Mamma I Just Shot A Man Down: Rihanna’s response to violence against women

Pop singer Rihanna has offered to re-film the music video 'Man Down', in which she plays a rape victim who shoots her abuser. But was the controversy caused by the film's sexual and violent content, or because it shows a woman answering back on her own terms?

Is there a ‘right’ way to sing about rape?  Tori Amos’s ‘Silent All These Years’?  Fiona Apple’s ‘Sullen Girl’?  I used to lean towards my own subjective reading of Liz Phair’s ‘California’ – the mix of numbness and hint of Thelma and Louise narrative – the only lines she sings are “And I tried to tell you before/ That’s why I left California.”  Is it an objectionably crass question in the first place, to consider different ways to depict the effects of rape through music?

Either way, Rihanna’s new single ‘Man Down’, or at least its accompanying music video, is, apparently, the wrong way.  After the controversy it has provoked, Rihanna has apparently offered to re-film the video without the offensive scenes – a sexual assault at the end, and a more unambiguous scene of a man – a rapist, we later learn – being shot in the neck before the song begins.  And not only has Rihanna been criticised for the gratuitous use of violence in the video, but ‘Man Down’ has even been uncomfortably entangled in the broader debate of the permeation of graphic sexual imagery in mainstream media, and the debate about the ‘sexualisation of children’ – ignoring the fact that, unlike the vast majority of violent and graphic imagery in popular culture, Rihanna’s ‘Man Down’ is a response to and condemnation of male violence, and a rare depiction of complex (if stark and perhaps problematically handled) female moral agency.

It should go without saying that music videos that glorify violence are hardly a social good, and I doubt anyone would argue that Rihanna’s ‘Man Down’ presents an ideal response to violence, but the level of condemnation for one video is surprising.  In the USA, media watchdog groups like Mothers Against Violence and the Parents Television Council have called for the video to be banned.  More bizarrely, the Guardian chose to use Rihanna’s photo and a reference to ‘Man Down’ to accompany its story that the British government’s report into the sexualisation of childhood is set to propose stricter regulations of the advertising and music industry. The blind spots and internal contradictions in the current campaign against the “sexualisation of children” by the media and popular culture have been pointed out by Laurie Penny, Charlie Brooker and others, coming as it seems to be mainly from quarters that hold little concern for the corrosion of women’s rights under the current government, or child poverty entrenched by the government cuts.  

As Laurie Penny writes:

...if it is harmful for an eight-year-old to engage with a culture that encourages her to starve herself and shames her for not looking like a porn star, why is it any less harmful at 18, or 28?  It is always painful to watch a young woman grow up into what the French feminist Virginie Despentes calls "the universal market of the consumable chick". It is no solution, however, to…simply prevent those girls from "growing up too soon". The solution is to fight for a world in which girls can grow up with dignity, and it is that basic vision that the current "sexualisation" debate fails to deliver.

Aside from the internal contradictions of the debate over the “sexualisation” of music videos and advertising, bringing Rihanna’s video into the issue (presumably because ‘Man Down’ was released in the same week as the British government’s announcement on its “sexualisation of children” report, and shortly after MP Nadine Dorries’s advocation of absintence-only education) was, at best, media illiterate.  At worst, it seems to be criticising a woman for responding to violence in anything other than a ‘feminine’ manner.   

This isn’t to say there aren’t problems with ‘Man Down’.  Some have read the regret expressed in the video as a coded message for Rihanna’s relationship with Chris Brown, a kind of apology for “ruining his career” after his violence against her became public – and which was more unambiguously referenced in Rihanna’s collaboration with Eminem, ‘Love The Way You Lie’.  (The ‘Love The Way You Lie’ video was arguably far more problematic than ‘Man Down’ – on the one hand an exploration of toxic personal dynamics, the stylised, soft porn-y kissing and fighting of the actors Megan Fox and Dominic Monaghan was also criticised for glamorising domestic violence, alongside lyrics that implied violence was part of the “passion” of a relationship. When Eminem says “if she ever tries to fucking leave again I’m a tie her to the bed and set this house on fire”, is this a depiction, or an endorsement of an abuser’s worldview?)

A better criticism of ‘Man Down’ is that a really groundbreaking response to dominant depictions of violence against women in popular culture might be to show Rihanna reporting the crime and all the difficulty that can entail, from the rape kit procedure to a trial, rather than the defeatist message that violence can only be answered with violence.

But despite these criticisms, Rihanna deserves credit for presenting sexual assault as an extreme crime that causes extreme psychological damage, and for responding to the pervasive glorification of male violence and objectification of women that has permeated music and culture in the last twenty years.  For once, the message is clear: in the ‘Man Down’ video, Rihanna drinks, dances with the guy, flirts with him, says no – and her no really means no, no excuses.  Those who criticised the video’s violence seem to overlook the fact that the song is actually a heartfelt expression of remorse, far removed from any celebration of revenge.  Watching ‘Man Down’, the part that cuts through me isn’t a man getting shot in the neck or a woman being assaulted (can anyone who watches movies, MTV, or the evening news really say they find these scenes uniquely graphic?) but the refrain “mamma, mamma, mamma” – the feeling of total helplessness; a young woman calling for her mother because the situation she’s in is so un-real to her – coupled with the lines “whatever happened to me?” capturing the sense of total annihilation of self after a violating attack.  Perhaps the shocking thing about the song, in other words, is that it gives voice to a woman’s real emotional and moral world (can’t exactly say that about the Pussycat Dolls, can you?).

