Between the runny mascara shots, the blue-hazed footage, and the recurring lyric, “I didn’t mean to take his life,” Rihanna’s new “Man Down” video is hardly a battle cry for survivors of assault. It is anything but the incentive to attack ones attacker, but that’s just the opinions of media watchdog groups. The songwriter of “Man Down” insists that it’s just a story, something they wrote in the tradition of Caribbean storytelling, while Rihanna insists it’s “art with a message.” Groups like the Parents Television Council insist it’s violence begetting violence, but no one is addressing the real question at the heart of the video: What choices do assault survivors really have?
In an interview with MTV News, songwriters Theron and Timothy “Don’t talk much.” Thomas said they wrote the song to help Rihanna channel her Barbados heritage in an “authentic” way. Specifically, they were trying to capture a woman’s experience in a geographic region where guns and violence reign supreme—akin to a female version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.”
The fact that the song was written by two men completely divorced from Barbados betrays a lot of the song’s “authenticity,” yet the issues addressed in “Man Down” transcend the narrow boundaries of Kingston, Jamaica, where the video is staged.
Listeners and viewers can’t forget that only two years ago, Rihanna was involved in a very public domestic violence case against her partner Chris Brown. When “Man Down” first came under attack, Rihanna remarked on her Twitter account that the video has a “very strong underlying message 4 girls like me.”
Rihanna was lucky (said in a relative sense since getting severely battered is hardly a matter of “luck”) in her prosecution of Chris Brown: she was a public figure with a cut-and-dry case. Statistics show most women are not that lucky, especially when it comes to sexual assault. The underlying assumption in many assault cases—something that is hinted at in “Man Down”—is that, somehow, assault survivors “deserved” to be assaulted. (Despite the cut-and-dry nature of Rihanna’s case, some fans even left comments to that effect on an MTV article about the Chris Brown investigation.)
Being blamed for their attack is one reason women frequently do not prosecute their attackers. The government calls sexual assault the most under-reported violent crime in the United States. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), 60 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police, though some organizations estimate higher figures.
Another fear assault survivors struggle with is that their accusation will not be taken seriously or they will suffer backlash as a consequence of prosecution. “Man Down” touches on another reality of sexual assault: that usually, survivors know their attackers beforehand. Seventy eight percent of attacks are completed by acquaintances, friends, relatives, or lovers—which makes proximity another huge obstacle to overcome when prosecuting an attack.
Perhaps the biggest fear of assault survivors, though, is that nothing can be done about the attack. While it’s true that the legal system can do nothing about unreported attacks, it’s also true that little is done even when attacks are reported. RAINN estimates that only six percent of rapists will ever spend so much as a day in jail, and that’s accounting for unreported rapes too.
On the BET program 106 & Park, Rihanna said, “I wanted to make a mini-movie, something raw and artistic. And if I can be a voice for so many that aren’t heard, then I win twice.”
Rihanna certainly dresses up the video in the “artsy” trappings of Hollywood, but she still manages to tackle an issue few pop stars even skirt. Instead of attacking the video—which shows less violence than a Law and Order clip—maybe media watchdog groups should more closely scrutinize the monotonous noise of objectifying the pop videos “Man Down” gets sandwiched between. Or better yet, they should ask themselves honestly: What’s really the most effective way for assault survivors to seek justice, and how can future assaults be prevented?