On May 31, 2011, the video for the Rihanna song “Man Down” premiered on the show 106 & Park on BET. In the video’s opening scene, Rihanna steps out of an archway and guns down a man in a crowded train station. A few seconds of complete silence follow the gunshot, as the panicked crowd scatters and the man falls to the ground bleeding. The video then shows the events that unfolded a day earlier and indicates that the shooting was in retaliation. The previous evening, the man had sexually assaulted the character played by Rihanna. On Twitter, Rihanna explained that the video has a “very strong underlying message 4 girls like me.”
One day after the video’s premiere, the Parents Television Council, along with Industry Ears and the Enough is Enough Campaign, issued a statement condemning its depiction of “an act of premeditated murder”. Paul Porter, co-founder of Industry Ears, called the storyline of “Man Down” a “cold, calculated execution of murder”. Asserting that the video glorifies violence and could negatively influence young teen girls, the organizations demanded that Viacom stop airing it on its BET network. In response, BET issued its own statement claiming that the video complied with the “set of standards and guidelines that are applied to all of our content.” The network continues to air the video, although it is not included with other Rihanna videos on its website.
Although “Man Down” does depict a sexual assault and a shooting, the call to stop airing it is curious. Violence—particularly violence that is linked with sexuality—is commonplace in popular media. Rap videos are often criticized for depicting violence. Prior to releasing “Man Down”, Rihanna herself collaborated with Eminem on the song “Love the Way You Lie”, which depicts an abusive relationship in which the male character threatens to set fire to both the house and his female lover. The video shows the house in flames and juxtaposes images of the couple both kissing and fighting. Violence is pervasive in other musical genres as well. Rock icon Eric Clapton has a song “Sick and Tired” in which he tells the woman he is sick and tired of that “I may have to blow your brains out, baby / Then you won’t bother me no more.” Then there’s Johnny Cash: Cash recorded songs such as “Delia’s Gone”, which tells the story of a man who ties his wife to a chair and shoots her. In the lyrics, the singer instructs the listener that “if your woman’s devilish, you can let her run, or you can bring her down and do her like Delia got done.” These songs normalize and trivialize murdering intimate partners.
More recent popular music romanticizes violence against women. In the video for the song “Cry Me a River”, Justin Timberlake stalks an ex-girlfriend, breaking into her house and watching her while she is in the shower. The video for “Eat You Alive” by Limp Bizkit shows lead singer Fred Durst bringing a kidnapped woman into the middle of the woods and berating her by screaming in her face through a megaphone. By the end of the video, the woman appears to have been seduced by this behavior and looks rather disappointed when the police show up to rescue her.
Given how ubiquitous violence is in music and television, the request to ban Rihanna’s video on the grounds that it depicts a murder seems disingenuous. What might be troubling to critics of “Man Down” is not just the violence it contains, but who commits the violence and why. Indeed, much of the criticism of the video focuses not on its depiction of a man sexually assaulting a woman, but on the fact that the woman responds by killing her attacker.
In her analysis of the “Man Down” controversy, the blogger Sol Chica rightly points out that the response to the video hinges on the fact that the violence in question is committed by a woman of color. Sol Chica compares and contrasts the Rihanna song with Carrie Underwood’s hit “Before He Cheats”. Underwood’s song describes a woman who retaliates against her cheating boyfriend by smashing his car with a baseball bat, slashing the tires, and carving her name into the leather seats. Sol Chica suggests that because Underwood is a white woman, she is more easily seen as a victim. Her violent response is, therefore, perceived as legitimate. By contrast, as a woman of color, Rihanna is seen as unjustified and more threatening in her use of violence.
In addition to the performers’ racial identities, the two songs differ in terms of the severity of violence and the causes for violence. The Underwood song comes across as cheeky in part because it trivializes both violence and romantic relationships. After all, the real thing of value in the song is the car, and the singer gets even with her man by vandalizing it. No one is physically hurt. With the lyrics “maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats,” the refrain supports a boys-will-be-boys attitude by suggesting that the man in the song will likely repeat his infidelity. By contrast, “Man Down” is much more severe. It depicts sexual assault as a serious and intolerable violation. The perpetrator in this video won’t get a next time. He is gunned down in public, in broad daylight, where he can serve as a lesson to others. This part of the story is what makes the Rihanna video so provocative: it presents an image of a strong woman of color standing up to sexual violence and killing a man in order to assert her own sexual autonomy.
