Rihanna — world-renowned pop star and recent jet enthusiast/journalist-kidnapper — has a song on her 7th studio album entitled “Nobody’s Business,” featuring the 21st century’s Ike Turner: Chris Brown.
And you know what? She’s right.
It isn’t any of our business.
Following the infamous 2009 assault that left “Robyn F.” with a battered face — as well as Chris Brown in a sea of trouble/bad tattoos and gossip rags with a 24-hour “news” cycle of endless speculation — media outlets & journalists took it upon themselves to turn the two young musicians into a parable of relationships gone awry.
University students, activists, celebutantes, and any blogger worth half her weight in salt followed suit, mutating an awfully sad but basically private incident into the poster discussion for domestic violence at large. The PR machines behind both singers were collusive — trying first to whitewash the situation, before realizing that leaving it on constant spin was probably more profitable. The amount of literature that exists on the subject online alone is enough to fill a graduate program’s entire workload — and that’s excluding the unfathomable amount of user bloviating and bickering. Brown was quickly demonized & dismissed (howls for his head emanated from both the shallows and depths of the Internet alike); Rihanna was turned into a superficial portrayal of a victim and pitied (never acknowledged for those aspects of her that were strong and not victim-like); and never was a genuine dialogue about the sorts of conditions that lead people to act & react violently — or what such violence can do to either person psychologically — seriously engaged.
As for Rihanna & Brown themselves, the media decided their thoughts & feelings on their own story did not really matter. There were interviews, sure, but with each passing article, op-ed, and year, the two were systematically deprived of the agency to own their own narratives. Yes, they tweeted suggestively and made allusive songs, but any school counselor will tell you that such passive-aggressiveness a cohesive catharsis does not make.
It wasn’t until Rihanna sat down for a one-on-one interview with Oprah, more than 3 years after the fact, that we really bothered to ask her how SHE felt about the incident, about her (then-former) partner — who, she told Oprah, really “needed help” at the time, whose own abusive childhood and personal demons led him to actions that overnight morphed the public’s perception of him from sex symbol to monster, without ever acknowledging what trauma or wounds may lie beyond the camera’s glare. I’m not saying we should feel sorry for Brown, per se, but I do think it would be more useful to interrogate critically his psychological and emotional condition at the time, rather than simply to castrate him.
Nor did we bother, really, to ask Rihanna how she felt about the whole world using her personal hurt as a cheap-ish prop for a litany of discussions about what’s wrong with relationships between men and women, all of which betrays one very real and glaring irony — that this same act of indulgence and disregard for privacy/people’s dignity is not so different from the same sort of evils this self-righteous media gluttony was attempting to disavow.
I agree: it’s important for us to have honest, open dialogues with one another about the kinds of wickedness that usually get buried in hushed tones and behind closed doors — like domestic abuse — especially with teenagers and young people. It’s equally important that, in allowing our public figures their right to heal in private, we begin to heal our own malicious tendency to drag the most well-known amongst us through the mud for the sake of our insatiable, schadenfreude-laden thirst for entertainment.
By turning Brown and Rihanna into easily digestible tropes for our own over-consumption, rather than recognizing them as complex individuals deserving of our compassion, we robbed ourselves of an opportunity to have a dignified discussion of the nature of abuse, conflicts between partners, the hard work of relationships, the pressures that come with success, and the mixed fortune of being a young person living under the ever-watchful eye of public scrutiny.
And now, the media is reporting that Chris Brown and Rihanna are back together. Endless ‘twit-pics’ and public appearances corroborate this, and the album itself might well be called one long love letter to Brown. Of course, opinion-peddlers and graduate students writing dissertations are angry. And maybe this IS the sad saga — ripe with didactic parable — of a troubled woman wrongly identifying with and forgiving her abusive lover, despite pleas from the chattering masses (and maybe even their managers).
Or maybe it’s just another turn in the lives of two 20-somethings, and maybe it really isn’t any of our business at all.