After our discussion of Quentin Tarantino’s latest yesterday, the question of revenge fantasies and art has been on my mind, so when the Parents Television Council emailed me yesterday to warn me about Rihanna’s latest, of course I went to check it out.* Megan Franko, the spokeswoman at PTC, wrote “In my 30 years of viewing BET, I have never witnessed such a cold, calculated execution of murder in primetime.” It’s true, the murder that opens the “Man Down” video is fairly disconcerting:
But I think focusing on that opening sequence ignores the fairly important work that’s happening in the rest of the video. Because really, this is a video about what it’s like to be sexually assaulted. And I think it’s really useful to have someone who is as big a star as Rihanna deciding to play a victim, and to play a victim in this specific scenario: she flirts with a guy at a club but turns him down when he wants more, he follows her when she heads home, corners her in an isolated location, she fights, but ultimately he overpowers her and she stops fighting. That look of fear in her eyes when she surrenders matters, and it’s powerful.
When you’re being assaulted, it’s not really surprising that at some point you might do a horrible back-of-the-envelope calculation and decide that it’s better to get raped and try to deal with it later than to die. Getting sexually assaulted is not a moment when you have perfect information—like certain knowledge of whether your attacker will kill or grievously injure you if you continue to resist—on which to base your decisions, or at which your theoretical principals are more important than your survival. It’s a disaster for rape and assault victims that cops, judges, and juries still don’t consistently understand that the decision to submit is not a decision to consent. And if this video helps anyone understand that, I can live with the head shot. Which, by the way, I think every line in the song, suggests was a really bad thing to have done.
*NB: I assume this is what everyone does when the PTC puts out an alert, right? I sometimes wonder if they should start complaining about utterly random stuff just to send us on wild goose chases.