Saturday, June 11, 2011

Man Down

Trigger warning: Rape, murder, non-consensual crap

After reading a bunch of tumblr posts and short quotes about Rihanna's new video for her song "Man Down," I finally decided to take a time out for 5 minutes to watch it.  The video can be found here, although if you are easily triggered by sexual assault, this might be difficult to watch.

I'm not going to go into how I felt about the song.  As many of my friends know, I prefer to listen to alternative pop-rock (think Goo Goo Dolls).  I like to go out to clubs, so I have some favorite club songs I like (Ke$ha sets my teeth on edge ... except when I'm at a club), but otherwise I'm not so much interested in hip-hop.  I don't think I would ever have heard "Man Down" if I hadn't sought out the video, and while the song wasn't awful by any means, it's not my style of music.  Point is, I don't care very much about the song, or even the lyrics so much, with one exception.

The video

As for the video, it speaks for itself without the song, and even if you watch it, unaware of the controversy.  The video opens with a semi-crowded market, with plenty of people walking around; out of the shadows in a building window, Rihanna appears, looking immensely tense and unhappy, and she very slowly brandishes a gun.  She then shoots and kills a particular man, and disappears as the crowd runs from the gunshot.  We then cut to "Yesterday."

"Yesterday," Rihanna is walking/biking around, looking pretty normal and quite happy.  It's obvious, even if you don't know what's coming, that that dude she shot did something to change her from bright and happy to miserable and in the shadows, driven to kill.  We see her interacting with people happily, including children, smiling, enjoying life.

Then we see her go to a club.  She does dance with a guy a bit, pretty sexily, but then she stops dancing with him and leaves the club.  It doesn't look like she's upset (she still seems to be in a good mood); it seems as if she danced with him for a while and enjoyed it, and then decided it was time to go home.  But then the man follows her, even asking bystanders outside which way Rihanna went.  He catches up to her, grabs her forcefully, and rapes her.  When he leaves her, his shirt is torn.  Rihanna runs home, and frantically searches her drawers until she finds a gun, the one she uses at the beginning of the video.

The song

Like I said, I don't really care so much about the song, since it's not my type of music.  But one important thing I noticed about the song is that it never references the rape.  It's about how she shot a man, she feels guilty about it, that he meant something to other people (specifically, that he was someone's son), and that now she has to run.  Maybe I'm reading too much into it, since again, it doesn't reference the actual rape, but it seems to capture the guilt that many survivors feel for trying to seek punishment for their perpetrators.  We're encouraged not to "ruin the lives" of these perpetrators, and we're reminded of their humanity (that they're sons, boyfriends, brothers, friends ... normal people like you and me*).  Rihanna's motives are absent from the song, making the video very necessary to understand it, but when both are together, the lyrics become much more powerful.  You don't just know the motive anymore.  You GET the motive.  She's not saying, "He raped me, so I killed him."  She's singing about the guilt that she feels, the knowledge that she did something she shouldn't have, but we don't just know why she did it.  We understand why.

As a survivor

As many of you know, I was sexually assaulted as a teenager.  My assault wasn't violent, fortunately, but it still happened.  Part of my experience, along with the work I've done in sexual violence prevention, is that I cannot seem to separate myself from the feelings of a victim/survivor when hearing about sexual violence.  For example, I was having a conversation with a coworker, and we somehow got on the topic of Emma Watson, the actress who portrays Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films.  He told a story he thought was amusing, that someone asked for an autograph from Watson, but the photo they wanted signed was a paparazzi photo taken up Watson's skirt when she wasn't wearing underwear.

I didn't find it funny.  I couldn't really.  If someone had taken a photo of my vulva without my consent, and distributed it, that would be incredibly, horrifyingly violating.  My coworker brushed it off, saying that Watson should have just worn underwear.  But this is bullshit.  Sometimes, people don't wear underwear; there's no law that says that they can't.  And no one should be punished for it either.  Upskirting is illegal in the United States; going commando is not.  Second of all, how would the photographer have known that Watson wasn't wearing underwear?  And if she had worn underwear, THEN would it not be okay that it happened?  Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.

Point is, I go right to the victim/survivor's point of view.  And that's what happened while I watched the "Man Down" video.

As soon as the man began following Rihanna out of the club, I started getting very upset.  When the video cut to a shot of him covering her mouth, I started crying.

Folks, it was kind of terrifying.  Especially because I often go to clubs, wearing "sexy" clothing, and there are times when I dance with male strangers, and then decide I'm done dancing at one point or another.  Not that I'm now too scared to do either now, but it's chilling to know that for some men, that's all it takes.  A sexy outfit indicates that the woman's a slut.  Stopping dancing with you indicates that she's a tease.  Go punish her.**  This could happen to me.

Like I said, I'm not going to stop dressing up, getting tipsy, going to clubs, and dancing with male strangers.  I have a good time.  And I already have known for a while that I'm taking a risk when I do that, a risk that there will be a rapist around, and he'll choose me as a target.  But I know that ANYTHING I do besides barricading myself in my room and never going anywhere without gay male bodyguards, will increase my risk of being raped, because then I'll possibly expose myself to rapists, and not have a way to deter the rapists from raping me.

Would I ever shoot a perpetrator?  Well, I haven't shot the friend who assaulted me.  I've passed up opportunities to track him down, too.  But I understand the anger and helplessness.  I understand the fantasy.  It's pretty fucking horrible.

Bottom line

Rihanna's "Man Down" video is a shocking, but good way to get people talking about sexual assault.  It puts us in the place of the victim/survivor, and demonstrates (maybe too simply, but well nonetheless) the way that such an experience can change a person, and make them do things that would have seemed out of character before.  I appreciate this video a lot, and I'm thankful to Rihanna for making it.

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