A Word to Rihanna

Last week, controversy swirled around the release of Rihanna’s latest music video, “Man Down,” which depicts a rape victim (portrayed by Rihanna) seeking revenge against her attacker. Critics immediately questioned the video’s violent and disturbing imagery.

“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 Parents Television Council, which led the charge in denouncing the video.

Rihanna has fired back at criticisms on Twitter:

Fair or unfair, as a celebrity abuse victim, anything Rihanna says or does for the foreseeable future will be examined inside and out for insight into her current state of mind. The problem that most critics are having with Rihanna is that she often contradicts her words with her lyrics, or as one critic put it, “(Rihanna says) 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.” But what I think Rihanna does well is portray the schizophrenia that anyone who has ever been a victim of domestic violence faces. There’s no coincidence that victims of abuse often become the abuser or find themselves in a series of abusive relationships. Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults. And, over 40% of victims of domestic violence are involved in more than one incident. No other type of crime has a rate of repeat victimization as high.

Perhaps, it is uncomfortable for us to witness the frail state of a victim, but the rawness is something that deserves to be put on screen if the artist chooses. If it is acceptable to portray abuse in its raw state in films like Precious, then it should also be acceptable for a young woman to fight the demons she wrestles with on screen as well. In the film Woman Thou Art Loosed, Michelle, played by Kimberly Elise, kills her longtime abuser in a church, yet the film was widely received by Christian audiences. Why can’t Rihanna tell her story? In the Loosed, Michelle seeks repentance. In “Man Down,” Rihanna expresses similar regret: “I didn’t mean to end his life. I know it wasn’t right. I can’t even sleep at night.”

Unfortunately, simply taking a woman out of an abusive situation is only the first step to healing. She will have moments where she is able to suppress her past and have intimate healthy relationships, but she will always be in a tug-of-war with pain and feeling worthy enough to deserve peace. This is the sort of reality they do not teach you in Sunday school. I have known far too many people that have been in abusive relationships, and I know that you can be removed from the situation but still have a battlefield in the mind.

Rihanna may be even more vulnerable than the average person. As a celebrity, her private life is subject to constant examination by the media. She’s regularly asked to relive her past over and over again through interviews, and it’s still unlikely that she’s sought professional therapy. Everyone wants Rihanna to be a spokesperson for domestic violence, but they don’t want to give her time to heal. Patriarchal societies often re-victimize its female victims, whether intentionally or subconsciously.

Meanwhile, through her music and messages to her fans, Rihanna is trying to communicate her feelings the best way that she can:

“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 naïve! 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 via Twitter).

Rihanna, perhaps this is just your way of coping with the past, but if this is how the world is going to react to your vulnerability, maybe it’s time you go talk to someone who cares. Simply put, the media is not your friend, Rihanna, and certainly not your counselor. This may be a hard pill to swallow when you are always in the limelight, but it’s something to consider the next time you decide to share your pain with the world.