A Tale of Two Songs

All of the criticism of Rihanna's Man Down song made me think of another revenge song that was praised as a "girl power" anthem, hit # 1 on the charts and launched the career of a young, female singer.


Rihanna's song, Man Down is about a woman feeling regret about killing the man who raped her.  The controversy over the song and video are largely contrived and has received a lot of attention and press.  It includes a lot of posturing by folks who save their sympathy for rapists and their outrage for rape victims.

Carrie Underwood's song, Before He Cheats is about a woman feeling no regret about destroying the car of her boyfriend for his flirtations cheating. It dominated the airwaves and charts in 2007 and although there was some lukewarm finger-waging and talk of a "domestic violence double standard", this song was a crossover hit that launched Underwood's career in country music.

What is the difference?  Why can one woman do massive property damage to retaliate for preemptive cheating while another can't kill her rapist?

It might have something to do with the fact that Underwood looks like this:
and Rihanna looks like this:

Rihanna also has a history of being a victim of violence. Note: she did not kill her attacker or even hire people to beat him up.

I totally sympathized with Underwood's song, Before He Cheats because we have all been there - cheated on and having visons of vengence.  Some of us have employed the type of justice that Underwood sings about, blatant and willful property damage of an intimate partner:
That I dug my key into the side of his
pretty little souped up 4 wheel drive,
carved my name into his leather seats...
I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights,
slashed a hole in all 4 tires...
Maybe next time he'll think before he cheats. full lyrics
Her song is seductive because being cheated on is painful and it suggests that we can give that pain back, that we do not have to endure it.  But it is a lie.  We do have to endure it.  No matter how many cars we burn in the driveway or clothes that you cut into shreds, at the end of the day, you were stilled cheated on.  Dumped in the worst possible way. 

There are hardly any models of honest, non-monogamy that people can look to when designing their romances, often making infidelity an inevitabile occurrence.  Most people do not have the language to even articulate their emotions so the idea that an act, even a violent one, is appealing because it allows  expression and the hope is that expression will offer relief.  Because people can relate, can imagine situations were they would be violent, they can sympathize with perpetrators of violence but this sympathy is not blindly given.  

What kind of people are allowed to perpetrate violence yet receive sympathy?  

Terrorists don't get sympathy because their victims are seen as innocent & their violence as unwarranted - more a byproduct of their sick disposition than a normal response to their circumstances.  Following this logic, folks sympathize with perpetrators when they see the victims as guilty, thus deserving of violent retribution and the perpetrator as an innocent person having a normal response to some injustice.   

Underwood clearly articulated the injustice, cheating,  and her violence. Because of the public's perception of Underwood, her admission of violence was met with sympathy. Something about her had to suggest innocence?  It had to be clear that although she was committing a violent act, it was warranted and isolated & not indicative pathological behavior. 

Underwood's whiteness & not-too-sexual image exempted her from being automatically seen as pathologically violent or guilty. Juries are less likely to convict white defendants and whites are less likely to be arrested for crimes that they commit more often. source. The criminal actions of whites are often relegated to the realm of individual expression whereas the criminal actions of blacks are often explained as indicative of a race-wide pathology. Anti-racism activist and author, Tim Wise wrote:
To use different explanations for the same behavior in this way is racist, especially when the behaviors in question might be just as prevalent if not more so in white communities. For instance, whites use drugs at rates that are equal to their black counterparts, and actually abuse alcohol at rates that are considerably higher than African Americans (7). So if drug use is to be seen as a cultural pathology in blacks (and it often is), and yet as an individual pathology in whites—even though it is just as prevalent in the white community as the black community—this can only be due to an essentialization of black behavior that assumes, by definition, a group inferiority. source
In 2007, there was a general understanding that Underwood was not suggesting that women go out and reek havoc on their exes with baseball bats.  That she was expressing the pain and vengeance fantasy related to dealing with an unfaithful partner.  That she had allowance to do this because she is a white woman an artist.

America has a tough time assigning the same value to the bodies of black and white people for obvious reasons. Black women do not have many complex depictions of their character in pop culture. It is more likely to see depictions that are overly-sexualized, ignorant and full of sassy-attitude - an attitude that never translates to taking exerting real power or control over their situations. 

Black women have a hard time digesting these images and defining themselves independent from these stereotypes, which is why many black girls assigned blame to Rihanna when she was attacked by Chris Brown in 2009.  The main media message about black women is that they are promiscuous, loud and deserve what they get. Sadly they are more vulnerable to sexual victimization because there is little chance that their attackers will be prosecuted, that the attack will receive press coverage and that their attackers will face a unified condemnation from the community. 

