Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Rihanna's "Man Down"

It's been well over a week since Rihanna's controversial "Man Down" video premiered on tv.
What gets me is that there is controversy at all over this video. There are lots of violent music videos out there, but almost none of them seem to have received the attention that this particular music video has.
I'd like to take us back a couple of weeks (ages, in the 24 hour news cycle) to the Common Controversy. Basically, the rapper Common was invited to the White House for a poetry reading by the First Lady. Fox News began accusing the White House of all sorts of bizarre things, mostly that Common's lyrics were unfit for the President to support. It was mostly a non-controversy, which is to say, anyone with even a basic understanding of art was able to see through this as an obvious non-issue. Common is one of the least violent rappers around, often calling for an end to violence in his lyrics.
But the idea, that black men are violent, is a pervasive aspect of American racist rhetoric, one that has its roots in the antebellum period, where those who supported slavery would assert that African Americans had to be enslaved, otherwise their "savage blood" would cause them to commit acts of violence. A bunch of white, wealthy men picking on Common as violent without any proof or justification (not even in his art) is just another round of American racism at its finest: obscuring the actual issues through disinformation and fear.
And then there's Rihanna's video, which is perhaps one of the least violent videos I've seen. In it, Rihanna shoots an unarmed man in a train station, and later the video goes back in time to reveal he raped her. This is apparently a problem because, well...wait, why?
Because we can't handle a black woman using an act of violence as revenge against her attacker, nevermind the circumstances over which she was attacked first. (I notice no one else was offering to do anything about her rapist in this video; like most rapes, it went unnoticed by anyone else other than the rapist and the victim.)
It's not as if these revenge fantasies, in which a woman destroys her attacker, are new. Take Lady Gaga, for instance, who kills her attackers in several videos. In "Paparazzi," Lady Gaga's boyfriend uses her body and sex as a way to increase his own fame, and then throws her from a balcony. She poisons him. Lady Gaga herself explained that her video for "Bad Romance" is about her being kidnapped and forced to work for as a prostitute for a bizarre fashion house-brothel. At the end of the video, she sets a man (the one who is coded to look like the head of this house) on fire right before she enters his bed and presumably is about to have sex with him. Nowhere have I heard any discussion about the violence in those vidoes, where a white woman could apparently take revenge against her rapist without certain people calling for it to be a problem. When it's a black woman, racist rhetoric about violence which ignores context comes out.
(Ms. Magazine also makes some good points about rape culture, but mostly ignores that racism that is implicit in this so-called critique of a black violence.)

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