Victim Blaming, Race, Gender and a Little Bit of Kanye: On Chris Brown and Rihanna

Images from web.
Images from web.

I was never the biggest Rihanna fan, but lately she’s been growing on me. I never knew exactly how much I appreciated her fabulous personal style and unabashedly do-what-I-want attitude until the Internet and my friends started to tear her to pieces.

It’s been just over three years now since photos surfaced of beautiful Rihanna’s broken and battered face. In 2011 we watched her attacker, Chris Brown, appear on Good Morning America to promote his new album, saying that the incident “isn’t important to [him] now” and that he is just trying to “move on,” after which he broke a window in his dressing room and stormed out in a rage without a shirt on.
This year, Chris Brown is back on top, shining bright at the Grammys as if he hadn’t threatened to kill his girlfriend, bash her head into a window and choke her until she nearly lost consciousness. The police report is horrific.

If you followed Twitter during the Grammys, you would have noticed dozens if not hundreds of girls tweeting the likes of, “what’s Rihanna complaining about? I’d let Chris Brown beat me any day.” #TeamBreezy was trending. Plenty of young women out there have not only forgiven Chris Brown, but support him; their love and money assure that he is not only surviving in the entertainment world, but also prospering in it.
And, as expected, some people are pissed.

As someone who devotes a fair amount of her time and energies toward fighting sexism, rape culture and domestic violence, I am both relieved and hopeful that so many people in my life are outraged that Chris Brown is skating by with only a few community service hours under his belt after doing one of the most despicable things possible: emotionally and physically damaging someone who loved him.

Everyone is therefore confused that Rihanna has since lifted the restraining order against him, and has even collaborated with him on a few remixes. That confusion has, for many, turned into disappointment and even outright anger. This is where I come in.

My first glimpse at the hate aimed toward Rihanna came in a letter to the editor in Vogue a little while back, after the ever-glamorous singer had graced the front cover. A reader was annoyed at the magazine for giving the coveted cover spot to a celebrity who had not taken the opportunity to speak out against domestic violence after she herself had experienced it, but instead performed songs like “S&M” which, according to the reader, glorify abuse.

The fact that so many people tend to completely misunderstand the concept of sexual consent is a topic for a different article; this letter to the editor in Vogue, however, is further indicative of the trend in holding Rihanna to a certain standard of how to be “The Good Victim” — a trend which has blown up since everyone began to notice Chris Brown’s voice on Rihanna’s “Birthday Cake” remix. —a trend which has blown up since everyone began to notice Chris Brown’s voice on Rhianna’s “Birthday Cake” remix.

The popular, considerably left-leaning blog, The Daily What, recently published a post claiming it is “high time” that Rihanna reread the police report from the night she was beaten. “I’ll never forget that night,” said TDW dramatically, finishing with, “and I’ll never forgive you for forgiving him.”

This sentiment is echoed in the thousands of notes from the post: “She’s so fucking stupid. I officially hate her,” someone commented. Yesterday I noticed a post on my Facebook newsfeed in which a guy declared he has “lost respect for Rihanna,” and a girl agrees with him, calling Rihanna a “dumb, weak, dependent little girl.”

There are so many deeply disturbing things about these comments, which are being recycled and reworded each time I refresh my browser. The Daily What, especially, is disgustingly infantilizing: Hey, Rihanna, why don’t you go back and reread the police report? Remember when that guy beat you up? Dumb little Rihanna, forgetting things!

From the twelve-year-olds on Twitter to the most prominent blogs, the media world is calling Rihanna, a victim of horrific abuse, a “dumb bitch.” She is being reduced to nothing more than a stupid, weak-willed child for letting Chris Brown back in her life, however minimally.

As my lovely friend Mollie Doherty ’12 pointed out to me, we must remember that Rihanna is unfortunately a product as well as a woman. We cannot possibly know what she is actually thinking or feeling at any given moment, because her life is in so many ways dictated by a business that is infamous for perpetuating oppressive systems of race and gender.

Even if Rihanna is personally allowing Chris Brown some space in her life, there are two things we must remember: the first is that in the cycle of abuse, it is unfortunately not uncommon for a victim to return to her abuser. In this scenario, there are plenty of things to blame: patriarchal establishments of power relations, misogyny, institutional tolerance and structural violence.

But wait! We also have, in this particular case, Chris Brown. Those who choose to shame his victim, in however small a way, are also, perhaps unknowingly, shaming a parent, sibling, colleague or friend. Domestic violence and the cycle of abuse are a reality that tens of thousands of Americans, especially women, face everyday.

An addendum to this point: just because their universes are now overlapping slightly again does not mean she has forgotten or forgiven; perhaps, by taking some control over the situation, Rihanna is coping in the way that is right for her.
The second thing we have to remember is that a victim, even if she is an international celebrity, does not owe us anything for having been abused.

Maybe this is a radical concept, but I believe we should hold Rihanna to the same standard we generally reserve for the people in our own boring, non-celebrity lives, which is at once simple and revolutionary: the standard of treating others with integrity and respect.

The reader in the Vogue letter to the editor, like so many other people I know, wishes that Rihanna would become some celebrity spokesperson for fighting domestic violence. I can honestly count myself among that group: who wouldn’t want another strong, passionate voice joining the fight against relationship abuse? But the point at which I leap off the bandwagon is the point at which people are actively annoyed, disappointed and flat-out angry that Rihanna does not devote her young life to continually reliving her trauma, which was humiliatingly publicized around the world.

During the night of the Grammys, interesting discussions circulated the blogosphere about Kanye and Taylor Swift; it has been three years since the “I’ma let you finish” incident, and Taylor Swift fans still hate Kanye quite passionately. What if it were Taylor Swift who Chris Brown beat up, and not Rihanna? Would it be safe for us to assume that if Chris Brown beat a cherished, popularly virginal white woman instead of a famously “promiscuous” and racy black woman, that he would not be winning Grammys—but instead would, in all likelihood, be serving time behind bars right now?

It’s impossible and irresponsible to disregard race when thinking about Chris Brown and Rihanna. While it is wonderful and righteous that plenty of us are enraged that Chris Brown has not seen proper justice for his crime against a woman, where is any level of similar hatred toward some of Hollywood’s famous white men? Sean Penn beat Madonna multiple times, once with a baseball bat. Michael Fassbender’s ex-girlfriend filed for a restraining order after he got drunk and broke her nose because she feared for her life. Charlie Sheen has committed an extraordinary number of documented abuses against women and is hailed as a cultural icon. Unfortunately, the list is very lengthy.

Victim blaming not only exacerbates trauma, but also distracts us from the real issue at hand. We must unite against systems of oppression that value whiteness, maleness and the capitalistic worth of human beings, because these systems tolerate and even instigate this type of violence. Remember, Rihanna is one of the people we are trying to help, and her harsh treatment is one among many reasons why American society’s relationship with domestic violence and sexual assault is rocky at best, and reprehensible at worst. •


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