Rihanna's new album is coming out soon. And with the new album - about which we know pretty much nothing, aside from a few vague quotes - comes the speculation about whether she'll address The Incident - her public assault by, and break-up with, Chris Brown. Specifically: is she going to be angry?
An article at CNN.com (via ONTD) says: maybe! Ne-Yo, who worked with her on the album, has said that we can "expect an edgier, almost angrier Rihanna on this one." And it is, as CNN reminds us, The First Album Since The Incident. But Tracey Johnson, of NeonLimelight.com, says "[Some fans] feel like it would be good for her to represent abused women in some sort of way and say something, but in my perspective, she doesn't owe us anything."
I don't know much about her website, but I'm with Tracey on this one. She doesn't owe us much. Particularly not one specific emotion. After what she's survived, asking her to present us with one simple "appropriate" or fan-requested emotion is just unfair.
I have no problem with "angry," as a musical direction. I also think that, if anyone has the right to be angry in public, it is probably Rihanna. I furthermore think that it makes total sense - and is entirely predictable - that a pop star who was involved in a fairly enormous, public incident between albums would refer to that incident in her first album after the fact. But the fact that we are all sort of leaning in to see how she is going to express that anger, or if she is going to express that anger, or what it means if she does or does not express that anger, speaks to a larger cultural anxiety and need: the need to create a narrative around domestic violence and trauma.
Crimes like domestic abuse, which require that a loving relationship must exist between attacker and victim before the attack takes place, tear a big hole in our understanding of loving relationships, which are supposed to be safe places. Rape, and especially acquaintance or marital rape, are disturbing in the same ways: sex, an intimate, pleasurable act - heck, a loving act, for many people, or at the very least a friendly one - is transformed into a weapon, and all of a sudden the things we think we know about sex don't seem true any more. Most women who are raped know their attackers, but our understanding of "rape" usually centers on the idea of being attacked by a stranger, perhaps in part because it's hard to comprehend how a person could be capable of doing this to someone they knew and loved, or at least liked.
Speaking for myself, a lot of my own feminist work and reading and theorizing has been based on the simple need to know how or why these crimes happen. I learned, when I was around sixteen, that more than one of my female relatives had been abused by male partners, and suddenly the world looked different, as did most of my memories of family gatherings and interactions. Was that why I never wanted to be alone with that guy, even if I didn't know it at the time? Was that why she looked so upset that day? You know the drill, if it's happened to you. I needed not only to figure out what these crimes meant, but how they could exist in the world I thought I knew. It was one thing to consider them happening in rare cases, to strangers; it was another to realize that they'd been a part of my own family history without my knowing it.
We develop theories and narratives of abuse, identify the signs of abusers and the effects of abuse on its victims, not only because understanding these things is clinically useful or useful to our activism, but because understanding them helps us to place them in context, and create a mental image of the world in which these things can exist. Nothing is as scary once you have an explanation for it, because if you can explain why it happens you can also formulate theories about how to make it happen less often, and how to heal the damage caused when it does happen. And it's definitely true that there are observable patterns, both in terms of abusive dynamics and in terms of how abuse survivors react - I mean, "post-traumatic stress disorder" wouldn't be a diagnosable illness if it didn't affect a lot of different people for the same or similar reasons, after all.
But what I want to talk about here, that is perhaps harder to understand than any of the above, is that reactions to abuse can differ from person to person. And putting pressure on people to behave as we think abuse survivors should, or as we think abuse survivors usually behave, can legitimately hurt them. The narrative of abuse, even when imposed by well-meaning people - you should be angry, you should be devastated, you should never want to see him again, you should never feel at all conflicted about what happened - sometimes just doesn't line up with the experiences of people who have been abused. Sometimes they feel immediately, overtly devastated; sometimes they don't. Sometimes they're angry; sometimes they're not. The human mind works in odd ways. I can't speak for your human mind, but I can say that I am more likely to respond with immediate, strong emotion to lesser problems than to major ones. Some people simply go numb when they can't immedateiy comprehend or cope with a situation. And, although it's important to send the message that one should end an abusive relationship quickly and definitively, when at all possible, for safety's sake, and that abuse is always only the abuser's fault, there is the fact that ending an abusive relationship means ending a relationship, and often entails the same conflicted feelings that any other break-up does. If anything, those feelings (of regret, of needing the person you lost to come back, of blaming yourself for the end of the relationship) are apt to be more extreme and less reasonable in the case of abuse than otherwise, simply because abusers so often work to warp or destroy the abused person's understanding of what they deserve and what they should take the blame for. Our understanding of how abuse can affect people is intended to help those of us who have been abused - to help them map their own reactions, to help them to come to grips with the long-term effects that abuse may have on their lives, and to give them a sense of the situation that may not be immediately clear from where they're standing. But when those reactions become prescriptive, rather than descriptive, we run into trouble.
Consider: there are some survivors of abuse and sexual assault who take a long time to even recognize that what happened to them was abusive, or to give it the name of abuse or sexual assault or rape, who struggle with even incorporating the term "abuse" into their vocabulary, simply because they don't think their experiences fit the narrative. Not only do the experiences they've had not fit what they've seen in the movies or read about in books, but their reactions somehow don't fit that pattern either. Some even use their lack of "appropriate" response to excuse what happened to them. I didn't crumble; I wasn't angry at him; I didn't hate him - that means it wasn't that bad, right?
Well, no. Abuse is bad. But our reactions to it don't always fit some pre-determined pattern, and that does not affect the fact that choosing to abuse someone is always a bad thing.
I'm not sure what the public interest in Rihanna's potentially "angrier" musical direction means. On the one hand, she's a celebrity, and celebrity has, for whatever reason, become its own product; they don't just sell us movies or music any more, they sell us stories about who they are. And the desire for a public, musical reaction springs just as much from the desire for more story as it does from the fact that people have weird reactions to abuse. But most of the sources quoted in the article acknowledge that Rihanna doesn't owe them anything, in terms of personal disclosure - that's never really been her thing, it would seem - and I tend to agree. Whatever her feelings are, they're bound to be complicated. Maybe too complicated to hash out in a song.