Monday, June 13, 2011

Man Down & Woman Up: Can We Claim Violence?

cross posted from my Media Justice column


***Trigger Warning for discussions of violence and rape***

I’m going to write something very controversial, something that many folks will not agree with and I’m aware of this and I’d like readers to be aware also. Here goes: I do not completely believe that non-violent societies/communities are the most safe all the time. I write this knowing that violence manifests in complicated and multiple ways. If your idea of violence is just physical pain and issues of safety, please think of violence as larger than that. When people talk about state violence they are often discussing systems of oppression that are institutionalized (not just the death penalty as some may think). Violence comes in many forms and I admit that there are some forms and types of violence that I completely understand and could perhaps see myself becoming a part of or performing if put in certain situations.

For some time I’ve been wondering why people are so shocked and disappointed when women (anybody who identifies as a woman in this world) claim some level of violence (whether it be carrying pepper spray, a weapon (and as Ani DiFranco says “’cause every tool is a weapon if you hold it right”), or learning self-defense and/or martial arts (to name a few). Yes there are folks who think it’s problematic that women and other folks who must protect themselves must do so in our society/world and they talk about what that means and how it can possibly change. I’m not arguing against change, I’m urging us to think about how what some may call “violence” others may call “survival” and even “love,” a form of love so deep and revolutionary that it stems from a desire to survive and be liberated.

This is a topic I’ve discussed often regarding specific topics and people. The conversations around Rihanna’s “Man Down” video and song have inspired part of this post/thought process/desire for larger conversation. If you haven’t seen the video it is below and lyrics to the song can be found here.



The chorus of this song and the interpretations of the lyrics are what have sparked much conversation and debate. Some lyrics include:

Oh mama mama mama
I just shot a man down
In central station
In front of a big ol crowd
Oh Why Oh Why
Oh mama mama mama
I just shot a man down
In central station


Viewers and listenters are encouraged to connect these lyrics and Rihanna’s actions to revenge for a rape that occurred that we see in the video. Part of me wants to remind folks that Rihanna is not singing anything new, even for her. Can we think back to her first album Music of the Sun and her song “There’s A Thug In My Life” where she sings:

There's a thug in my life, how'ma gonna tell my mama
She gonna say it ain't right, but he's so good to me
There's a thug in my life, and its gonna cause crazy drama
I'm gonna see him tonight, I'm gonna give him everything


Here she’s invoking talking/telling her mother, just like in the “Man Down” song. She focuses on disappointing her mother, talking about how she is making decisions based on what she feels and knows is best for her. This is something that we often don’t provide or allow youth to do, we, adults, think we know “better” what is good for a young person than that young person knows for themselves. This goes totally against my positive youth development philosophy as well as my support of harm reductionist approaches. I digress.

Lots of talk about the Rihanna video from some great places, that if you want to read more I would suggest the Crunk Feminist Collective post Man Down: On Rihanna, Rape, and Violence (read the comments too!), Code Red has a great discussion on Caribbean representations and Rihanna’s video between Bajan and Jamaican communities.

Yet, I want us to have large conversations about violence. I’ve discussed in the past women of Color claiming a certain level of violence, something a student of mine from years ago mentioned and has stayed with me all this time. I spoke about this specifically with the Ivy Queen song “La Abusadora” which you can listen to here (it’s in Spanish only).

What about non-consensual violence such as beating and hitting an attacker, self-defense, in some forms of discipline, for protection, to cope, and to end colonial legacies? I want to be clear here, there are violent interactions that are consensual and I’ll talk about those in a moment. These examples above I’m thinking about in larger ways, not just issues of safety in our communities, also in public health, spiritual growth, liberatory goals, nationalists agendas, and freedom in general.

You see I struggle with this often. I appreciate the exchange within my community and online about this topic. There are parts of me that know when someone is murdered or harmed in particular ways that has an impact on a community in very specific ways. At the same time I understand why being violent in certain ways (I’m thinking a rape victim/survivor hurting/killing their rapist) can also create a safe( r) space. Then I struggle again with how we can build communities with that person/rapist who has violated other people in such a way. I am not comfortable with this being so dichotomous: either you are anti-violence or pro-violence. I think it is more complicated.

You see, I don’t think all forms of violence are forms of abuse. My homegirl Marie shared with me on twitter when I asked about violence always being a form of abuse her experience in her Krav class (a form of hand-to-hand combat/martial arts). That “I'm learning how to defend myself in class. Violence in a controlled environment is necessary in order to learn.” Controlling violence is something that is new for me as well to think about in this particular way. For example, when we discussed violence in my class last semester and then I asked students to write about it on their final exam, many of the men in the class wrote about boxing and a way to end boxing to have less violence communities. I was surprised that they thought this way, and realized we didn’t talk about “controlled violence” which is what boxing as a sport is in our society.

So, why don’t we believe youth and women and other folks who claim a certain level of violence to control that violence? To only use that violence when it is really needed (whenever that may be) but when they feel unsafe, need to protect themselves, or liberating their land, family, home, country? I think a lot of this idea lies in the “what if” fear. What if someone else was hurt? What if a melee occurs? What if people misuse that form of violence?

I think those questions are valid. I think they are also connected to ideas of power and who can claim power and when. I really appreciate Sofia Quintero’s (aka Black Artemis) list of “revenge films” to watch and discuss, which was also inspired by the Rihanna “Man Down” video. If you have not seen her last suggestion, the Descent, I’d like to hear about your impressions and thoughts about Rosario Dawson’s characters decision and actions. More importantly I’d like to hear folks talk more about pushing this conversation forward versus debunking it quickly.

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