Say! HERE'S something I can't not talk about: Chris Brown, domestic abuser, bow tie enthusiast, Oprah nemesis, and soon-to-be dancing fiend, now on approximately Week One Million of his I'm Not Really That Bad And Also Please Forgive Me For That Unspecified Thing I Did (Did I Mention I'm Not That Bad?) Tour.
Nothing says "I sincerely regret and take responsibility for my actions" like dressing as a cross between Mr. Rogers, an ice cream man, and the Virgin Mary.
We, the people, hate Chris Brown, pretty much unilaterally. And for good reason! His recent statements are infuriating, not least because they make him seem so very much like the prototype of the abuser who claims that he just lost control, and he's really sorry, and this is not who he is, and if you'll forgive him, everything will be different from now on. But here is the thing: the fact that he abused his girlfriend is getting him more attention than anything else he has ever done. He's getting attention for his Larry King appearance. He's getting attention for his People magazine interview, in which he vows to dance away his abusive tendencies ("I will work with my counselor and hopefully channel my anger into something like dancing," quoth Brown. I think I speak for all of us when I say: the Electric Slide does not a full embrace of accountability for one's actions make). He is most DEFINITELY making headlines for criticizing Oprah for airing an anti-domestic abuse episode of her show in that same People interview, thusly:
I commend Oprah on being like, "This is a problem," but it was a slap in my face. I did a lot of stuff for her, like going to Africa and performing for her school. She could have been more helpful, like, "Okay. I'm going to help both of these people out."
Dear Chris Brown: When a gentleman seeks to recover his reputation after being found guilty of abuse (a sticky situation which he could avoid by, say, not abusing anyone) it is generally considered inadvisable to compare an unpleasant experience to BEING SLAPPED IN THE FACE. Just a tip, there!
But, to return to the problem at hand: ever since the abuse occurred, the media has been fixating on Brown and Rihanna, intent on interpreting each and every one of their actions in light of what they say about Brown's abuse of Rihanna, or about Rihanna's recovery from said abuse, or about domestic abuse in general. Nowadays, they're less important to us as pop stars than as the means by which we have a national conversation about abuse. And that conversation is important. But centering it all on one famous couple distorts the truth, and may prevent people from understanding some key things about abusive relationships.
For starters: Chris Brown is not the only abuser in the world. He's just one of the most immediately recognizable. Abuse is widespread, and often kept secret; the odds are that you have met several abusers, and abuse survivors, without recognizing them as such. Too many people treat Chris Brown as if he is some uniquely monstrous villain; instead of recognizing that abuse is often rooted just as much in cultural norms as in individual psychology (specifically, those cultural norms that say men should be dominant, and respond to perceived threats to their dominance with aggression, and that women's bodies and lives should be subject to outside control) they make it a conversation about whether he is a bad person. He just might be! But, to minimize or eliminate abuse, we can't focus on saving each and every individual soul. We have to focus on changing the culture.
Then, there's the Rihanna coverage. It's rare to see her name without a mention of the abuse close by. And far too many people feel the need to weight in on whether her actions are "healthy" or "appropriate" or "right" for someone who has been abused – that is to say, whether she's a good abuse survivor or a bad one. Oh, yay! She's dancing in public! Clearly she has completely recovered! Oh, no! She is topless in a magazine! Is TOPLESSNESS an appropriate message for an abuse survivor to send? (Since Rihanna is personally responsible for representing all abuse survivors everywhere, her naked lady bits CLEARLY have the power to damage their cause. We don't want people thinking that all abuse survivors are capable of taking their shirts off, now do we?) Oh, yay! She might be dating someone else! Everything is all better again! Oh, no! She might be dating Chris Brown again! She's letting us all down!
The knowledge that Rihanna might be going back to her abuser is legitimately sad and scary. (Of course, with its unspecified "source" and statements about how oh-so-very-sorry Brown is, it also has the flavor of a rumor concocted by Brown's camp – look, if Rihanna believes that I'm sorry and wants to forgive me, shouldn't you?) But it points to the fact that abuse is complicated, and often occurs within a context of substantial emotional manipulation, and that the learned helplessness and dependency that abusers work to create within their victims doesn't go away overnight. Demanding that Rihanna exhibit 100% perfect judgment at all times, or holding her to a higher standard than stars we do not know to have been abused, exhibits ignorance of these truths. It's also disrespectful and potentially harmful. I'm no expert, but here's something I think abuse victims might NOT benefit from: harsh judgment every time they fail to meet someone else's expectations.
In conversations about abuse, personal virtue – heck, personality in general – is beside the point. But it keeps getting introduced, and undermining the points at hand. Recently, Tila Tequila - a woman who is substantially less beloved than Rihanna - was allegedly assaulted by her boyfriend, NFL player Shawne Merriman. And, partially because Tequila doesn't fit our ideas of a "good," "undeserving" abuse victim – people don't like her personality, her sexuality, her public actions – most coverage is neither as substantial nor as outraged. The fact is that abuse is abuse is abuse: even if you are the least likable person in the entire world, it is still wrong for your partner to beat you up. Even if you spend your weekends giving away free puppies and hugs to sad orphans, beating your partner up is still wrong. So, here's my suggestion: why don't we stop talking about whether Chris Brown is good or bad, stop talking about whether Rihanna is good or bad, and start talking about abuse itself? Because that's really bad. And its badness is not mitigated in any way by who does it to whom.
This doesn't mean that I recommend letting Chris Brown off the hook. Far from it. It's also not to say that expressing concern or sympathy for Rihanna is wrong. But making them the faces of abuse does a disservice to the conversation. To get anything done, we need to talk, not about Chris Brown, but about the culture of abuse.