During a follow-up episode of 106 and Park, Rihanna called into the show to defend the video. She explained that “Man Down” was meant to “hone in on a very serious matter that people are afraid to address, especially if you’ve been victimized in this scenario… Rape is unfortunately happening all over the world… and we continue to cover it up and pretend it doesn’t happen.” Indeed, in the U.S., one out of six women will be a victim of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. In the Caribbean—Rihanna’s home region until age 16 and the apparent location of the video—48 percent of adolescent girls report that their first sexual experience was “forced” or “somewhat forced”.
Though there is some public discussion of sexual assault, it continues to be an underreported crime and there are few viable, culturally acceptable responses for victims. Shame is the culturally normative response and often discourages victims from reporting cases. In the U.S., only approximately 40 percent of rapes are reported to the police. For cases that are reported, only 16 percent lead to the attacker being incarcerated. As Rihanna stated in her phone call to the show, “girls and boys feel compelled to be embarrassed about it and hide it… and that only continues to empower the abuser.” The “Man Down” video challenges the dominant cultural script by presenting a woman who responds to sexual assault, not with shame but with rage. The character in the video does not follow legal channels but takes matters into her own hands and kills her attacker. In the lyrics, she expresses regret at having taken a life, yet the viewer is led to sympathize with her motive.
Similar storylines can be found in music videos that depict women who are victims of domestic violence and respond by killing their abusers. There are numerous examples of such songs, such as those by white female artists, including Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl”. Black female artists have also created songs and videos based on the storyline of killing as revenge for domestic violence. In Eve’s “Love Is Blind”, a woman kills her best friend’s abusive partner after the friend was beaten to death. The Jazmine Sullivan song “Call Me Guilty” portrays a woman who is contemplating murdering her abusive partner because “it’s either him or me.” These songs have not generated the same response as the “Man Down” video, indicating that there may be some understanding and sympathy for both white and black women who use violence to respond to domestic violence. Less sympathy exists, apparently, for using violence to avenge a sexual assault. The criticisms of the Rihanna video demonstrate a cultural anxiety not so much around violence, but around black women’s sexual agency.
Revealingly, the commentators who have supported the video have tended to talk about the message that it might send to victims of domestic violence. For example, on the Huffington Post, Paul Mott summarizes the video by saying that the Rihanna character murders a man who assaulted her and is “apparently her boyfriend”. Mott states that he has little sympathy for the fictional abusive character or for real-life abusers, including Rihanna’s ex-boyfriend Chris Brown. Given Rihanna’s history of being in an abusive relationship, it may be tempting to consider the video’s message about domestic violence. However, this perspective sidesteps a discussion of sexuality and misses the larger point of the song. The video is not about domestic violence. The male character is not Rihanna’s “boyfriend”; instead, he is just some guy with whom she flirted and danced in a club, and when she was done, she walked away. When he assumed he was entitled to her body and assaulted her, she shot him. The significance of the video is that it portrays a woman asserting and defending her sexual autonomy, and this may be what is most shocking to viewers.
Black feminist scholars such as bell hooks, Tricia Rose, and Pat Hill Collins argue that black women are hyper-sexualized in western culture and that this view can be traced back to slavery. Viewing black women as sexually wild and uncivilized justified rape, which then benefitted white slave owners financially, if the rape led to childbirth. This controlling image of black women as available sexual objects is still present today in popular culture, and in the music industry in particular. Audiences are de-sensitized to the idea of selling women’s bodies when male artists such as Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, and Jay-Z promote an image of themselves as successful, likeable, and enviable pimps. In videos for songs such as “P.I.M.P.” and “Big Pimpin’”, the half-dressed, gyrating female dancers—the women whose bodies are presumably being pimped out—are overwhelmingly women of color. These videos reinforce a cultural view that black women’s sexuality is a commodity that can be bought and sold for men’s financial gain or pleasure. This image of the anonymous, objectified “video ho” ready to give up her body to a man with money is pervasive, even in songs without direct references to pimping. The video for the Nelly song “Tip Drill”, for instance, shows dozens of women of color (some topless) dancing as men throw money at them. The idea of buying black women’s bodies is made even more explicit at the end of the video, when Nelly slides a credit card down the crack of a woman’s behind.
Sometimes, women participate in perpetuating this image of women of color as commodities. In addition to the women who play the role of the “video ho”, female artists have portrayed themselves as gold diggers, willing to use their sexuality for money and male attention. In the song “Superbass”, for instance, Nicki Minaj sings about using her sexuality to get the attention of a man who’s “got stacks on deck like he’s savin’ up.” While female performers may profit individually from participating in this familiar cultural script, they reinforce the larger view of black women as hypersexualized and commodified. From this perspective, black women’s sexuality is something to be exchanged for money or status, but it is not something that black women possess for their own pleasure.
