Friday, June 10, 2011

Rihanna's Man Down and the Intersection of Colorism, Racism, and Hypocrisy

Rihanna's latest music video, "Man Down," has opened some fascinating discussions. Parents and pastors have cried out against the video for what they see as graphic violence and a poor role model for young viewers.

The video starts with Rihanna playing a character who watches a crowded station, and then pulls out a gun and shoots a man. The man then falls, and a pool of blood forms beneath his head, as his face takes on a horrified expression. The crowd that was surrounding him takes off, acting panicked. The video then goes back to the day before and shows Rihanna's character prancing carefree through town. She kisses and hugs children and elderly neighbors and even flirts and teases young men who are holding guns. As the video unfolds, it becomes apparent that the character went to a club where she danced with several men at different times. When one of the men tried to go further than she wanted, she clearly shoved him away and shook her head. He then followed her outside and raped her. The rape is never shown explicitly. Instead, the scene cuts from him holding her against the wall, his hand over her mouth and her eyes fearful, to her falling to the ground, still clothed but dejected and traumatized. It's clear what's happened, and it's clear that she's only clothed still for the sake of viewers. Immediately following the rape, Rihanna runs home, where she pulls a gun out of a drawer - a gun that was apparently there all along, but which she didn't feel she needed before the attack.

Much has already been said about this video, but I want to reiterate and elaborate on a few key areas: colorism, race, and interrogating the lenses the tint our judgment.


As Renee pointed out on Womanist Musings, it's significant that the rapist is dark-skinned, while Rihanna is light-skinned (as is her ex-boyfriend/attacker, Chris Brown). When news broke of Chris Brown's assault on Rihanna, a surprising number of people held her responsible and said that she must have provoked him. While it's not unusual for others to blame victims for what happens to them (I can tell you first-hand all about that one, as can the vast majority of victims and survivors), many pointed to stereotypes of black women as assertive and loud as evidence that Rihanna was somehow responsible. Yet it was hard to imagine the same response coming if Rihanna had been a white woman dating a black man. OJ, anyone?
So yes, no matter what Rihanna and the director intended when they cast the video, there are repercussions from the racial and skin hue breakdown of the "Man Down" video. Rihanna is easily the lightest-skinned person in the video. Every other character is played by a darker-skinned actor, including the children and elderly neighbors who are there in the sunnier scenes that lead up to the rape. On the one hand, this inclusion of dark-skinned actors in a major music video is fantastic. Actors with African descent have a lot against them as far as the performing arts go, particularly if they have darker skin than Oprah, Beyonce, and Rihanna. So it was great that Rihanna produced an all-black-cast video, with a mostly-dark-skinned cast. Heaven knows there are plenty of all-white videos out there.

But, as bloggers and commenters have been pointing out, why did it take a video about being raped, for the cast to be dark-skinned? And while only one of the dark-skinned characters rapes Rihanna's character, many other characters appear to share responsibility. After Rihanna's character leaves the party, the rapist follows and asks another man where she went, who helpfully points him toward her. Granted, there's no evidence that the other man knows what's about to happen, but camera angles make it clear that the rapist attacks her just feet from a group of other dark-skinned black men. It's not clear whether they hear but ignore, or if the rapist covers her mouth before she can ask those men for help. Either way, those men have implied complicity in the crime because they enable it by pointing him toward her and not interfering.

On the other hand, not all dark-skinned men are portrayed negatively in this video. The scene I find most compelling is the scene on the beach where Rihanna appears to be apologizing to a group of young boys, who transition from playing on the beach, carefree, the day before Rihanna shoots a man, to staring at Rihanna with somber eyes after she shoots him. I'm reading into things here, of course, but it seems like she's apologizing for killing one of their own, while also facing the fact that a man who became a rapist was once an innocent child. The implication that one of these young boys could some day take on a similar role is... well, haunting.

Ultimately, I don't know how to react to the way the video represents color, but I wonder if on some level (whether conscious or subconscious), Rihanna and/or the director selected a dark-skinned cast in order to differentiate the fictional video from what Chris Brown did to her, and to make certain that audiences would sympathize with the rape victim. After all, if audiences are more likely to take the word of a rape victim who is paler than her attacker, then why wouldn't Rihanna play into the system? It would be a tragic but understandable response on Rihanna's part.


