There’s a lot that troubles me about the ongoing Chris Brown-Rihanna saga. It’s now been over three years since photos surfaced on TMZ showing the wounds that Brown inflicted on Rihanna, a physical assault that not only destroyed their relationship but also left an indelible imprint on the popular consciousness. The very image of Rihanna’s abuse was inescapable and continues to be so. In fact, just this week, a school in New York reenacted that night (in blackface!) for a pep rally and an audience of spectators that didn’t seem to mind that the students involved reenacted a woman’s brutal abuse for laughs at a SCHOOL ASSEMBLY. When the school apologized for the students’ skit, they mentioned the racist element of the proceedings (which was also beyond effed up), but not the assault aspect. Luckily, Jezebel was there to remind America that abuse isn’t funny. Because guess what? Abuse is never ever funny. Ever. Ever. Ever.
But what troubles me just as much as the students’ behavior is the ongoing discursive tabloid space that their embattled relationship occupies. In the media’s obsession with Chris Brown and Rihanna, the abuse element has always been front and center, forcing us to remember her trauma and relive it, when Rihanna has publicly made clear her desire to move on. People who continue to bring it up say that they want the best for her and to empower her to make good choices, but where is the agency here? For the most part, the coverage isn’t about empowerment or raising awareness about the horrors of domestic abuse, which Rihanna has shown she doesn’t want to be a poster child for. It’s about headlines. When Millionaire Matchmaker Patti Stanger sounded off on her advice for Rihanna should she get back together with Chris Brown (which is much rumored these days) and put herself in that situation again, do you think it was out of personal concern for Rihanna? No, because who cares what Patti Stanger thinks? It was about getting her name in People magazine and reminding people to watch her show.
Luckily for Stanger and others, their relationship has proved itself absurdly marketable in a tabloid-obsessed media as a way to generate easy press and pre-packaged controversy. However, the press coverage has focused less on Rihanna than Chris Brown, who will be forever associated with this scandal. Brown can’t move without the media reminding us that “this man beats women” — as a recent group in the U.K. did by slapping labels with that title all over his albums. Earlier in the year, a critic all but refused to review his most recent album, F.A.M.E., awarding it “no stars ever.” I don’t listen to his music these days because a) I don’t like supporting abusers and b) it’s terrible music. However, we have to ask ourselves what we seek to accomplish when we focus that kind of media attention on Brown. Are we calling him out for being an abuser for the right reasons? Will it help raise awareness about domestic abuse, or does it just bully a bully? Does targeting Chris Brown really help anyone?
Until recently, I’d always shrugged off any discussion or argument that even sounded a little like it might defend Chris Brown — because, as the child of a victim of domestic abuse, it’s a sensitive subject. It’s been easier to go, “La-la-la-la-la-la! Not listening!” than ever broach that topic. However, I was discussing the media’s depictions of abuse with a friend the other day, and they mentioned that Sean Penn was convicted of domestic violence during his marriage to Madonna. According to The Daily Mail, “Once, he tied her to a chair and beat her. Another time, he hit her with a baseball bat. He threatened to shave her head. He chased her out of their hotel room.” I had never heard about this before, and as a film nerd, I was a little in shock. This man won two Oscars, one for playing a gay civil rights leader, and I never heard it brought up once. No one questioned a former abuser’s right to play Harvey Milk in a movie, and yet there’s an app to block Chris Brown from the entire internet. How is that possible?
And Penn is not alone. Michael Fassbender, Nicolas Cage, Sean Bean, Sean Connery, Mel Gibson, Alec Baldwin, Josh Brolin, Mickey Rourke, Matthew Fox and Gary Oldman (who was cleared of all charges) have all been alleged or convicted of abuse in the past, and hardly anyone ever mentions it. Three of them are Oscar winners, four are Oscar nominees and one of them is only mentioned in the media in reference to his monstrously long penis. Matthew Fox is billed as the co-lead of the new Alex Cross movie this weekend, and despite his history of assault allegations, no one questioned his right to be in the film — in the same way that Brown has faced constant opposition. Remember that time that Chris Brown appeared at the Grammys and everyone freaked out? I do. I wrote an article about it, and I stand by being appalled at the fact that they commemorated the three-year anniversary of him beating his girlfriend by giving him an award. However, our outrage shouldn’t stop there. Where were the people voicing their concern for Madonna during her recent reunion with Sean Penn, or calling out Sean Penn for not apologizing to Madonna in either of his Oscar speeches? Crickets.
When Chris Brown spoke out about this double standard literally a year ago, a lot of people shrugged him off, because he’s a total douche dumpster and who wants to hear what he has to say? His immaturity invalidated his credibility. However, that doesn’t mean he was wrong. When Charlie Sheen (who has been arrested numerous times for assault) locked a sex worker in a closet, did we voice concern for the woman or for Charlie’s ex-wives, who have experienced similar abuse at his hands? No. The View openly mocked that woman, we had a Comedy Central roast to celebrate it, and people even paid to see Sheen “live in concert.” Sheen built a third career out of the press, being cast as an anti-hero out of the Paddy Chayevsky mold and a surrealist media darling. At no point were we told it wasn’t okay to laugh, or that we should be outraged at Sheen’s history of abuse becoming a public spectacle.
If you remember, Sheen wasn’t even let go from Two and a Half Men over being an abuser; he was fired for insulting his boss. Unlike Brown (who gets routinely boycotted), Sheen’s antics helped land him a new gig on FX as the star of Anger Management, a show that pulled in record numbers during its premiere. Sheen was then rewarded with a 90-episode order from the network, good for nine more seasons. The only people who seemed that upset about it were critics — because (like Two and a Half Men before it) Anger Management is a f***ing awful show — and we allow him to make light of his abuse week after week without much backlash.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I can’t stand Chris Brown. Not only is he an abuser, but he’s also proven himself to be a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad human being — from his unwillingness to accept responsibility for the attack, to his consistently homophobic tweets and his disregard for the wellbeing of both other humans and windows. I think the criticism of him is justified, but it concerns me that we constantly make an example out of Chris Brown and associate him with his history of abuse in a way we don’t with other celebrities. As Brown was the only celebrity I listed above who is not white, part of the reason this has happened is undoubtedly due to our society’s demonization of black males and the constant media blaming of rap culture. Almost any study on media bias ever conducted tells you that our society discursively frames whites and blacks very differently, and Chris Brown fits into the media’s narrative of racialized violence, where Charlie Sheen and Michael Fassbender did not.
On one hand, I’m glad to see the media leading a discussion of violence against women, as the media functions as an agenda-setting tool for society. However, rather than using the Rihanna scandal as a tool to spread awareness about abuse, we continue to demonize Brown at the expense of a larger dialogue, a conversation we desperately need to have. According to statistics from the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, “one in three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime,” “more than three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in [the U.S.] every day” and “domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States.” These are grim statistics that aren’t done justice by tabloid navel-gazing.
If we are going to do justice to the women (and men) who experience partner violence every day, this discussion needs to be larger than singling out one person and making Chris Brown the poster boy for abuse. When we make the entire discussion about domestic violence in the media about only Chris Brown, we don’t open up a discursive space to talk about the daily violence that people face: we make it more difficult by continuing to narrow that focus. We make the conversation worse. Instead, we need to have a conversation that raises the issue responsibly and compassionately. We need to learn to see the ways that these conversations avoid an actual discussion of abuse, which mirrors the larger silencing of victimization in society. We need to recognize our role in fostering a culture where partner and intimate violence can be discussed and learn how to be allies to those who need our support. And if we ever hope to make a difference in their lives, we need to be outraged when every person is abused, not just when it’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world.