“I’m a 23 year old rock star with NO KIDS! What’s up with everybody wantin’ me to be a parent? I’m just a girl, I can only be your/our voice!”
Boy did Rihanna get to the heart of the matter when she tweeted this in response to criticisms of her new video for Man Down. The considerations of a parent or even of a role model for youth did not cross her mind when she created this video, or if they did they were outweighed by the considerations of an artist and a business woman. And perhaps, as she put it, by the considerations of a “girl.”
The video for Man Down opens with Rihanna’s character shooting a man in the street, complete with a shot of the blood spilling from his head wound onto the sidewalk. As the video progresses, we see the back story that led to the shooting, wherein the character Rihanna plays enjoys a carefree day, and dances with a man in a nightclub. He tries to kiss her, and she clearly indicates that her answer is NO. Then he follows her outside, and from the body language and facial expressions it is implied that he rapes or sexually assaults her. The lyrics to the song do not explicitly talk about rape or the reason for the homicide, but rather they focus on the murderer’s guilty conscience and fear of being caught.
Reactions to the video have been heated, which I hardly find surprising. And they have been multi-faceted and even contradictory, which I find completely fascinating. Personally, I know that my trigger response to a work of art or a product of popular culture is not always indicative of how my opinion will form once I’ve considered all the angles. Perspectives and opinions have to percolate in my head before I can articulate my own clearly… and I often conclude that my kneejerk reaction was short-sighted.
My kneejerk reaction was one of a parent and a feminist, because I am both. I was shocked by the imagery and disappointed to see sexuality and violence twisted up together yet again, just as it was in Eminem and Rihanna’s Love the Way You Lie and, although in a different way, in Rihanna’s S&M. Other parents were equally shocked, with Mothers Against Violence and the Parents Television Council calling for the video to be banned and making public statements about how Rihanna had let down youth and victims of domestic violence. As a parent and as a professional who works for an organization that seeks to empower girls, I can see clearly how some feminists interpret it as glaringly problematic, a video that serves to “glamourize” murder for an audience that consists of children and teens.
But Rihanna is not a parent. Even if she was, she is not YOUR child’s parent, and she made no promises to create messages to empower, educate, or uplift youth. She is a “rock star.” And just how conscientious of their audiences can we expect rock stars to be?
A “rock star” is something between an artist and a business person, right? I imagine Rihanna likes to think of herself as an artist, and we adults know that art is supposed to be evocative. Some of the best art reflects difficult truths, and neither sexuality nor violence is off limits. Insofar as she is creating pieces that express something inside of her and that she is projecting a unique voice and identity into the world, Rihanna is an artist. At the same time, though, we all know that pop music is hardly Mozart. The music industry is big business, and it is the most controversial, the most “sexy”, the most “edgy” artist who will rack in the sales. Rihanna’s career is one that sky-rocketed because she knows how to get attention, knows how to up the ante in this game. Deeming Man Down an artistic statement is perhaps a generous interpretation of Rihanna’s motives; a more accurate interpretation might be to deem it a savvy business move. We’re all talking about it, aren’t we?
“I’m just a girl, I can only be your/our voice!”
Hmmm. So she is speaking on behalf of girls. Now this I find interesting. Rihanna’s dramatic account of a woman murdering her rapist emerges amidst a lively public dialogue around victim-blaming, sparked by the ever-growing movement of the SlutWalks. The SlutWalks, organized in cities all around the world to protest a Toronto police-chief’s public statement that “if women don’t want to get raped they should avoid dressing like sluts,” has taken on a life of its own. The momentum and passion behind this movement speaks to its timeliness, the collective feeling among women and our male and gender-nonconforming allies that slut-shaming to excuse rape and sexual assault needs to be put to rest. We have fucking had it! We have had enough with the bullshit, the virgin/whore dichotomy, the judgmental attitudes and public shaming of people’s sexualities. Can you tell I am a SlutWalk activist? Although the movement is flawed, its language rendering it inattentive to the experiences of women of color, the fierceness of the conviction that rapists must be held accountable for rape is palpable and urgent. And rightly so, in my opinion.
So, like many “girls,” (read: women) Rihanna is fed up with rape, fed up with men thinking her flirtatious style is an invitation to her body. She created a music video to live out an angry fantasy, a fantasy that is perhaps shared by many a girl/woman who has experienced sexual assault, and she only allows herself to enact this fantasy by couching it in self-doubt and guilt. She speaks within traditions of reggae and hip hop, genres known for their fearlessness and subversiveness. She brings in a missing voice to the conversation, a perspective of a woman of color. As the Crunk Feminist Collective points out, “Women of color are deemed deviant even for voicing our narratives of rape and sexual assault, especially when our stories insinuate that we are morally complex human beings.” (Read the whole article at CFC, and the comments that follow. There is some excellent dialogue there.) That’s a pretty damn good point, and it is written by a woman who prefaces her support of Rihanna’s video with an affirmation that she believes in a nonviolent way of life. We can be nonviolent, can be good citizens and even good parents, but still recognize when an artistic statement (even one whose artistic merit is compromised by being profit-driven) is designed to provoke emotion and conversation rather than to glamourize a life-style to teens.
And yet, Rihanna’s use of the word “girl,” and her double pronoun, “your/our voice” shows me that she is well aware of the age-range of her audience. She knows full well that she is tapping into some very mature themes and that her products go right into the eyes and ears of adolescents and teens. And she is far from alone. “Media watchdogs” like the Parents Television Council have their hands full trying to stop “adult” content from infecting media consumed by youth, and I for one am not interested in fighting a losing battle. Especially now that the internet is so accessible via new smart technologies, even the parents themselves cannot keep “adult” content out of kids’ worlds. The game is changing. And with it, our engagement with youth must change.
Rihanna herself is very young, and she is not only exposed to these themes, but is offering her own interpretations of them. She is trying to speak her truth. I wonder, if we were to let go of our white-knuckled grip on this fight to shelter youth from complex and painful subject matter, and instead engage them in honest and shame-free conversations about them, what truths might young people reveal? Imagine yourself as a teen, just for a moment, utterly immersed in music videos, websites, and advertisements that expose you to sex, even kinky sex, violence, and complexity of human relationships. And imagine that, because your parents want to shelter you and because your educators want to pretend these complexities do not exist, you are receiving NO OTHER MESSAGES on these topics besides the ones pop culture is selling you. You are in a sea of images competing for your attention, daring to reveal what is most raw and most shocking in human nature, and you are given no boat and no paddle. You have no framework to makes sense of the messages, who they are coming from and why. What do you do with a world that shoves your face in “adult” content and then refuses to explain it? Might your truth, if you chose to convey it by producing a music video of your angriest fantasy, be hard to take?
Rihanna’s not trying to be a role model; she’s trying to be a girl and to speak to girls in their language. She knows this content is fair game for youth because, unlike we parents, educators, and media watch-dogs, she is not in denial about just how much young people already know. Until we learn to stop patronizing young people with our silence and our conviction that we must change the culture on their behalf, we continue to provide them with no boat and no paddle for the here and now. Only by embracing a changing world, even the changes that make us uncomfortable, can we help the audience for Rihanna’s Man Down video form a context for their media and develop some healthier coping strategies for life’s very “adult” challenges.
Committing murder is no way for an empowered, healthy girl to take up her space in the world, even if in response to something as God-awful as sexual assault. But creating a music video to enact the fantasy and get people talking about not blaming rape on its victim?… that just might be.