Man Down? Girl Up, Rihanna. Own Your Influence.

June 6, 2011 We interrupt our positive picks programming to hand over a pail and a scrub brush so parents can prep for the latest mop up of “young and the RECKLESS”…

This week in Rihanna Redux, she’s once again baiting outrage by splattering revenge fantasies around the interwebs with ambient buzz in Rihanna’s new “Man Down” video about a woman who shoots and kills her rapist in a crowded train station.

It’s the sequel to our prior ‘why would she do that’ moment (no not the risque S&M bit yesterday in Baltimore, the domestic violence backdraft I wrote about with her Love the Way You Lie video, which teen dating violence survivor Elin Waldal echoes here). Rihanna’s response, raw and uncut, says it all,

“The music industry isn’t exactly Parents R Us! We have the freedom to make art, LET US! It’s your job to make sure they don’t turn out like US.”

Well isn’t that special. Thanks for lobbing another grenade into the parent lap. I’m not asking Rihanna’s videos to be public service announcements, I’m saying she is in a unique position to use her starpower to expand the conversation with media mindfulness, or at least ‘do no further harm.’

Considering every 2.5 minutes a women is raped in the US, and one in four college women will be raped before graduation (PAMF) it’s quite obvious we’re dealing with a loaded, toxic problem. Instead, we get this simplistic ‘just smoke em’ message. Surreal.

As the study in Journal of Children and Media purports, girls 9-11 are particularly influenced by pop culture icons, with poignant reverb on their own identities, so when Rihanna’s  vigilante revenge fantasies of highly charged violence can slip into teen programming on BET under the guise of “art with a message” it’s readily apparent to me we’ve got shock schlock perpetuation of the ‘outrageousness’ formula, with a broken moral compass going ‘Sproing!’ somewhere.

Rihanna/Eminem have already ‘been there, done that’ with their firey volatility in Love the Way You Lie‘s glorification of relationship abuse…

…Kanye’s misogynistic ‘Monster’ video put forth as fantasy included dead women propped up in bed, spread-eagle on the dinner table and hanging from ceilings in chains which launched a full-blown petition on Adios Barbie and thoughtful media deconstruction of the visceral disgust it elicits when these videos brush against our youth.

Every single one of these artists I mentioned are ‘repeat offenders’ in the complicity corral, with sales and ratings attention focused on their ability to create ‘controversy’ despite zero mea culpas for the harm, damage, and lack of accountability in framing helpful outlets and education for those who need to escape such horrific DV situations.

Parents have been teaching that conflict resolution doesn’t resolve through escalation for ages, but sadly, media’s megaphone loudly drowns out rational thought in favor of the almighty drama crescendo with volatile predictability, now in full tilt surround sound.

Now Rihanna’s irked that she’s being called out, brazenly thrashing across the interwebs to address her Twitter fans justifying this video “contains a very strong underlying message 4 girls like me.”

Do tell, Rihanna. What message is that?

Because the way I see it, this kind of ‘storytelling’ needs and epilogue…

Nowhere does it remotely hint at the sad statistics of socio-economic, gender-based injustice when female assault victims DO kill and end up serving life behind bars.

Nowhere does it address color lines and racial inequities in the justice system.

Nowhere does it imply “the end” for the shooter as well as the rapist, because that’s the harsh REAL ending.

It’s imperative that girls and women know the WHOLE truth of a revenge fantasy, not just the chapters that make good video storytelling…

…Especially when that story will seep into the minds of youth in many a tough neighborhood among abused females that have run afoul in multiple scenarios and could’ve used an extended hand of hope and an escape plan.

I personally think Rihanna could’ve (should’ve) raised her voice loud and high using her superstar power to promote solutions-based appeal…shepherding girls and women to the light at the end of the tunnel rather than the darkness of a cold prison cell.

Whether it’s therapeutic  “Tell Your Story” sites and amazing resources like Love Is The Love is Not Abuse Campaign, or (Boss of Me) helplines to hash through teen dating violence, get help and break the cycle of DV…she could’ve done a very creative ‘rewind’ montage to turn that fantasy into a productive ‘win’ —

Ah, but alas, premeditated murder, complete with smoking gun and a whoopsie moment of lyrics contrition equals “sexy badass” for record sales, n’est ce pas? Ugh. And don’t get me started on the whole business and industry backroom deals that paint with a broad brush of ‘why things are the way they are’

For that show and tell, here’s the latest from Paul Porter, co-founder of Industry Ears and a former BET program director who has teamed with Parents Television Council for education:

“It’s pretty obvious what is going on here. BET said no to Rihanna’s ‘S&M’ and ‘Russian Roulette,’ but cut a deal to support ‘Man Down’ for a performance at this year’s ‘BET Awards’ show. While we all agree rape is a terrible crime, ‘Man Down’ offers no positive solution for rape victims except vigilante justice.”

