Chris Brown, Rihanna and Reality
New America Media, Commentary, Elizabeth Méndez Berry Posted: Mar 01, 2009
What happened between Chris Brown and Rihanna on February 7 is still unclear, and we will probably never know. What is clear is that relationship violence persists, largely ignored except when photogenic stars are involved.
For black women ages 15 to 29 —Rihanna’s demographic— homicide is the second leading cause of death, after accidents, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A woman’s most likely murderer is her current or former romantic partner.
The problem is widespread: the U.S. Department of Justice recently reported that in 2007 intimate partner assaults on women were up 42 percent. Sadly, the response to Brown and Rihanna reveals why this goes unchecked: more time is spent attacking the individuals than tackling the problem.
On the one hand, some in the media convicted Brown instantly. Presumed guilty in the court of public opinion, he lost lucrative endorsements and radio play. After the story broke on Feb. 9, there was a dominant point of view on two gossip sites with a mainly white female readership. Commentators on TMZ called Brown “a piece of garbage,” “a thug,” and “a vampire.” At PerezHilton: “You cannot take the hood outta these rats. Enough said.”
Other fans launched a ruthless defense of the impeccably packaged good guy via a smear campaign against the self-professed bad girl. On Bossip and Necole Bitchie, two sites popular with African-American women, many argued that a racist media had railroaded Brown. Instead, they tried and convicted Rihanna. Sample comments: “Caribbean women are crazy, she probably cut him." “This is a classic case of B.B.W syndrome BITTER BLACK WOMAN!!! She is straight trying to ruin him."
Even outside the celebrity gossip cauldron, the alleged victim was allegedly guilty. A friend called me, exasperated that everyone she talked to about the case (four educated African Americans) responded the same way: "She must have hit him first," said one. "I wonder what she did. She always rubbed me the wrong way,” said another.
Some softened their stance towards Rihanna when a photo, apparently of her bruised face after the attack, was leaked. Others did not. Posted on Bossip, Feb. 20: “Her face doesn’t look much different than normal. Those contusions [are] probably the result of an air bag hitting her.”
I’ve witnessed this reaction before. In 2005, I wrote an investigative article about relationship violence in the hip hop industry for Vibe magazine, and the women who spoke to me, wives and girlfriends of well-known rappers, faced rumors that nearly drowned out their allegations. The article sparked many constructive conversations, but other readers asked (loudly) why I aired the dirty laundry of beloved stars like Notorious B.I.G. and Big Pun.
Ten days ago, the video blogger Jay Smooth interviewed me about Brown and Rihanna for his site illdoctrine.com. After the video’s Valentine’s Day debut, it was widely circulated, and I got many positive e-mails (it has been viewed 30,000 times on YouTube). Still, some strenuously defended a man’s right to strike a woman back (in other words: a woman can’t claim abuse if she lands the occasional left hook).
My opinion, for the record: male or female, you don’t have to be innocent to be a victim of violence. Other than self-defense, I’m against responding to a smack with another one. There’s legitimate frustration among both sexes that women’s violence goes ignored. There’s also legitimate frustration that men’s violence against women— much more devastating in terms of hospital trips and homicides—gets minimized. These concerns are often expressed at high volumes (or in block caps). Instead, we need frank conversations about conflict resolution because this isn’t a men’s or women’s issue, it is a community issue. The adversarial “Team Rihanna” versus “Team Breezy” cacophony implies that somebody wins at the end. Everyone loses.
Chris Brown is 19. Rihanna is 21. The tragedy is that Brown, who witnessed his stepfather abuse his mother, allegedly resorted to beating his girlfriend. The bigger tragedy is that if that’s the case, he’s not alone. According to the CDC,
teen relationship violence, including beatings perpetrated by females, is at an all-time high (though attacks by males are much more severe).
One of the few benefits of the nonstop coverage of this case is that we are forced to confront an issue that too often stays behind closed doors, without the paparazzi waiting outside to check for bruises. Famous or not, young people need guidance on how to navigate romantic relationships. Unfortunately, whether a case involves celebrities or civilians, too many demonize one person instead of humanizing both. With all the bickering, there’s little attention paid to preventing destructive behavior in the future. Is it any wonder that a growing number of young people can’t figure out how to have healthy relationships?
Elizabeth Méndez Berry is a journalist based in New York.
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