Undertones of racist double standards could be seen in the negative response to Rihanna’s video, compared to white musicians who’ve sung about taking revenge on violent men, such as country group The Dixie Chicks in their song ‘Goodbye Earl’, which doesn’t express the complexity of regret and moral uncertainty of ‘Man Down’.  The Crunk Feminist Collective blogged in response to the backlash to the video:

Somehow, I do not believe the outrage would be comparable if this were a white woman, although this rampant rape culture shows its white victims no love either. Yes, Rihanna may simply be a good celebrity target, but it is utterly disturbing the manner in which any portraits that offer complicated, three dimensional representations of Black women are now unceremoniously banned from the air. These days, Black women and our experiences of rape and sexual violence are forced into invisibility when they don’t fit mainstream, pristine narratives of how to cope. Whether it be Rihanna’s teenaged fans, immigrants working as hotel maids all over this country, eleven year old Latina girls in Texas, or the Black girl next door to you,  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. That is unfortunate, dangerous, and frankly infuriating.

If the problem is the video rather than the song, then what’s the ‘right’ way to depict violence against women on screen?  Growing up in the 1990s, Thelma and Louise was practically compulsory viewing at our fourteen-year-old movie nights, for its mixture of testament to female friendship and the promise of a near-naked Brad Pitt – but the ‘revenge on the rapist’ narrative is similar to Rihanna’s supposedly gratuitous video.  Is ‘Man Down’ more shocking than Thelma and Louise because Thelma and Louise at least contained a message of female solidarity, whereas Rihanna in ‘Man Down’ is very much alone and desolate, “about to leave town”, a lone criminal? Is the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It? more appropriate than Rihanna’s ‘Man Down’ because it presents a triumph-over-adversity story in the face of male violence against women, instead of a sense of obliteration of self?

The narrative comparison between ‘Man Down’ and Gaspar Noé’s 2002 film Irréversible is striking: with the chronology broken, the sexual assault – in Irréversible, the single scene lasting ten minutes – is placed towards the end of the film.   Noé’s film was widely criticised for its unrelentingly brutal scenes, again raising the question of why we condemn graphic depictions of sexual violence, but not ‘palatable’ depictions of what is always a dehumanising act.  Also in 2002 – before the days of Rihanna and the Pussycat Dolls – Britney Spears starred in Crossroads, a “comedy drama” in which “three childhood best friends, and a guy they just met, take a trip across the country, finding themselves and their friendship in the process.”  Ostensibly travelling across the country after they graduate from high school in order to find the Britney Spears character’s long-lost mother (if you can’t be an orphan, being a daughter with only a kindly, over-protective father seems to suffice to indicate your good-girl innocence in American teen movies), the plot of Crossroads actually rested in large part on the frankly horrifying scenario that the boyfriend of one of the three friends had raped the other friend, Mimi, and this is why Mimi is now pregnant – in the confrontation that ensues when this information is revealed, Mimi falls down a flight of stairs and suffers a miscarriage. The film was rated PG-13 for sexual content and “brief teen drinking”. 

Surely the apparent lightness with which the subject of rape was treated in the “comedy drama” Crossroads should shock us more than Rihanna’s expression of an extreme response to an extreme situation?  This isn’t to advocate graphic depictions of sexual violence or brutal ‘revenge on the rapist’ narratives such as I Spit On Your Grave, which are clearly open to the criticism of glorifying violence. But rather, as the Crunk Feminist Collective wrote on the news that Rihanna is considering re-shooting the ‘Man Down’ video, perhaps “we would be interested as a society in pursuing actual alternative endings for young women that don’t involve rape and brutalization in the first place, rather than creating “nicer,” “more palatable” endings in video land.”

Finally, it’s worth contrasting ‘Man Down’ with Beyoncé’s latest single, ‘Run The World (Girls)’, which produced this fantastic response by NineteenPercent, outlining how Beyoncé’s declaration that girls “run the world” in 2011 may be a little, well, optimistic.  Beyoncé’s army in the ‘Run The World’ video are presented as kind of “warriors” of sexual empowerment and sexual attractiveness – the weirdly Arabian Night-ish clothes and riot police shields presumably hinting at some exciting, dangerous revolution that will occur (of course) somewhere else, somewhere quote-unquote “exotic”.  The strange, sanitised riot-chic aside, there’s nothing so objectionable about the song – just that it’s about as far from ‘revolutionary’ as it’s possible to be; even the beat seems stolen straight from MIA circa 2007.  With Rihanna’s ‘Man Down’ and Beyoncé’s ‘Run The World (Girls)’ released within weeks of each other – and with countless generic violence-glorifying and women-objectifying singles maintaining their dominance of music video channels – why would Rihanna’s be chosen as a symbol that violence and sexualisation in media has suddenly “gone too far”?  Could it be that what makes people uncomfortable isn’t violence, or graphic sexual images, but simply a woman finally answering back on her own terms?

About the author

Heather McRobie is a journalist, writer, and co-editor of openDemocracy 50.50. She is completing a PhD on the 2011 Egyptian revolution and holds an MA focusing on Balkan studies. Her latest book Literary Freedom: a Cultural Right to Literature was published in December 2013.  Follow her on twitter @heathermcrobie