Rev. Delman Coates, Ph.D., organizer of the Enough Is Enough Campaign for Corporate Responsibility in Entertainment and Pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md. added,

“In a letter to me, Debra Lee, the CEO of Black Entertainment Television, stated, ‘BET does not air music videos that contain graphic or excessive sexual activity or violence.’ Then in an interview this April, Ms. Lee boasts the network is ‘more strict in what we allow on the air’ and is ‘looking at it from our young audience’s perspective….

The airing of this and other videos on a program marketed to youth and teens suggests that parents, advertisers, and the general public can have no confidence in the network’s ability to enforce its supposed ‘comprehensive set of standards and guidelines.’  The network says one thing to the public, but does another thing in practice,” Coates concluded.

Hmn, sounds about right to me. So what are we gonna do about it?

These orgs above are calling for youth timeslot video removal, this CNN Opinion piece argues for a media literacy approach to make it required viewing.

Your thoughts? Here are a few of mine: (and yes, no surprise that I break rank with colleagues I admire all the time)

I’m not a fan of a ban

But it doesn’t belong remotely near  youth programming.

To me, censorship and a plethora of petitions without actionable clipping of the financial purse-strings and fiscally driven behavioral change often serves to just escalate visibility.

It lops off one head of the Hydra which instantly grows a new snake, often even more repugnant.

However, if we wait for childless hipsters and pop stars to ‘get it’ that their messaging is harmfully impacting en masse and amplified with volume, ambient cues and age compression, then we’ll lose an entire generation…

So how can we be solutionary vs revolutionary to bring substantive accountability to industry without artists playing the “hey I’m not a parent I can say what I want” card?

Or using the wisdom of Doug Engelbart:

How can we get individuals to apply collective knowledge to raise the IQ of humanity?

What if we focus on repeat offenders in this genre of ‘baiting outrage’ and do some wallet whacking at a granular sponsorship level?

What if we quit focusing on ‘onesies and twosies’ and ask the industry bigwig institutions to self-rein or be reined?

What is we engage more positive artists, agents, and entertainment industry biggies themselves to help lead the way? (e.g. Spielberg has made some strong anti-violence waves, etc)

What if we shift toward direct ties to digital rights management (DRM) at the contract level noting artists complicity and responsibility from the get go? (a reverse of the ‘hold harmless’ legal clauses we writer/producer folks have to deal with when signing lives away to corporate biggies—)

How can we create a ‘hold accountable’ clause for corporate entities doing harm and tie it to fiscal fitness?

Most of all, what if we call on artists themselves to champion change and help connect the dots for their more clueless colleagues, to fight fire with fire WITHIN the industry using mass channels as the distribution itself?

Grammys. MTV Music Awards. MTV Movie Awards. They want drama? That would be ‘livestreamed reality moments’ fun for sure. Don’t laugh too hard. Last night Reese Witherspoon did just that!

Reese Witherspoon OWNED her influence and used it for the greater good.

She was the highlight of an otherwise banal, sophomoric MTV Movie Awards show that seemed geared to a Nickelodeon ‘grossology’ crowd.

Reese accepted the Generation Award with casual aplomb, empowering girls and women with her outspoken “Enough is Enough” advice to young up and coming stars, she said:

“I get it, girls, that it’s cool to be a bad girl,” she said. “But it is possible to make it in Hollywood without doing a reality show.” The audience gave her a standing ovation.

“When I came up in this business, if you made a sex tape, you were embarrassed,” the 35-year-old told the crowd. “And if you took naked pictures of yourself on your cell phone … you hide your face, people!” For all the girls out there, it’s totally possible to be a good girl,” she said. “I’m going to try to make it cool.”

I dare say, “there’s gold in them thar hills’ if Hollywood is smart enough to see the opportunity to trump the crotch-grabbing, boob-holding, laser-boner-light-sabered, dog-humping electronic media jacket, and foul-mouthed coarseness that left audiences awkwardly wincing and tweeting with devolved desensitization. I was thrilled to see Witherspoon josh around w/colleagues while presenting herself like a wise owl hooting for reason over raunch. A standing ovation’s gotta count, right?

I immediately tweeted out, “Reese Witherspoon knows how to represent: Brains over brash, class over crass at #MTV #movieawards (Hollywood, plz note market potential)”

So again, to me, the key to tide-turning messages like Rihanna’s is to embrace positive handling of similar messages to create a backlash from within their own industry.

It’s wallet whacking, but it’s formed as a movement by the artists, for the artists putting positive peer pressure on the raunch to ‘do no harm’ and be accountable…as it’s hurting the industry overall.

We just can’t leave it all to ‘media literacy’ and ‘critical thinking skills’ for kids to decipher Rihanna’s ‘message’…

…Because frankly, cultural context, environmental desensitization and media proliferation have altered that conversation into a ‘who can say it louder and make it last?’ cacophony of noise.

