Earlier today, David Maryasin wrote an article proclaiming, essentially, that Chris Brown and Rihanna should be allowed to be real people who can do what they want, and that the general public should just let them be and stop being so critical, or even caring about their personal lives at all.
With respect to his argument, the following is my rebuttal, an explanation of how the assumption of the powerful position of celebrity comes alongside inescapable responsibility for the messages you impart to your audience.
Should we all collectively take a chill pill and realize that these are two people whose relationship is likely a far more complex, nuanced thing than we can understand from our incredibly limited access through the media? Of course, if for no reason other than our own wellbeing. It’s borderline absurd how much energy and personal investment we feel in the daily doings of celebrities. But the fact is, largely, we DO pay that much attention. Long since passed are the days when we consume solely the parts of celebs that are their “official” methods of entertainment; their whole lives are the show now. We know it and — more importantly — they know it, even if we should all feel a little lame and dirty about it. With that well-known reality in mind, do Chris Brown and Rihanna have an obligation to be at least a little accountable for the public image they exude? Absolutely. At this point, being a celebrity means that your personal life is as much a part of the package you’re selling, as much a part of your art, as much a part of your performance as anything else you do. For any celebrity to deny that is not an attempt to deny that it’s true, but rather to shirk any responsibility for the content of their very public characters.
This is especially true of people like Chris Brown and Rihanna. Take Kristin Stewart for example (File under: “Things I Never Thought I Would Write”): when she was getting on that married director piece and cheating on her sparkly boyfriend, she was at least making an attempt at hiding it. She and her vagina were doing something morally questionable, which as a flawed, young, mushy human, she gets to do. Any declarations of her as a bad, awful, harlot who is a terrible influence for young girls are easily combatted by the argument that she wasn’t in any way attempting to publicly embody and endorse that behavior, and was in fact, very quick to issue a statement of sincere shame and regret to everyone involved and her fans. Because it was a shitty thing to do, and not the kind of shitty thing that she wants to sell as part of the product of her celebrity. Chris Brown and Rihanna are the exact opposite. They have never made an attempt at keeping their relationship out of the public eye, which again, is a choice that they have the right to make. They get to live however they want. But when they act in ways that clearly demonstrate an awareness of how they are publicly perceived, and beyond that, flagrantly display their relationship in the most attention-getting ways, they are using their influence and reach for personal gain. And yet they flout any semblance of accountability for what messages they’re sending out through those same channels that support them.
So that’s when the door is open for criticism. If Chris Brown and Rihanna are aware enough of the range of their audience, of the number of rapt eyes upon them — which they clearly are — to use it for their professional advantage, they are thereby engaged in a contract with the public, the other side of which says “You are responsible for the image you portray, and the morals you personify.” Certainly at one point, professionals in the entertainment industry could reasonably expect that they could sing, dance, or act, and then go home and be private people whose questionable judgment had no far-reaching implications. Their talent was the product they sold, not their entire lives. However, as regrettable and gross as it is, that hasn’t been the case for a long time.
It’s not as though Chris Brown and Rihanna didn’t know what profession they were walking into. The days of celebrities being able to achieve a modicum of privacy ends DECADES ago. Decades. These two people did not become famous under one set of conditions that facilitated their lives being private, and then along the way, suddenly came under a more intense degree of public scrutiny and visibility. This was always the deal. They signed up to be publicly consumed. And real talk: if their relationship with each other didn’t elicit such controversial, taboo sentiments, it wouldn’t be newsworthy. They wouldn’t be as relevant. They wouldn’t be sexy.
The fact is, Chris Brown and Rihanna are taking full advantage of the media scrutiny they’re under. They aren’t just “living their life” and we just keep on invading their privacy and judging them arbitrarily and against their will; they are continuously, directly, boldly displaying their lives and their relationship as much as possible. This makes their whole, “Who, what, me? I’m just doin’ me! Why are you even paying attention?” act offensive, idiotic, and careless. They’re on Twitter, Instagram, TV, and public events together. They are going out of their way to put their relationship on display, not despite the uproar that ensues, but because of it. Yes, each person, no matter what their job is, nor their degree of public visibility, is equally entitled to making their own choices and mistakes and engaging in relationships in any way that feels good and right to them. Chris Brown and Rihanna are young, and have as much right as anyone else to beat each other on the face, tattoo each other on the neck, and grind on each other on Instagram as anyone else. That said, it is not unreasonable to ask that they be at least somewhat conscientious that they aren’t just any two people. It’s laughable as a defense for the degree of irresponsibility they’ve displayed from their places of power.
I agree entirely with the notion that there should be consideration and compassion for the experiences that contribute to someone like Chris Brown, or anyone, turning into the kind of person who inflicts physical violence on someone they care about. There is clearly hurt behind that. There are always contributing factors to that kind of behavior, and they deserve understanding and attention in a loving, constructive way. However, Rihanna made no attempt to proactively open up that conversation, to bring to light an awareness of those issues. Any discussion like that has emerged solely from the public criticism of her decision to reconcile with him. It was defensive. It was because she was attacked. Would the public feelings about their relationship, and about her, be different if she had chosen to actively chosen to thoughtfully talk about it? I think so. There is a big difference between being accountable to the impressionable young people who look to you as a role model, and using your position as a public figure to foster conversations about mental health, and simply exploiting the controversy stirred by your choices for attention. Again, that’s her choice to make, but her dismissal of her degree of influence and the potentially dangerous message she’s communicating to women means she is very justifiably open to bad feedback.
If public figures are going to be carrying out violence, and subsequent forgiveness, in the public eye, there does need to be a conversation about the intricacies of domestic violence, lest we all keep silent and allow young people to simply think “If your boyfriend beats you, it’s okay to forgive him. It’s no big deal.” And if Rihanna and Chris Brown aren’t willing to make themselves the catalyst for positive discussion on this issue, then they will have to become catalysts for it by being subjected to criticism. Those are the only choices. And it was THEIR choice to be famous, and THEIR choice to display their personal lives. While I respect their right to make those choices, I assert that they HAVE to become the bad guys now. If we as a society don’t speak out critically against the message their choices convey, we’re as guilty of neglecting younger audiences as they are.
Think about it like this: If a non-famous, normal ass mother was brutally assaulted by her husband in front of her children, and then she took him back without engaging her children in a conversation that explained why, everyone who knows her would be outraged at the message she was imparting to them. There IS a difference between being permissive and apologetic about domestic violence, and deciding to work with someone you love to overcome their demons. But without explanation of that subtle difference, the choice to stay with someone who hurt you communicates an approval of violence that is incredibly dangerous to pass on to impressionable audiences, like children. We all have to be responsible for the sphere of influence we hold, whether that is our own children, or say, millions of other people’s children. Chris Brown and Rihanna aren’t being criticized so much for their relationship, but rather for their utter lack of consideration when it comes to explaining those choices to the malleable minds who look up to them. In the end, what makes them shitty is not their relationship with each other so much as their willingness to take advantage of the benefits of their highly visible position without feeling the need to be in any way responsible for it.