Society's tacit acceptance of the rape of black women stems from their history of enduring horrific, systematic sexual violence.  Elizabeth Kennedy writes:

The story of the disparate treatment of African American rape victims must begin with slavery. While the connection is not necessarily clear cut, slavery and its legacy of bigotry and sexual violence likely play key roles in the continuing discrimination against black rape victims. In the antebellum South, the rape of enslaved black women—by enslaved men or by white men—was commonplace, but it was not a crime. The law simply gave human property no protection from sexual assault; even free black women had little recourse, as the inability of black people to testify in court or to serve on juries would have made successful prosecutions of their assailants impossible. Some of the same stereotypes that justified slavery in the first place—that black people required the civilizing influence of subjugation to tame their sexual appetites—were pressed into the service of rationalizing these rapes: because the rape laws of that time denied protection to all unchaste women, black women, according to the stereotypes employed by their white masters, could simply never fall within the law’s ambit. The rape of enslaved women also had a powerful economic justification: a child inherited the legal status of its mother, not its father—rape thus became a tool for increasing the labor force. After the Civil War rape laws became race neutral, yet prosecutors, judges, and juries were slow to punish the assailants of black women. Outside the courtroom, the rape of African American women became a tool for inspiring terror and ensuring continued subordination in the Reconstruction South. Only slowly did prosecutions for the rape of African American women become common, yet inequality persisted: until the Supreme Court struck down the use of the death penalty as punishment for rape, defendants convicted of raping a white woman received the penalty far oftener than those convicted of raping an African American. source
Rape is a threat to all women regardless of their race. Rape survivors of all races have a hard time getting justice. Black women, however,  are subject to racist stereotypes that make justice less likely for them.  The history of devaluing black women's bodies explains the outrage over a black woman killing her assaulter. The victimization of black women is standard practice and her subsequent rage is criminalized instead of being seen as a normal reaction to rape.

Before Rihanna's assault at the hands of her then boyfriend Chris Brown in 2009, she had a more wholesome image.  Granted she was younger then, but since the assault her image has become more sexual, her lyrics more sexually-explicit and salacious. She has included Sadomasochistic props and costumes and suggests that violence can be sexy sometimes. From her song, S&M:
Feels so good being bad (Oh oh oh oh oh)
There's no way I'm turning back (Oh oh oh oh oh)
Now the pain is my pleasure 'cause nothing could measure (Oh oh oh oh oh)

Love is great, love is fine (Oh oh oh oh oh)
Out the box, outta line (Oh oh oh oh oh)
The affliction of the feeling leaves me wanting more (Oh oh oh oh oh)
'Cause I may be bad, but I'm perfectly good at it
Sex in the air, I don't care, I love the smell of it
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But chains and whips excite me
I have my own theories speculating about why Rihanna went this route after her assault but only Rihanna knows.  This theory is convincing:
We have seen what happens to Black women who speak of their pain, especially if the person who caused the pain is also Black. In fact, there has yet to be an instance in contemporary times where a Black woman has been harmed by a Black male and the Black community collectively rallied to her defense. Whether it is Anita Hill, Robin Givens, the adolescent violated by R. Kelly, or, more recently, the 11 year old girl gang-raped in Texas, Black women and girls receive the message that their pain is their problem and fundamentally their fault. As a result, they are encouraged to remain silent. Rihanna has learned this lesson well. As a young witness to domestic violence and now a survivor of dating violence, Rihanna has altered her mindset to the point where she can silently find “pleasure” in the pain, comfort in the chains. source.
A result of her sexy-vixen-who-likes-it-rough-sometimes image is that she is not seen as someone who can be raped or victimized.  A society that supports rape culture holds up the narrative that only "good" girls can be raped while "bad" girls get what they deserve & can't be trusted anyway.

 So believable rape victims do not look like this:

In Man Down, there is no explicit reference to a rape, just the killing of a man after a "sticky situation" and remorse for that killing:
I didn't mean to end his life
I know it wasn't right
I can't even sleep at night
Can't get it off my mind
I need to get out of sight
Before I end up behind bars

What started out as a simple altercation
Turned into a real sticky situation
Me just thinking on the time that I'm facing
Makes me wanna cry full lyrics
The video went on to illustrate a scenario where Rihanna is raped by a guy she consented to making out with earlier.  After that, she kills him then goes to her bedroom to sing, tormented by remorse.

