The music video for pop star Rihanna's latest single starts off with a literal bang. In "Man Down," a visibly distraught Rihanna is seen raising a small gun and killing a young man with a shot to the head in broad daylight on a crowded Jamaican street. We later learn that the young man had sexually assaulted her in an alley. It's the ultimate revenge story set to a reggae-tinged sound track — and a far cry from anything else Rihanna has done in her short career.
I'm not typically a fan of Rihanna's music, but this particular piece and accompanying video have won me over. Her willingness to tackle a topic of gravity and importance, often absent from the pop-music landscape, without sensationalizing or making light of the emotional turmoil that accompanies sexual assault is commendable. But I'm on one side of what has become a very heated debate.
The Parents Television Council is leading the charge against Rihanna and BET (where the video debuted), referring to the video as "an inexcusable, shock-only, shoot-and-kill theme song," adding that "the message of the disturbing video could not be more off base." The organization maintains that the video is "far from broadcast worthy" and that "if Chris Brown shot a woman in his new video, the world would stop."
Coming to the defense of Rihanna, actress Gabrielle Union took to Twitter to say, "I hope [that the video] leads 2 healing and prevents rape" and "every victim/survivor of rape is unique, including how they think they'd like justice 2 be handed out," while also admitting that she herself attempted to shoot the man who sexually assaulted her when she was 19.
While the Parents Television Council condemns the video's graphic violence (which isn't much worse than anything that makes its way to prime-time network TV), there's potential for a much bigger and more important conversation. What Rihanna does in this video complicates our very simplistic narrative regarding women's sexuality. Here we see that even if a woman is flirtatious and sexy and likes "whips and chains," she has every right to turn down men she isn't interested in sleeping with.
And we see that there is no justification for her subsequent sexual assault, no matter what she was wearing or how she acted before it happened. When rape occurs in real life, far too often we focus on a woman's dress or behavior as justification for the act. Whether it's explicitly stated or not, we have established a cultural understanding that certain "types" of women and girls "deserve" or were "asking" to be raped.
Public discourse on rape and sexual violence sometimes gets stuck in the realm of victim blaming — when more emphasis is placed on the character of the accuser than on that of the accused. We have seen this play out multiple times in recent history. An 11-year-old girl was gang-raped in Cleveland, Texas, and we found ourselves in a discussion about what kind of clothing she was wearing, the implication being that if she was dressed provocatively, the 18 men accused of her assault were somehow seduced into raping her.
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.