Over her dead body: Nationalist rhetoric as (erasure of) violence against women

Natoya Ewers, a Jamaican woman, was hacked to death by her intimate partner, leaving behind three children.  I came across this Jamaican facebook page where the occasion of this woman’s death was used to denounce the fact that Bajans did not like Jamaicans.  Many users asserted that the woman should not have left Jamaica to travel to that third world full-stop of an island Barbados.  Absolutely no mention of violence against women.  No mention of the Jamaican women who lost their lives at home in Jamaica at the hands of intimate partners during that same week.  No mention of how increasingly violent Caribbean societies had become.  I told myself it’s just one facebook page.  Surely that is not most people’s reaction.  Then I saw the Jamaica Observer cartoon above and it confirmed my initial fears.

Caribbean feminist scholar, Alissa Trotz, has outlined how “women’s bodies [become] the site on which group loyalties are enacted.”  Not to be outdone, on the Nation News (Barbados) facebook page comments were also nationalistic as readers alleged that the man who committed the murder and subsequently killed himself was Vincentian.  They quickly moved from the nationalistic to the sexist:

But lets face the truth. Bajan women take and take and take and just take too much from men. Its not like the men can afford to give so much. Men feel compelled to give because its the only way they can keep these selfish bajan women. Bajan women have become a society of beggers.

Just say ” hello” to a bajan women and she wants a top up.

Of course, the other facebook users moved to correct the commenter quoted above, not to chide him for his sexism but to remark that the woman in question was not Bajan but Jamaica.   The stereotype of Caribbean women as mercenary, materialistic and financially dependent on men and these “facts” in and of themselves being presented as a justification of murder went unchallenged.

While the recent tensions surrounding the treatment of Jamaican nationals at the Barbados airport and the rape of a Jamaican woman in police custody explains in part this recourse to an unthinking nationalism, it does not explain why all the “talk” following this woman’s brutal death made absolutely no mention of  the similarity with so many other murders of Caribbean women and displayed very little feeling for the woman herself.   Reports are that she had confronted her partner about sexually abusing her daughter.  On local television one of her neighbours reported watching the woman’s murder from the safety of his bedroom window.

Women’s bodies are used as boundary-markers in what has become an asinine Barbados versus Jamaica beef played out at the highest and lowest levels.  Wasted time, talk and energy that could be put towards fighting against what is really at issue here: men’s violence against women, society’s sanctioning of it, incest and child sexual abuse.



Man Down: Biting Brand Jamaica

Rihanna’s Man Down video is generating quite a bit of chatter, no doubt to the delight and expectation of the Rihanna machine.  However, not all the reviews have been positive as many are questioning the nativizing and stereotypical images of the Caribbean presented, and of Jamaica specifically:

 No seriously now fada gad…why Rihanna leave all di way from Merica come a Jamaica come shoot ar video fi show scar face man inna red holey holey marina a rape ar inna zinc house??? Jah kno, like we needed any more of those stereotypical perceptions of dis ghetto paradise….ah boi…lol.. (facebook user)

Why she had to come to Jamaica to shoot a man and become a criminal. The video highlighted Jamaica as a criminal, illegal haven, showing “bad men” and to make it worst she chnaged her style completely to that of singing reggae/dancehall using a one-drop rhythm. It really peeves me! (facebook user)

A commenter on CODE RED’s facebook page felt that the video represented the “Othering” of Jamaica and Jamaicans which takes place in the Caribbean:

This is ‘Caribbean racism’ at its best. Unfortunately I am not au fait with bell hooks or any other feminist writer to be able to fully deconstruct the video and highlight all the ‘othering’ taking place in it. (Tennisha)

The theme of Rihanna’s inauthentic appropriation of Brand Jamaica (and her negative portrayal of Jamaica in the process) is a frequent one:

1) Like Barbados nuh have nuff zinc and board house she could duh it in kmt
2) A dat me say too. She should tek it to B’dos
3) mi waan kno if rape nuh gwaan a barbados y she affi come a Jamaica fi di rape song (facebook users)

Rihanna is cashing in on the cultural capital of dancehall—the rough, edgy ‘cool’ of dancehall—of course without any of the experiences of being part of Jamaica’s underclass. (And she is by no means the first. Global capital has been cashing in on brand Jamaica and brand Caribbean for quite some time). In part, this perhaps represents the contradiction of how black popular culture is consumed, packaged and sold while many black people are considered expendable bodies (think of the USAID quibbling over how many died in Haiti or were made homeless by the earthquake specifically). The images in the video are indeed nativizing and stereotypical…we’ve seen them before in other Caribbean artists’ portrayal of the region. It is perhaps the music video version of the Caribbean picturesque updated to include sexual violence. This is how the Caribbean represents itself. Think of state tourism ads and how they sell hedonism, sensuality and sex. I sense though that the criticism of this video reflects much of the recent Barbados-Jamaica tension. I would say that within the Caribbean Jamaica is asked to stand in for the best and the worst of Caribbean culture. (Tonya of CODE RED)

The focus on Rihanna’s use of dancehall, however, may in fact overshadow the comment on sexual politics in the Caribbean which the video makes:

I am slightly intrigued that little has been said concerning the actual content of the video in what is the reality far too often in the Caribbean – how forms of women rejecting men’s advances whether directly sexual, or the casual psst through town or otherwise often has violent repercussions- scroll down Code Red’s wall for example, and one has to acknowledge that the Caribbean is too violent a space in some regards. What of the sexual politics of the encounter on the dance-floor which often transcends that moment in the club… (Rashad)

Many Rihanna fans (and it seems Rihanna herself) are claiming the video as a powerful statement against rape and an anthem of “female empowerment.”  The Crunk Feminist Collective reviews the video positively and one facebook user posted the following message on our page:

My reaction to the video has been the inverse of what it seems most people above experienced – it was the inclusion of the rape scene that most struck me. Sexual violence against women is hardly dealt with by ‘mainstream’ artists, & its general absence in public conversation forces the “privatised experience”. All the other discourses evoked by the video are of course valid, but as a Caribbean woman, as a survivor of sexual violence, and having worked with other survivors, I am yet to viscerally move past the emotional – and actually freeing – impact of seeing the experience of rape and it’s resulting mess (for both victim and perpetrator) depicted in popular media. None of it is pretty, but it’s real, and it is refreshing to have the messiness forced into everyday conversation, the messiness that many of us wish we could hide from but can’t.

In the US the video has generated a completely different kind of controversy with some groups calling for the video to be banned due to its depictions of violence.

One CODE RED member considers the video’s subversive possibilities:

Is it violence to be consumed as entertainment? Women and girls who face the very real threat of sexual violence, unequal relations of gender, gang-rape, incest etc typically do not get to “shoot a man down”. Rape becomes the individualised, privatised experience of the woman. It is not considered “public” violence like that of the gun-wielding shottas. So perhaps you could read subversion in Rihanna’s use of the gun. But in the wider context of the video with its problematic images of black working-class masculinity and an exoticized and nativized Caribbean, the everydayness of (sexual) violence and the sensationalism of the video, for me at least, that subversive moment is lost. (Tonya of CODE RED)

Yet, as another CODE RED commenter insists, the lines between advocacy and entertainment cannot be so clearly drawn: “If we only speak to violence when it is a news article, or a study, we miss a huge demographic” (Rashad).

What are you thoughts on the video?   Join the CODE RED collective on facebook and have your say! We’re having a very lively discussion on facebook with varying perspectives, all of which are not captured here in this short post!