Critics Miss the Mark on Rihanna's Video
With her new controversial video "Man Down," Rihanna defies stereotypes about rape victims.
We see it in the media's handling of the case concerning the 32-year-old Guinean housekeeper who accused the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, of sexually assaulting her at the hotel where she worked. In the aftermath, the New York Post ran the headline "Hotel Maid in HIV Shock: IMF Gal in AIDS-Help Apartment," in what amounts to nothing more than a smear campaign and attempt to turn this woman into what Salamishah Tillet, co-founder of the anti-rape organization A Long Walk Home, describes as "the sexual predator rather than a potential victim."
It's reflected in the acquittal of Franklin Mata and Kenneth Moreno, two New York City police officers who were charged with the sexual assault of a woman they were called to help. According to the woman, Mata served as lookout while Moreno raped her after assisting her to her apartment. Because she was drunk, in some minds she couldn't know what happened to her that night or was likely a willing participant in any sexual encounter that did take place.
The media narrative surrounding the cases would lead one to believe that the survivors of these attacks are not entitled to justice, in part because of their own behavior.
In her video, Rihanna is like one of those girls.
Perhaps if the concept behind "Man Down" had been carried out by an artist like Taylor Swift, someone whose persona leans more toward sweet and innocent, she likely would have drummed up much more public support for the message behind the imagery. People could rally behind the revenge story of a girl whom they actually believed was forced into sex. Rihanna, however, has spent time cultivating a sexy, devil-may-care, half-naked rock-star image that makes her somehow less sympathetic, even after she was physically abused by Chris Brown.
But it shouldn't, and that's the ultimate point. Rape is rape, and it's wrong no matter who it happens to. Rihanna says that the video holds an important message for girls, but the message in this video could prove even more valuable for men. It can help get young boys and men to accept that girls and women, no matter their perceived promiscuity and sexual availability, are entitled to the same body autonomy that men ascribe to themselves.
One would hope it doesn't take the threat of a bullet to the brain for people to understand this, but unfortunately that's where we seem to be in the discussion of rape and sexual assault.
Does the video have to be as graphic as it is? No. Men also don't have to rape. That's an idea worth engaging.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental-health advocate. Follow him on Twitter.