Rihanna, that clip, and why it kinda matters IRL

The latest media storm around Rihanna’s ‘Bitch Better Have My Money,’ is likely to be the biggest story on violence in 2015. It will eclipse news of women being raped as a tactic of war in Syria, or any of the daily news stories around the world of women who have been killed by their partner. So, let’s use this opportunity, while we’re all talking about it, to look at why we’re so okay with images of violence against women, and whether there is a connection to the use of violence in real life.

The images in BBHMM are brutal and sexualized. The link that violence is supposed to be cool, sexy and titillating is nowhere made clearer than a scene in which Rihanna’s famous derriere is juxtaposed next to a woman’s floating corpse. Linking sex, violence and the degradation of women is not a new phenomenon, and neither is the act of critiquing it, but let’s look to the research, too see whether it matters.

What we know, is that rates of violence against women and girls are higher in areas where community attitudes make it normal, or okay, to use violence. What Works’ Lori Heise recently published an article in the Lancet Global Health which showed that gender inequality at the macro-level, including societal norms supporting male authority over women and discriminatory ownership rights, was associated with rates of violence between couples.

Similarly, comparing rates of violence across countries in Asia and the Pacific, the UN Multi-country Study on Men’s Use and Experiences of Violence, showed that men were more likely to use violence if they lived in areas, or had grown up in family circumstances, where it was seen as a justifiable way to resolve conflict. And it’s the same in the west – in Australia, regular surveys on community attitudes towards violence, show it is more likely to occur in areas and communities where people regularly justify or excuse its use.

What has been interesting about the commentary around Rhianna’s clip, is the willingness of people to entirely deny any concern around these images – why are there headlines asking how the kidnapee’s breasts look so great upside down? Or, to actively justify it as somehow clever because the violence is perpetrated by a woman against another woman, or because the clip’s casting shows a rare level of ethnic diversity, or because of Rihanna’s own background as a survivor of domestic violence. Why are we so keen to find ways to say ‘it’s okay to enjoy watching a woman get tied up and tortured’?

If we want a world where violence against women and girls doesn’t happen, we need to foster a culture that rejects and renounces violence. It needs to feel so abnormal, so repugnant to even think about using violence that no person would ever resort to it. It is possible, and is being achieved around the world through projects that, amongst other tactics, also use television and music to reach the same young people who watch clips, with other messages and tactics on how to resolve conflict in their homes and relationships.

It is also being achieved through community-led petitions, protests and legal action by people who are tired of sexual objectification loosely dressed up as ‘art,’ or ‘just a bit of fun’. New Zealand denied rapper Tyler the Creator a visa, over the pro-rape lyrics in his songs. College and university students around the world joined their voices to object to call out Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines for promoting rape culture. Can we quantitatively say that this will prevent a woman from being raped – no. But, we can say that people have stood up en masse to say ‘this is not okay, I do not want this in my community,’ and they have been heard. Politicians have responded, and the ensuing media conversations have ensured that millions have heard, and perhaps understood the term ‘rape culture’; it has been understood that rape is a social-cultural phenomenon, not just an act committed or experienced by lone individuals. And that is a promising basis from which we can build prevention interventions that work.

For those of us working to prevent violence against women and girls, it can seem like an uphill battle when you’re coming up against a youth/ pop cultural phenomenon like Rihanna, but that’s where everyone can help. If you feel like switching the clip off and ignoring it, that’s understandable, but this is also an opportunity to have a conversation in your family, or community about violence. If your kids have seen it, talk to them about the need to value and treat women and men equally. If your friends are talking about it in ways that make violence against women and girls seem fine, you can challenge that by simply asking ‘why do you think that?’ Nothing big, nothing confrontational, just a simple act that challenges the way violence is seen. That is how we will achieve a world where violence against women and girls doesn’t happen, through a million small acts from people in their homes and communities making it known they don’t find the use of violence normal or okay.

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