Does Rihanna's 'Man Down' send mixed messages about abuse?

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Rihanna the “Rebel Fleur” strikes again. Pop music’s troubled wild child is exacting violent revenge in the new video for her single “Man Down.”

The springy playful beat of the song dramatically contrasts with the lyrics — Rihanna has ruined some man’s life, shooting him down, figuratively in the song (we hope), but literally in the video, as the five minute storyline opens with Rihanna creeping out of darkness to shoot a man in the back. Whoa.

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It’s a disturbing video that proceeds to a flash back to a day earlier, with Rihanna playing a happy island girl who meets a handsome man at the club. Shortly thereafter this man follows her outside to physically and sexually assault her. The last scene shows a beaten and abused Rihanna going to a dresser drawer, from which she retrieves a gun.

While some may logic away the dramatic scenery as a fitting match for the song lyrics, you’d be a fool to not draw a few connections to that fated night in 2009 when Chris Brown assaulted her. Replace the pretty brown male model with a pop star, the open air back alley with an expensive foreign car, and it’s a front row show to real-life drama. While watching these images, one can’t help but wonder how someone could endure to replicate such a dark moment for the sake of a pop video.

It’s also extremely unsettling because Rihanna has made every indication in her public life that she’s forgiven Chris Brown and wants to move on from the incident. In a recent interview in Rolling Stone, Rihanna explained of her actions in the days following the attack, “I didn’t want people to feel bad for me. It was a very vulnerable time in my life, and I refused to let that be the image.” She had the restraining order lifted, showed sympathy to the complexities of violent abusers (including her own father), and even recently became a follower of Chris Brown on Twitter. She’s all but flippant on the case — that was then, this is now, let’s move on.

But her artistic life tells a different story. Rihanna’s propensity for the dark and edgy is becoming increasingly autobiographic — singing on Eminem’s song about domestic violence, toying with the concepts of pleasure and pain in her video “S&M,” and now this video, which displays the easy entrapment of date rape.

It appears Rihanna has a fixation on the confusing and disorienting intersection of violence and love. The recurrence of these themes is no mere coincidence, and members of her camp can’t be blind to the implications: Either Rihanna’s using her art as therapy, or she’s exploiting that violent moment for publicity and bad girl imagery.

Let her tell it, the video for “Man Down” is a cautionary tale for young women. “Young girls/women all over the world…we are a lot of things! We’re strong innocent fun flirtatious vulnerable, and sometimes our innocence can cause us to be naive! We always think it could NEVER be us, but in reality, it can happen to ANY of us! So ladies be careful and #listentoyomama! I love you and I care!” Rihanna wrote on her Twitter account.

And yet that isn’t really what the video communicates. It more so promotes revenge than anything else, some thing that the Parents Television Council is condemning the pop star for. “Instead of telling victims they should seek help, Rihanna released a music video that gives retaliation in the form of premeditated murder the imprimatur of acceptability,” said Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for the organization.

The divergent messaging between what she says and what she makes creatively can leave fans perplexed as to exactly how Rihanna feels about the topic and consequently what they should feel as well — are we okay with it? Are we not okay with it? Can we be friends with Chris Brown now? Should he be shot? Any message Rihanna thinks she’s communicating loses it’s effectiveness because she won’t clarify her position on the situation — yes I’m mad, no I don’t want to talk about it, but yes I will sing about it, but no don’t hold it against him, but yes revenge is okay.

Far be it for me to dictate the healing path for a victim of domestic violence, but as someone with the world as her audience, Rihanna may consider clarifying how she feels about the incident, and how she’d like to move forward. Protecting yourself from domestic abuse is a message that gets diluted when you’re advocating clemency and/or revenge. Until she resolves her own healing from that dark incident, Rihanna’s real message to her fans appears to be “do as I say, not as I do.”