Pop Culture

Rihanna Speaks: Who Gets To Talk About Rape?

(Author’s note: Trigger warning for discussions and videos of sexual assault, violence and rape.)

Last week, Rihanna released the video for her newest single, “Man Down,” a video narrative set to the remorse Rihanna-as-narrator feels after shooting her rapist. It’s a great testament to the power of “No” as upcoming summer clothes get shorter and public entitlement of bodies gets more obvious. As the guy sans T-shirt on my block says every morning, “Sure it’s hot, but if women didn’t want to get noticed, they wouldn’t wear such clothes!” Even more well-timed as it drops in the midst of the ongoing Strauss Kahn victim blaming, the Mata/Moreno verdict and the continuing race fail around Arnold Schwarzenegger’s affair with Mildred Baena (as well as past serious claims of groping women throughout his career).

The video starts out with Rihanna hiding in the shadows, looking down at foot traffic. At one point a man walks by and a shot rings out, killing him in one fell swoop, sending Rihanna fleeing. The next shot brings us to the previous day: Rihanna smiling, riding her bike, and we can only assume it’s going to go downhill from there.  She is portrayed as the town cutie ““ smiling, “flirtatious” (friendly), “dressed a certain way” (it’s hot), and eventually dances sensually with her rapist. After her quick dance, she clearly states she’s not interested and leaves the club, her soon-to-be rapist following her. He confronts her, a fight ensues and Rihanna is eventually raped. The video has caused controversy with several watchdog groups hemming and hawing for its takedown. Rihanna has responded with a most valid point, “This is the real world.”

Cause I didn’t mean to hurt him

Coulda been somebody’s son

And I took his heart when

I pulled out that gun

It’s actual complexity to offer a fictional character in a pop sense, and that’s good because that’s often the reality of rape in the real world.  Unless you’re deemed a “good” sexual assault victim, a white virgin walking down the street from church in broad daylight and attacked by a “devious” man of color, something that stokes more Rosewood-esque,  Jennifer Carol Wilbanks style, xenophobic race fear over the possession of “good women” then actual concern for women, rape is otherwise ignored, made invalid or treated as a social casualty, a price for just being on earth.  Whether it’s a woman trying to do her job and sexually assaulted by the head of the IMF or an 11-year-old girl gang raped because she “looked older” and had an “absent mother,” rape is answered with, “What did you do to deserve it?” and more often, silence.

One could say that the video stands out in the often violent and misogynistic world of hip-hop, and while there is some truth to that, it’s too easy and moreover, incorrect to just scapegoat hip-hop as being unfriendly to women. Everyone seems to forget Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” or Dean Martin’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” songs dedicated respectively to being loyal to your husband even after he’s had his way with you (and others), and pressuring a woman (by spiking her drink) to get her to have sex with you. The Rolling Stones can get a pass with “Brown Sugar” just because they’re the Rolling Stones and that song was just so good and, “Oh, I didn’t know it was about sexually abusing slaves.” The Dixie Chicks?  Sure, “Goodbye Earl” earned its bit of controversy for violent measures taken on an abusive husband, but there was never a demand to remake the video as there is on Rihanna.

The upset isn’t just because there is rape, though it is interesting to see the reaction of the public as a woman takes revenge, albeit violently, into her own hands. The upset seems also in part of the push against a three-dimensional view of female sexuality and the reality of sexual violence, in this case, a black woman’s. While pop culture might give a hesitant pass to the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” and Miranda Lambert of American Idol fame’s “Gunpowder and Lead,” race still rears its ugly head in the body and sexual politics of young black women (and with other women of color)  in much different ways then white women, especially in the spotlight.  One has to wonder what the reaction would be if Katy Perry or Lady Gaga had made the exact same video: would the girl with the whipped cream shooting bra get surrounded by as much controversy?  Would it just be seen as “shtick” if it were Lady Gaga, adding it as a factor of being “born this way”? Would they get a pass because they are white and therefore not, as Crunktastic over at Crunk Feminist Collective voices, “…deemed deviant even for voicing our narratives of rape and sexual assault, especially when our stories insinuate that we are morally complex human beings”?

How do we talk about rape in pop culture? More importantly, who gets to talk about it?

It comes back to a simple truth that is constantly tripped over in any discussion of rape or rape culture: the just because. Just because I dressed this way, doesn’t mean you get to rape me (but why was she dressed a certain way!). Just because I dance with you, doesn’t mean I owe you anything (but why did she lead him on?). The media and culture at large are still interested in pinpointing the reason for being raped as the fault of the victim because it’s really easy to do so. The video’s message is, “Just because I am this, doesn’t mean you have the right to rape me,” a nice fuck-you in terms of expecting all rape victims to just quietly shove their tails between their legs and deal with what they had coming to them. Coming from Rihanna, someone who has experienced domestic abuse, it says much more about the complications of emotions and real life than some titillating stab at shocking people with just something violent.

To those of us out there who have experienced rape, sexual violence, the failure of the legal system, the media’s constant victim blaming, the idea of rape as revenge on good men as opposed to a crime aimed generally at women, and the overbearing, in-your-face normalcy of rape culture in almost every waking day of our lives ““ sometimes we want to act out in violence and irrationality. Because have you ever had a conversation with someone who can only answer with, “Well, I mean they shouldn’t have dressed/looked/done/etc.”?  I can count on one hand how many times I have ever heard someone say, “He shouldn’t have raped.”

One hand, y’all.