This is where we need to be circumspect about Rihanna’s Man Down messaging, or Kanye’s Monster or any other ‘yougaddabekiddinme’ media moments that kids barely even flinch about. It gets brushed aside as ‘just entertainment’ while the universal cues are seeping deeper into psyches with fallout only STARTING to surface with problematic impacts on public health.

As this research shows, when I wrote Hollywood Health Cues: Ingested for Better or For Worse …We actually CAN make huge changes embedding positive solutions into mass entertainment.

In this limbo game of life, I think we can do a lot better than knocking down kids with negative cues, we need to raise the entire bar for how we as humans want to walk through the world.

How low can you go? How high can you fly? Raise that bar. Higher. HIGHER!

In Part Two,Teen Dating Violence Survivor and Author of Tornado Warning, Elin Waldal shares HER thoughts on the Rihanna Man Down video, and more on Leslie Morgan Steiner’s CNN/Opinion written as a sexual assault survivor. Plus a whole different conversation about Rihanna’s video that’s got many eyebrows raising, called “Why Defend Rapists” (thanks to Nancy at for that one) Stay tuned…

Meanwhile, here are some vital domestic violence resources to share…Wish Rihanna did.

(Yes, I realize that’s not her job as a celebrity. But with her level of influence with teens? It sure oughta be. Own up. Girl up. And at the very least…Do no harm. Goes for all the pop culture icons out there…)

Related Resources:

DV Hotlines/Resources

The Safe Space

Break the Cycle

Love Is Respect

RespectRx Boss of Me

A Thin’s Over the Line (digital abuse/teen control)

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

See It and Stop It! Organization

Do Something Organization

LiveStrong: Teen Dating Violence

Love is Not (Liz Claiborne campaign)

APA: Teens/Love Doesn’t Have to Hurt (pdf) Cycle of abuse/DV; cause-effect

HSUS/Animal abuse & corollary w/domestic violence

Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness

Fact Sheets

  • Safe Dates
    This fact sheet describes Safe Dates, a primary and secondary dating abuse prevention program for adolescents, and its targets, content, and outcomes.
  • Teen Dating Violence Facts
    This fact sheet provides statistics on teen dating violence, including prevalence and frequency, parental awareness, teen awareness, incident reporting, contributing factors, and patterns in relationship abuse.
  • Teen Dating Violence Prevention Recommendations
    This fact sheet lists teen dating violence prevention strategies for victims, abusers, family members, friends, bystanders, and professionals that work with teens.

Additional Resources From Safe

Related From Industry Ears

Rihanna’s “Man Down” Video: Dead Wrong
The Truth on BET, Rihanna and the deal cut for BET Awards
Parents Television Council Joins with Industry Ears, to Condemn Rihanna’s “Man Down” Video
Rihanna’s New “Suicide Song”

Related Posts on Shaping Youth

Attention KMart Shoppers, Dating Violence on Aisle 3

Predatory Practices As Sport: (Fantasy Football Sexualization)

What Does A 13-year Old Boy Know About Dating Violence?

Turning Boys Into Monsters: A Foul Taste (Again)



  1. I think you might have a very different impression of the song if you listened to the lyrics. The song isn’t condoning violence at all but rather questioning it. To quote the video rape victim:

    I didn’t mean to end his life
    I know it isn’t right

    Could’ve been somebody’s son
    And I took his heart when
    I pulled out that gun

    This song is about how sometimes what we THINK looks like justice isn’t when we get to the other side.

    Rape does cause anger. Anger can result in wishes for revenge. Wishing for revenge and acting on it are two very different things. It is important to have songs that make us thing about what it would really mean if we actually acted on our wishes.

    There is no crooning guitar here, but in message it is little different than the Kingston Trio’s “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley”.

    I’ll agree that one has to listen closely to see the songs real intent. The bigger issue is that pop culture tends to ignore subtle messages and see only what it wants to see. Visuals tend to overwhelm lyrics. Perhaps if those of us in the parental generation worked a bit harder to amplify Rihanna’s message then the song could do good rather than harm. One thing is certain. It isn’t going to go away.

  2. I think Elizabeth makes a good point that quite often music videos and songs send very discrepant messages. The difficulty is that may of Rihanna’s fans are young adolescents who are very much impacted by the visual message. Whatever message about acting before thinking, the dangers of vigilante justice, and so forth that the lyrics may promote may also be completely lost on the fans as they watch the video. The adolescents that I know watch videos on their mobile devices as they listen to the music, and while they know the words to songs, they really don’t analyze them at all. The visual message tends to take precedent for them over the lyrical message of a song. We’re all going to have to help kids navigate this new world of media at your fingertips, and I think artists and companies can also take the social responsibility to do so.