As a Caribbean woman, I can't imagine a woman getting legal justice after being raped in Jamaica, where Rihanna's Man Down video takes place.  In 2005, Jamaica was labeled the murder capital of the world. Rape culture that is celebrated there (as in the USA) in music & art and evident in the utter disregard for rape victims. The fact that rape, which usually is often perpetrated against minors, is a common occurance is no secret.  The St. Kitts-Neis Observer writes:
Unsurprisingly, assault rates in the Caribbean are also reported to be significantly higher than any other region in the world. A large sub-section of these violations are against women and girls, with one victimization study taken in nine Caribbean countries indicating that 48 percent of adolescent girls' sexual initiation was either "forced" or "somewhat forced."source
UNICEF gets more specific about sexual violence in Jamaica:
That means 17 children and adolescents were treated for violence-related injuries every day for two years. Sexual crimes against children are rampant, with girls primarily the victims. In 2006, children and adolescents made up an alarming 78 per cent of all the sexual assault/rape cases admitted to public hospitals. In the same year, girls under 16 accounted for 32 per cent of all sexual assaults in Jamaica. source
There was little to no legal way to find justice after being raped in Rihanna's video scenario - in a dark alley, with no witnesses, after a consensual make-out session with her perpetrator. Her perpetrator knew that and so did she.  They also knew, and it was evidenced, that he could physically overpower her so in comes the gun.

Underwood's song and Rihanna's song illustrate drastically different levels of violence - one property damage, the other murder.  Yet the property damage was willful, whereas the murder was unintentional if Rihanna is to be believed when she says "I didn't mean to end his life."  But that is the point. Rihanna is not to be believed.  Even after witnessing the rape in the video, Rihanna is condemned for wanting revenge.

Unfair but I get it. If black women went around hell bent on revenge, the world would be unlivable.  There are an abundance of wrongs done to black women that have gone unpunished.  Rihanna's on screen rape is just one. Racism, sexism, forced sterilization, forced pregnancies, violence, stolen children, unfair incarceration could start a list of injustices, many of them systematic that would have many running for their guns.
This woman is Black so her blood is shed into silence. - Audre Lorde
 The idea that a black woman would get all Timothy McVeigh on people, or buy a gun and take someone out, is unthinkable. Sure some do it, but they get sent to jail post haste because jurors & judges follow the sympathy logic.

 Folks sympathize with perpetrators when they see the victims as guilty thus deserving of violent retribution and the perpetrator as an innocent person having a normal response to some injustice. 

Rihanna is not innocent and black women never are.  What is one more rape in the grand scheme of things?  It's bound to happen sooner or latter especially when you go out by yourself, looking sexy and make out with dudes in bars.  It is not like you caught your one and only cheating on you, the guy that you gave your virginity to or that your virginity ever existed.  You knew what you were doing.  He did not deserve that.  You did.

Those are the things unsaid by Rihanna's critics but I get the message.

3 comments:

  1. Very insightful Denise. I will definitely be reposting this

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  2. Hmm, I need to think some more about this but even accounting for the different way that Black women and white women are treated, I also think that Underwood's acts were more acceptable because her act of violence didn't cause much 'actual' damage = its' cute, harmless.
    Here me out. It has been socially acceptable for women to slap a man, throw water in his face, etc because she was seen as being weaker and unable to cause much harm.
    Yet Rihanna's violent act bodily harm/death that results is 'masculine'. Its not cute. It can't be laughed off, easily replaced. It's death. No one can come back from that. It kind of forces you to actually look at her, her grievances as a credible threat. And people do not like to be threatened.

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  3. The level of violence in Underwood's song and Rihanna's song is very different, but what about recent (2010) top ten hits by Country star Miranda Lambert? "Gun Powder and Lead" is a revenge fantasy over domestic violence:

    I'm goin' home, gonna load my shotgun
    Wait by the door and light a cigarette
    If he wants a fight well now he's got one
    And he ain't seen me crazy yet
    He slap my face and he shook me like a rag doll
    Don't that sound like a real man
    I'm going to show him what a little girls made of
    Gunpowder and lead

    His fist is big but my gun's bigger
    He'll find out when I pull the trigger

    ...and in "Kerosene" she commits revenge arson over cheating:

    Trade the truth in for a lie, cheatin really aint a crime
    I'm givin up on love cause love's given up on me

    Forget your high society, I'm soakin it in Kerosense
    Light em up and watch them burn, teach em what they need to learn

    and later in the song:

    Now I don’t hate the one who left
    You can't hate someone who's dead
    He’s out there holdin' onto someone, I’m holdin' up my smokin' gun

    "Gunpowder and Lead" was recently covered on American Idol, with no apparent backlash over "violent" lyrics.

    I am actually a big fan of Miranda Lambert, I think she's bad ass and I love it. But wtf world? Ri Ri tells a story about a woman who is pushed to an act that she actually is tortured over and regrets because she has no other recourse, Miranda celebrates her violent choices and expresses ZERO regret.

    The backlash against Rihanna in the face of Lambert's success can be explained only by racism. Full Stop.

    Thank You for this article.

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