Rihanna’s prior work could be interpreted as reinforcing an image of black women as hypersexualized and even animalistic. In the video for “Rude Boy”, she is shown in animal-print clothing, riding on both a lion and a zebra, while she sings lyrics such as, “I like the way you touch me there, I like the way you pull by hair.” In the video for “What’s My Name?”, a routine trip to the convenience store to buy milk turns into a sensual encounter. Clearly, Rihanna’s music career has played off of her sexual appeal. Yet the image she presents is complicated and difficult to neatly categorize. Most of her lyrics and videos focus on her sexual subjectivity, emphasizing her own pleasure and choice. Other songs, such as “Love the Way You Lie” and “Stupid in Love”, portray a woman who is trapped in destructive and abusive relationships. In the lyrics of the song “Te Amo”, she rebuffs the advances of a female admirer, but in the video for the same song she seems to participate wholeheartedly in a same-sex sexual encounter. In all of these contradictory presentations of Rihanna’s sexuality, one theme is persistent: she is upfront and unapologetic about being sexual. The video for the song “S & M” even appears to poke fun of her image and of the media speculation about her sexuality. The video includes footage of her whipping bound and gagged members of the press, while she sings such lyrics as “sticks and stones may break my bones, but chains and whips excite me.”
In contrast to the over-the-top parody of “S & M”, “Man Down” presents a more serious challenge to the prevailing view of black women as sexual commodities. The video portrays Rihanna’s character as a popular, friendly, and well-liked person with status in her community. She is shown playing with children and greeting various people in her neighborhood. Her social standing and likeability are shown as distinct and separate from her sex appeal. When she later asserts her sexuality, it is not in exchange for any type of status or monetary gain, but rather for her own enjoyment. She goes to a nightclub, dances, flirts, and kisses a man. When she has had enough, she shakes her head “no”, walks away, and leaves the club smiling. She is shown as an empowered, sexual agent. When she is later assaulted, she re-asserts her sexual autonomy by killing her attacker in broad daylight. The video sends a strong message to respect women’s sexual agency and women’s right to say “no”.
The backlash against the “Man Down” video is reminiscent of the response to the song “Your Revolution” by the spoken-word artist Sarah Jones. Inspired by the Gil Scott-Heron poem/song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Jones resists the hypersexualized image of black women with the lyrics “your revolution will not happen between these thighs.” Her song directly challenges the portrayal of women in popular music. For instance, referencing the lyrics of the Notorious B.I.G. song “Big Poppa”, Jones states “your notorious revolution will never allow you to lace no lyrical douche in my bush.” In 2001, the FCC responded to Jones’ song by labeling it indecent and fining the Portland radio station KBOO $7000 for playing it. The FCC later reversed its decision after Jones filed a lawsuit. Yet, the story behind “Your Revolution”—like the reaction to “Man Down”—illustrates that when black women challenge sexist representations and define sexuality in their own terms, the response is often hostile.
The image of women of color as strong, empowered, sexual agents is threatening to those who profit from the commodification of black women’s sexuality. In her book The Hip Hop Wars, Tricia Rose argues that hip hop “promotes sexist and demeaning images of black women as its bread-and-butter product.” Yet it is not only musical artists and record labels that profit from the objectification of black women and the glorification of pimp culture. In the book Pimps Up, Ho’s Down, T. Denaen Sharpley-Whiting argues that the beauty, plastic surgery, pornography, and commercial sex trade industries all benefit from a culture in which women’s bodies are constantly on display. A few statistics on sex trafficking confirm this point. The 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report by the U.S. Department of State estimates that more than two million children are exploited in the commercial sex trade worldwide. In the U.S. alone, nearly 300,000 youth are believed to be at risk of being sexually exploited for commercial purposes. The Polaris Project reports that trafficking is a $32 billion industry globally. There is money to be made in promoting the idea that the bodies of women and girls are objects to be bought and sold. Much of what we see in music videos and popular culture de-sensitizes us to this idea.
The “Man Down” video re-constructs this cultural view by portraying a black woman not as an object or commodity, but as a sexual agent. The character in the video expresses sexuality for her own personal pleasure, and she kills a man who wrongly assumes he has access to her body without her consent. The sexualized image that Rihanna portrays in her other songs and videos only underscores the point of “Man Down”: a woman can dance seductively or be outspoken about enjoying sex, but that doesn’t mean she surrenders her right to say “no”. Rihanna defended her video against criticism by saying that it sends a positive message to young girls. But the audience is much broader. In a culture that glorifies pimping and exploiting women’s bodies for profit, “Man Down” sends a powerful message to both men and women about women’s sexual autonomy.