The Political Contours of Rihanna’s “Man Down”: pulling the trigger on rape culture

Recently Rihanna has been criticized for her music video, “Man Down,” for narrating a story in which a woman murders a man who has raped her. Katie at the Women in Theology blog has posted some thoughts on the double standards demonstrated in the focus on violence in Rihanna’s video. In what follows, I’d like to offer some broader commentary on the video itself.

First, we should be remember the context in which we saw this video (here in the U.S.). A few weeks ago, Kansas State Rep. Pete DeGraaf defended a bill that bans health insurance companies from covering the cost of an abortion except in cases when the mother’s life is at stake by saying that women need to “plan ahead.” If they think they would want an abortion in such an instance, they could purchase abortion insurance. After all, he quipped, he has a spare tire in his car and also has life insurance. This crude comparison, among other problems, assumes rape is a normal, minor problem (spare tire) or a tragic but unavoidable aspect of womanhood (as mortality is in being human).

Within this situation, Rihanna’s video and the lyrics are political and should be interpreted on this level as well on the personal level of responding to the trauma of rape. Rihanna’s video draws out the social implications of this drama by attending to the social aspects of the “altercation.” Rihanna is seen interacting with many diverse members in the community. The lyrics repeatedly appeal to her mom (“oh mama, mama, mama I shot a man down”) and also considers that the man down “could’ve been somebody’s son.” There are repeated references to jail time. Both crimes are public: the rape occurs outside and the rapist is seen following her from the club and then returning to the club; the murderous response happens “in front of a big old crowd.” Most importantly, the listener is directly addressed and confronted (killed?) with this same gun:

“When me pull the trigger, pull the trigger, pull it ‘pon you
Somebody tell me what I’m gonna, what I’m gonna do.”

I have theories as to why the political elements are not considered (black women have been “doubly excluded” from political life as black and female) in spite of being so clearly drawn up. Needless to say, Rihanna directly confronts the listener with this gun, forcing us not to move past or trivialize the crime of rape but to see it as a matter of life and death–for her, for us, and for our communities.

The middle verse stands out as it portrays an aggressive, calloused, violent appearance which is contradicted by the rest of the song and the video. She says,

It’s a 22, I call her Peggy Sue
When she fits right down in my shoes
What do you expect me to do
If you’re playing me for a fool
I will lose my cool
And reach for my fire arm

Yet, in the video, the gun is not on her to defend her but buried in a drawer, and the lyrics repeat her sense of guilt, lack of intention, and shock over actually murdering someone. This feigned toughness is thus one aspect of a response to a world in which the very intimacy that bonds the society together can quickly shift into a world of “sticky situations” and violent altercations.

The murder follows through with this violent trajectory and reveals that the attempt to reclaim agency by murdering the rapist actually leads to the social erasure of the woman. Her social disappearance is spoken of throughout the song, resulting in the end that “none of them can see me now, see me now.” The social place of the black female thus stands under this double bind. On the one hand, the disavowal of violence perpetuates a society in which the woman’s social status can be suddenly removed: the video highlights the woman’s deep social connection prior to the rape and her isolation after it. On the other hand, embracing violence only creates agency within criminality and destroys the very patters of social life–intimate life–that she wanted to protect and uphold.

Rihanna does not offer a solution to this problematic and it would seem disingenuous to try, especially when one aspect of the problem is how quickly we want to “move on” (or just ignore) the problem of rape for our whole society. So, all of us, especially us men, should listen and think very carefully when Rihanna says

“When me pull the trigger, pull the trigger, pull it ‘pon you
Somebody tell me what I’m gonna, what I’m gonna do.”

“Somebody tell me” could be a plea for guidance or could be a defiant challenge asserting her unpredictability. The ambiguity should not be resolved for it is the key moment in which all of us–men and women–can acknowledge that this culture of rape is a culture of death. Our lives–our subjectivity, our bodies, and our society–are at stake in how we respond, in particular, how women respond. Hopefully it will not take more “men down” to help us men see what is also at stake for us in fighting against a culture that trivializes and normalizes rape.

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This entry was posted in art, death, ethics, feminism, politics, race, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Political Contours of Rihanna’s “Man Down”: pulling the trigger on rape culture

  1. Pingback: The Theological Contours of Rihanna’s “Man Down”: pulling the trigger on rape culture | veeritions

  2. Pingback: Rihanna’s “Man Up”: Two Theological Reflections | Political Jesus

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