When pop idol Rihanna was physically attacked by boyfriend Chris Brown, the public's anger was palpable. "Put him in jail!" they cried. "Make him pay!"
Two years later, the tables have turned and those same critics are now verbally beating up Rihanna, outraged by her new music video in which she kills the man who sexually assaulted her. The big question, though, isn't why she felt compelled to graphically depict this violence. It's why are we still blaming the victim?
Since her brutal real-life attack, the public has expected Rihanna to be a role model for the millions of young fans who hang on her every lyric: to literally be the poster girl against abuse. That's understandable, considering a study which reveals that almost half of all high school girls have experienced teen dating violence.
But what has happened instead is actually way more enlightening -- and may prove to be a bigger wake-up call. With her last two deeply disturbing song choices -- Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie" and, now, "Man Down" -- combining to make a powerful statement, Rihanna has proven herself to simply be human. She has been the victim of abuse and is still traumatized by it. She can not just confidently move on, as much as the public might want her to, and she's crying out for help through song. We need to listen.
I was shocked and disgusted when I first heard Eminem sing, "I know I'm a liar, if she ever tries to f**king leave again, I'ma tie her to the bed and set the house on fire," with Rihanna taking the chorus, responding, "Just gonna stand there and watch me burn, but that's alright, because I like the way it hurts."
I couldn't believe, after all she had been through, she would willingly depict herself in the victim role again rather than stand up against her abuser. I was so angry with her. And then "Man Down" was released.
Suddenly, I got it. Rihanna was far from healed. While the storyline of the new video was empowering -- she took control and got rid of her attacker for good -- she also knew it wasn't the answer. She was going to go to jail -- possibly for the rest of her life. This is what happens to women who take matters into their own hands, and Rihanna was confused as to what else she could have done. If only she realized how many other females feel exactly the way she does, this is where she could have -- and still can -- make a difference.
My good friend, Elin Stebbins Waldal, whose memoir, Tornado Warning, is a sobering firsthand account of teen dating violence, is furious about the message she believes Rihanna is sending. She can give you the names of dozens of women who killed their abusive husbands, only to end up spending the rest of their own lives behind bars. Olivia Klaus' award-winning documentary, Sin by Silence, brings these women's stories to life and proves that revenge killing is not the answer.
So what is the answer? Stebbins Waldal believes that a 30 second PSA at the end of each of the two videos is all it would take to change their tone and transform them into positive messages. Really, it may take something as simple as featuring www.thehotline.org onscreen at the end.
I hope Rihanna will seriously consider doing this. What a service she would be doing for all the women who share her experience but don't know where to turn. It would make people watch the video all over again, doubling the 21 million plus views it's already had on YouTube - although, unlike the Parents Television Council (PTC), I honestly don't believe she made this video for the shock value. (And, as a fascinating aside, "Man Down" is, at this posting, number five on iTunes list of top music videos although it's conspicuously absent from the top ten song list. This is a video that can absolutely make a difference.)
Reggae music has long been the rhythm of social and political change, and I'd like to think this was Rihanna's way of bringing the issue out in the open and making people confront it and do something about it.
Speaking on behalf of the PTC, Former Black Entertainment Television voice Paul Porter said, "If Chris Brown shot a woman in his new video and BET premiered it, the world would stop."
The problem is Chris Brown brutally attacked a woman in real life, and the world didn't.