
The video, however, tells a different story. Opening with a cloaked Rihanna doing the dastardly deed -- shooting a man in front of hundreds of witnesses -- it goes back in time and slowly unfolds her motivation. The murder victim, it seems, was in fact her sexual attacker in the video; Rihanna shot him for revenge. It was a poignant storyline, and an impactful one -- in Rihanna’s birth country of Barbados, rape and domestic violence are pressing crises, with 20.35 percent per 100,000 reporting rapes in 2000.
The video garnered a lot of support among women’s health advocates. (The murder, it should be noted, was not that grisly compared to the death depictions seen every day on primetime network television shows like CSI and Bones.) Some rape victims spoke out, including actress and rape survivor Gabrielle Union, who commended its bravery and tweeted that she could relate:
"Saw Man Down by Rihanna. Every victim/survivor of rape is unique, including how they THINK they'd like justice to be handed out. During my rape I tried to shoot my rapist, but I missed.
"Over the years I realized that killing my rapist would've added insult to injury. The DESIRE to kill someone who abused/raped you is understandable, but unless it's self defense in the moment to save your life, (it) just ADDS to your troubles.
"I repeat SELF DEFENSE to save yourself/protect yourself, I'm ALL for. Otherwise victim/survivor taking justice into your own hands with violence equals more trouble for you!!"
Yet almost immediately, watchdog groups condemned the video for the murder aspect. Paul Porter, the cofounder of Industry Ears, released a statement:
The video, which premiered on BET’s "106 & Park" on May 31, shows Rihanna in an implied rape scene with a man whom she later guns down in an act of premeditated murder. "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. Viacom’s standards and practices department has reached another new low.
Paul Porter is a former program director for BET (who presided during its famously misogynist “Uncut” years), so it’s pretty laughable that the comparatively soft violence in “Man Down” offended his sensibilities so vehemently. The Puritanical Parents Television Council (PTC) responded in equally hypocritical fashion. Said Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for the Parents Television Council:
Rihanna’s personal story and status as a celebrity superstar provided a golden opportunity for the singer to send an important message to female victims of rape and domestic violence. Instead of telling victims they should seek help, Rihanna released a music video that gives retaliation in the form of premeditated murder the imprimatur of acceptability. The message of the disturbing video could not be more off base.
One wonders where Paul Porter and Melissa Henson were when Rihanna released “Love the Way You Lie,” her Grammy-winning video with Eminem. That clip starred beautiful people Megan Fox and Dominic Monaghan, and glorified and romanticized domestic violence, with Rih Rih singing along, looking equally beautiful and poignant -- a more tangibly “off base” message considering Rihanna’s past abuse at the hands of Chris Brown. At least “Man Down” doesn’t blame the victim or make violence against women look glamorous.
But clearly, the anger against “Man Down” is another tiresome example of double standard. Case in point: the lack of Official Anger against Kanye West’s extremely misogynist “Monster” video, which portrays a series of beautiful models posing in various states of “death” as the stars -- West, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj and Jay-Z -- perform around them.
A short version of the video leaked in December, and apparently West heard enough complaints about its misogyny that when he unleashed the longer, official video this month, he was compelled to include a disclaimer: “The following content is no way to be interpreted as misogynistic or negative towards any groups of people,” reads a placard before the clip. “It is an art piece and it shall be taken as such.”
Even for fans of his music (such as myself), West’s self-aggrandizing narcissism has grown extremely tiresome, but this was particularly enraging. Sure, sometimes his ego can be entertaining, but he has gotten to the point in his god complex that he thinks he can tell us how we feel? No, thank you.
Ironically, immediately after his declaration fades away, the first image we see is of a beautiful woman dressed only in a bra hanging from a noose fashioned from a chain. Her eyes are blank; she’s gently swinging. Cut to the next scene: a vaguely fetishistic closeup of her dangling feet, clad in open-toe stiletto heels and nylons. But she’s not alone! A few other “dead models” hang too, acting as visual accessories for Rick Ross’s verse, delivered from a throne-like chair as he casually puffs on a cigar. West, at various points in the clip, is also accompanied by the dead beauties: holding a decapitated head, or sitting in a luxurious bed clad in satin sheets with two “bodies,” suggesting not only murder but rape as well.
In one of the most disturbing scenes, Jay-Z -- arguably the most powerful and well-known rapper alive -- delivers a verse in the typical disaffected, cool fashion fans love him for. In this case, though, there’s another “corpse” splayed on a couch behind him. She is completely naked but for a pair of stilettos, her head and arm twisted in the gruesome fashion of a murder.
Certainly the “art” element of the concept is clear: riffing on the “Monster” theme, they’re meant to be in a house of horrors, where zombies, werewolves and vampires (all women, all in super-revealing designer clothing/teddies/garter belts) populate nightmares, and in one case, stalk West like mindless fans and paparazzi.
But West’s own blank face among his fake dead video girls -- coupled with his haughty demand that “it shall be taken” as art -- is much, much more disturbing than any aspect of Rihanna’s rape-revenge fable. And, to echo former BET program director Paul Porter, in years of watching rap videos (including Nelly’s horribly offensive “Tip Drill,” a BET staple that caused a Spelman boycott which later became a benchmark moment in hip-hop feminism), I can’t think of too many others I’ve felt more sickened by. I understand that contradictions define my existence as a feminist and a mainstream rap fan, and am used to ranking in my mind the varying degrees of misogyny depicted in some hip-hop videos. But the tits-and-ass of rote rap videos seem tame compared to West's death-and-rape fantasy.
And so, while the uncritical accolades Eminem and Rihanna received for their “Love the Way You Lie” clip still make me cringe, “Man Down” is somewhat redemptive in my eyes. At the very least, the pop star has gotten a lot of people talking about rape, and the anger, pain and destruction that define its aftermath. BET is still airing “Man Down,” and for that it should be commended.
When “Monster” first leaked, rumors abound that MTV had banned the clip; in March, MTV released a statement denying this, saying it was waiting for edits to be made to make it “suitable for broadcast.” Nor should they ban it -- West is an important part of pop music, and his inclinations toward misogynist art (which also include his lyrics) should be included in an open discourse about gender and culture.
But those who condemn one and not the other should be exposed for their hypocrisy, and questioned for their motives. Why is one man’s symbolic shooting more angering than the prolonged depiction of beautiful female corpses? At this point, only they know... but I've got a hunch.