  3. @Elizabeth…I HAVE listened to the lyrics, and agree about the intent, but that doesn’t over-ride the visual cues put forth in revenge fantasy sans deconstruction of alternative recourse. (Believe me, I’ve pulled it apart upside down and back & forth, am about to post a ‘survivor’s reaction to same, as a part two)

    Both of you mention the power of the visuals dominating the lyrics, and that’s my assessment too, but to be crystal clear, my real rub is multi-layered and complex, based on some of our own advisory board/nurse practitioners (who work in rape crisis centers) who have shared their own ‘intake’ stories…specifically:

    It’s not that I’m implying teens will be trigger-happy shoot ’em ups, it’ that there is a propensity to go in the other direction for protection of family members who WILL.

    For example:

    1.) In rape crisis centers, one of the biggest deterrents to prosecution/under-reporting is fear of vigilante justice by family members, e.g. “omg, omg, my brother (dad/BF/cousin, whatevs) would KILL them”…(especially if they KNOW the attacker…as in date rape, community member etc)

    This concerns me BIG time, as those that purport Rihanna’s video as ’empowerment’ are not understanding the teen developmental mindset to ‘squelch/minimize/block and bury’ in order to protect loved ones from doing exactly as she did and ending up in handcuffs/prison cells forevermore.

    By offering little recourse other than ‘shoot ’em, man down’ she frames a bleak, prison-destined cellblock that many teens will NOT risk for their friends/family…

    Many teens respond to assault/rape with internalized self-blame/shame and will choose NOT to report AT ALL if they think it will circle back to put their loved ones at risk (thus they become the sacrificial lambs, LOSING their voice entirely, rather than report it)

    So yes, I fully ‘get it’ and understand/embrace R’s story as experiential, but disagree that it’s ’empowering’ or thought provoking from a BET teen media programming point of view; esp given her massive role model status/fandom to be able to put forth more productive resources/light at the end of the tunnel for these already wronged young girls.

    I’m playing phone tag with researchers to glean stats on this dynamic…

    Vigilante justice played to the ‘teen scene’ audience is NOT giving RISE to young womens’ voices, it’s quite possible it will squelch them into silence.

    And that, to me, is a crime in itself.

  4. The problem isn’t one artist, it’s the collective hum of the entire culture, else these artists wouldn’t need to make this art. If you think about what Rihanna’s been through, of course she’s making revenge fantasies. She’s an artist and she’s thinking about what she wants to portray or express. That’s not babysitting. Yes, she could make video like you want her too all the time, but that wouldn’t be her unique voice, nor would we be able to see her progression as an artist.

    Frankly, I’d rather have my daughter see revenge fantasies, than just stand behind a rapper and sing in bootie shorts. I’d rather that woman confront the evils in our world and show her that she can be the leader, the front woman. She can influence the world.

    It’s not all parents and it’s not all media. While those are both huge influences over a child, if there is an open honest dialouge at home and the parent talks with their child about Rihanna’s videos, there might be more to learn.

    Attacking Rihanna alone for her influence is a waste of time. There’s tons of artists your children might like, and frankly, Rihanna doesn’t have all the answers, none of them do, none of us do.

    I love her man down video. If you really watch it, it shows a pained, tortured young woman in a male dominated world, regretting what she’s done. Most male video with violence don’t show remorse, they glorify it. So I think you’re barking up the wrong tree here just because she’s young, female, and an easy target.

  5. I hear what you’re saying on the artistic expression and love your phrase (and agree with it) on the “collective hum of the entire culture” but as I argued in the piece above, context is key, not just in the individual song or reaction to it, but in the influence of an artist with mega-millions of fans who may not have the erudite media literacy you do to ‘interpret’ her statement of regret and instead frame the ‘problem/solution’ cultural context in violence begets violence kneejerk reaction. Copycat killings are a dime a dozen in mass media, why risk throwing fuel on the fire in gun ’em down mode–Just can’t embrace the risk–it’s reckless, esp when you look at the psychological data on impulse control and how many victims would LOVE to do just that to their perpetrators. Many survivors of DV are hanging by a thread of self-talk ‘do the crime, do the time’ to REFRAIN from this kind of vigilante justice. Not worth a life pushed over the edge by impressionable media messages… I reiterate my post position. But appreciate you taking the time to voice your views respectfully! Thanks for stoppin by…

  6. Very educational. Sometimes, it is troubling to see materials like this on tv. I think, this is what we get for being up for “freedom of expression”. I just wish that the artists would be more responsible with the message they are telling their fans.

  7. Owning one’s influence goes beyond the media content and starpower put forth that’s for sure…I think each and every one of us needs to ‘own our influence’ as we walk through the world because our messages are getting absorbed as well…(parents/educators/coaches/peers-friends—bloggers, tweeters, etc 😉

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