Ok, so I've already been talking about race as I've talked about colorism. But now I want to talk about the way race impacts our interpretations of violence. Remember Tim Wise's article from last year, "Imagine if the Tea Party Were Black"? As Tim Wise suggests, black Americans (or any Americans of color) who did and said what the Tea Partiers were doing and saying at the time would have appeared quite violent, to mainstream media and mainstream white culture. Many scoffed at Wise's article last year, but we all re-encountered the problem of latent racism when Michelle Obama invited rapper Common to the White House for a poetry slam. A few right-wing politicians and most of Fox News criticized Barrack Obama for allowing a "violent" man with "terrorist sympathies" into the White House, and many news stations quoted select lyrics out of context, to make it sound as if Common was promoting violence, in songs where he in fact was promoting the opposite - you just had to read the whole song to realize that the violent lyrics were an imitation of violent people, whom he was criticizing.

In fact, as I looked into Common's music, I was shocked by how mild and upbeat it was. Given the controversy, I assumed the lyrics would be mysogynistic at best. But no, that's not what I found. What I found was a man just a couple swears away from sounding like Will Smith. So, why do I think race factors into the way Common's critics panicked over his White House visit? Well, consider this video from Jon Stewart, where he compares how the same individuals who defended white politicians and white singers with quite violent lyrics, then tore apart Common for lyrics that were no more violent - perhaps even less so:

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2:20 through 3:30 is particularly telling. Essentially, Stewart says that Hannity's response to Common would be understandable, if he held other artists to similar standards. The show then cuts to a clip of Hannity saying that if Common had violent lyrics about Obama, he'd react in the same way. Followed by Stewart saying how amazing it would be if they had a clip to contradict Hannity, followed by a clip that contricts Hannity. In the clip, Hannity plays a clip (sorry for all the clips within clips confusion) of an artist who walks back and forth across the stage with two guns, exclaiming that Obama should stick the machine gun in his mouth and suck on it, and that Hilary Clinton should ride a machine gun into the sunset. Hannity then comments on the video by referring to the artist as "Friend and frequent guest on the program, Ted Nugent," who is "expressing his feelings toward President Obama and Secretary Clinton." Hannity then defends Nugent when a guest asks if he'll "disavow" Nugent. Clearly the rules are different for Nugent, where Hannity is concerned.

Of course, hypocrisy is nothing new, as far as human behavior goes. Hypocrisy is to be expected in human beings. And hypocrisy is much easier to see in others than in ourselves, which is why Democrats and Republicans alike love saying, "When Bush was in office, you said it was wrong to do X, but now that Obama's in office you're doing X." But I think we really need to step back and interrogate the lenses through which we interpret others' behavior.


  1. LOVED this post! I think our experience really colours our view of the world, and it doesn't even have to be real experience. I think we buy into cultural stereotypes and then spout them off as our experience. For example, this idea in white culture that black men are violent and want to rape white women, but a white man...he would never do that. To Kill a Mockingbird draws attention to this white stereotype. I wonder how many white people read that book and buy into that theory. Anyway, it is only when we realize our prejudices that we can change them, and unfortunately people don't always seem to realize they need to be examined.

  2. "step back and interrogate the lenses through which we interpret others' behavior."
    No wonder you saved the best thought for the end of your post. There is a lot of truth in that statement. Stepping back and examining ourselves is a great show of self-acceptance and self-confidence. When we examine ourselves, we demonstrate our willingness to change, our courage to be wrong and the acceptance of who we are becoming consciously. I think you dig deeper into Rihanna's video that she or her producer have. I might be short changing an artist that I admittedly know little about other than she seems to represent the commercialization of the arts in general, as do many other mainstream pop-artists. But I am not sure if I agree with you about the issues of color. That they exist, I totally agree. That they are destructive, ver much so. That Rihanna and/or producer are trying to share a message beyond the issues of male violence towards women. (A huge problem in the US for sure. Note "Tough Guise" by Jackson Katz.) Note the style of the song. It is clearly a Regge sound, beat and style. Everything from the repeating motifs to the way that she changes her accent screams Regge. The essence of Regge is the islands and most islanders are dark black. You find fairer blacks in cities where mixing races is more prevalent, that is totally an assumption. I assume that the choice about representation of skin color had more to do with consistency than it had to do with social issues. If that was the original intent from Rihanna and co. then kudos to them! But it is a moving and insightful interpretation of a actually touching music video that I enjoyed watching. Thanks for the post.