So while I wouldn’t go ahead and shoot my rapist in real life, this is the world of pop culture video land, and why are we all of a sudden up in arms over a fictional character seeking revenge on her rapist, pearl clutching over the issue of “violence”? If these groups are so concerned about violence, whether it’s being gunned down or depictions of sexual aggressiveness and violence, where were their concerned, chirpy voices when the following videos below were released?

So my question for the media watchdog groups who are so concerned about how Rihanna is tainting the young children of America with portraying an honest view of what sexual violence looks like: what has been your answer to fixing this problem so the need to talk about it changes? What work have you done with domestic and sexual abuse centers? What have you done to educate these children about how you shouldn’t rape? How have you prepared yourself and your children for the violence that awaits one out of three women? How are you addressing that rape extends beyond a “woman’s issue” and affects men  and those who may carry the utilities of womanhood, yet don’t define themselves as women? How are you making the playing field even for the valuing of all bodies?


Go ahead, I’ll wait.


12 replies on “Rihanna Speaks: Who Gets To Talk About Rape?”

Thank you for a great article, Coco! I think any person who has been raped should be at liberty to talk about it, if they want to. Anyone who says ”Well, they shouldn’t talk about rape because X” is being a rape apologist, IMO. Rape is something that happens to women (and men) from all walks of life. It’s time for the public to stop clutching their pearls about a woman – especially a woman of color, scantily clad no less – standing up for herself against sexual violence. I don’t feel that vigilantism is the answer, but with the way our current ”justice system” (ha!) works, I imagine it might be considerably more satisfying to shoot your assailant than to jump through the hoops that comprise ”proper channels”.

I do condone violence in certain cases, and this was one of them. Honestly, my reaction to Rhianna’s video was “he had it coming”. I’ll never shed a tear for a rapist who gets killed by the hand of their victim, and frankly I would welcome more victims fighting back in this way, despite the contradictions and negative consequences that such a point of view entails.

Coco, this is a really great article. And I love that you posted the dreamworlds video, those should be part of every high school curriculum.

I think the video was unique and presented an opportunity for people to have a real discussion about sexual assault and rape. Instead, people choose to focus on the revenge aspect of it where she shoots him. All of the reasons you stated above involving victim blaming and race are a huge part of why some people are so against the video.
I don’t think the video is promoting vigilante justice or violence (although wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where rapists were afraid of their victims?)

Instead I choose to focus on the ‘what if’ of taking away what these watchdog groups are so upset over. What if the girl in this story went to the police to report her attack instead of taking matters into her own hands? What are the chances that she would be taken seriously? Would anyone believe her, or would people shun her and shame her for accusing someone? Would she go through further humiliation and stress in the process? Would people she trusted turn on her, and call her a liar? What details of her life would be picked apart and examined to try to prove that she was somehow asking for it?

I think we all know how the rest of the story would likely play out.

So we live in a world where rapists are hardly ever brought to justice and where survivors of rape are usually told they did something wrong to allow the rape to happen. And people get upset that someone made a cathartic music video of a fictional situation where a rape surviver gets revenge? Ugh. Lets focus on the fact that there are serious flaws in our society and system of justice that can be attributed for such low rates of rape convictions. Lets get mad about that.

Hi CoCo, I have to be honest with you and say when I heard about this controversy I thought it was much to do about nothing, because I perceived the real issue to be that women cannot kill men, especially not a black woman, no matter what men do, and we don’t want little girls getting any funny ideas — I really think that’s what the problem was.

So my question for the media watchdog groups who are so concerned about how Rihanna is tainting the young children of America with portraying an honest view of what sexual violence looks like: what has been your answer to fixing this problem so the need to talk about it changes?

I think the honest answer, if people wanted be honest that is — is we don’t want to talk about it; we don’t want to fix it. Great videos, by the way. Thanks for this.

Just a quick message to say that including this:

Everyone seems to forget Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” or Dean Martin’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” , songs dedicated respectively to being loyal to your husband even after he’s had his way with you (and others), and pressuring a woman (by spiking her drink) to get her to have sex with you.

is perhaps something of an error – in this case, applying the perspective of one’s own generation to those of the past. To say that “Baby it’s cold outside” is about date rape is akin to saying that the Cure’s “Killing an Arab” is about murdering muslims, “Born in the USA” is an ode to nationalism or the beat’s “mirror in the bathroom” is about cocaine. Respectively, the songs are about Camus’ “the stranger”, the Vietnam war and narcissism. To present your interpretation of a song as fact, and to use said ‘fact’ to bolster your argument is somewhat disingenuous.

One suspects that you read an article somewhere on the web about this in which the case was made that Dino was singing about spiking his best gal’s drink. But spike it with what? Rohypnol, perhaps? Probably not, considering it was first synthesized in 1972. I guess it’s irrelevant, as the drink (that she asked for, by the way) is obviously spiked with something, considering this line:

Say, what’s in this drink? (No cabs to be had out there)

It’s probably rum, but whatever.

Remember, this song was written in 1936, performed as a duet with the author’s wife and was considered (by her) to be their song. Do you not think she might have thought about the negative overtones? Well, probably not, living as she did in the 1930s and not in the 21st century, where date rape is a prominent concern, people regularly trip out on MDMA and dancing has evolved from jitterbugging to booty grinding.

Reading the lyrics, one can make the case that the woman knows exactly what she’s doing and is teasingly flirting with the man, because she likes him, but has her reasons for not jumping into bed with him right away (though she seems to want to) – a pretty common occurrence through history, I’d wager.

But then, one can also make the case, as you’ve done, that “baby it’s cold outside” is about a frustrated suitor, tired of playing nice with some floozy, who decides to go the easy route and rape her.

Ugh. Thanks for that, Ms 2011.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and tell people “sweet Georgia brown” is about heroin.

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