The debate over Rihanna and abuse

BECKY LANG | Updated 3/27/2013

Rihanna, Chris Brown, violence and what’s not being talked about.

When you Google “Rihanna Chris Brown soul mates,” you get almost 18 million results. When you Google “Chris Brown Rihanna violence,” you get more than 23 million results. The camps are divided between those who think it’s dangerous for Rihanna to get back together with abusive boyfriend Chris Brown, and those who think it’s none of our business. But which side is right — and what are we forgetting to talk about?

Dangerous Subject Matter

“The most telling thing about the way the media deals with their relationship is that — as I’m talking to you — I find myself afraid to say anything too interesting,” explained author and cultural commenter Chuck Klosterman. “It’s an authentically dangerous topic.”

When polarizing topics arise, it’s often left to Internet commenters to flesh out the ideas that the media are uncomfortable exploring. Whether it’s victims of abuse telling their own stories in online forums or a disturbing trend of girls tweeting that they’d let Chris Brown punch them, the wealth of dialogue shows just how deep and complex the Rihanna-Brown issue is.

Many public figures, including “Girls” star Lena Dunham, have chastised Rihanna for being a bad role model. But why should female celebrities be expected to live out purely aspirational lives? And what kind of damage do we create when we cast judgment too soon?

“If you have a friend in a position similar to Rihanna’s, the worst thing you could do is shut them out. That’s what the abuser wants,” explained Jasmine from St. Paul, who was in an abusive relationship in college. “I see that in Rihanna, with her whole ‘I don’t give a fuck about you’ persona. One of the key things abusers do is isolate their partners from social support. I see her attitude as a response to her isolation [by the media and her relationship.]”

Jasmine described her recovery process as a continuing journey, one that has led her to become interested in critical studies of gender and social issues. Like Rihanna, who opened up to Rolling Stone about her abusive father, Jasmine also grew up witnessing the collapse of her parents’ turbulent, abusive marriage. She knows the situations that lead people to stay in abusive relationships are much more complex than they may appear to outsiders.

“The media does not portray healthy relationships,” explained Jasmine, adding that she grew up assuming all relationships involved combustive fights and romantic makeup periods. Between her childhood and what she saw on TV, that belief was only reinforced.

“Society and the media and all these institutions tell women, like, ‘Love is the answer,’ ” she said. “There’s emphasis on true love and love no matter what. You’ll take a bullet for this person. You’ll take a slap and verbal abuse — because it’s true love.”

From Innocence to Complexity

This “true love no matter what” narrative is eerily present in Rihanna’s music, especially in her increasingly autobiographical music videos.

“A song like ‘Umbrella’ now seems hyper-innocent, like it was recorded 20 years ago,” Klosterman said, “because the way she is perceived has changed so much in such a short period of time.”

The video for “Umbrella” is a cookie-cutter R&B video — one released two years before she was assaulted by Brown in 2009. The subsequent videos for singles “We Found Love” and her collaboration with Eminem, “Love the Way You Lie,” seem to overtly address what happened between Rihanna and Brown. Both videos depict dark, destructive and substance abuse-addled relationships playing out in surprisingly gritty detail. Yet as bleak as they appear, they also portray the tumultuous relationships as sexy — even romantic. Why else would Megan Fox be playing the protagonist in “Love the Way You Lie”? 

What’s Coming from Rihanna – And What’s Marketing?

How much is Rihanna actually in the driver’s seat when it comes to her songs and videos, and how much is she complicit in what the parties making money off her deem necessary?

Michelle Lekas, a University of Minnesota lecturer in Cultural Studies and English, points out that Rihanna’s songs are often written by big-time songwriters such as Stargate and Ester Dean. Lekas believes much of Rihanna’s career is engineered to capitalize on what happened to her, in order to keep the pop star in the public eye.

“Her people, Chris Brown included in those people, they’re all intricately connected in a constellation of marketing,” she explained.

Lekas has a point. Two songs that appear to be directly about her abusive relationship were not written by Rihanna at all. In fact, neither was originally written for her.

“We Found Love” was written by producer Calvin Harris, and was originally created for singer Leona Lewis. “Love the Way You Lie” was written by Skylar Grey, a singer-songwriter who has found her biggest success writing for others. Grey told the Los Angeles Times she has never been in an abusive relationship; instead, the song was inspired by her rocky relationship with the music industry.

Lekas believes that female pop stars have learned that in order to sell out arenas and stadiums, they have to constantly stay in the news, ideally by turning their lives into a compelling, gossip-filled narrative. Whether it’s Amy Winehouse’s troubling addictions, Ashlee Simpson’s battle to win the spotlight from her older sister or Lindsay Lohan’s complicated relationship with her parents, Lekas believes that these stories are essential components of preserving fame for female stars. Why? Because, as she puts it, they’re not just musicians — they’re brands.

But beyond remaining interesting, Lekas believes that the most successful stars are ones that have a fatal flaw. “People aren’t comfortable with women in power of any kind,” she explained.

Could it be that Rihanna’s career truly began the day we saw her bruised face and read the police report detailing her incident with Brown? Is that when she developed a tragic story that won her the biggest hits and gave them countless hidden dimensions that her pre-incident singles never had?

“Entertainment sucks on actual emotional things to create product,” Lekas said. “It sucks on trauma that’s really happening. … It’s a robbing process. It’s capitalism and it’s not Rihanna’s fault.”

What is problematic about the artistic storytelling surrounding Rihanna’s and Brown’s relationship is that it creates a false parallel with what actual girls in abusive relationships are going through.

“Marketing this idea of alienation as making you interesting is the saddest thing on the planet. These girls really are alone,” Lekas pointed out. “They’re not Rihanna.”

Chuck Klosterman wonders if there are factors that younger people are dealing with that complicate their perception of what’s happening. “If you’re cynical, you think [their relationship] is sort of constructed,” he said. “If you’re generally an optimistic person, it seems really depressing.”

He’s more curious about how young people might be relating to the dueling narratives. Are they looking at Rihanna’s “S&M” video and wondering if her proclivity for bondage is related to her violent relationship?

“Kinky sex is great but it has nothing to do with abuse,” Lekas explained. “This conflation is really irritating to me. People want to experiment and want to be spanked or spank someone. That’s fine. What this whole news cycle has done around Rihanna is connect wanting to be sexually adventurous in any way with being abused.”

One thing is clear: Rihanna’s and Brown’s love affair has been rationalized as much as possible by the storytelling surrounding them. But the classic, PR-approved trope of rehabilitation, forgiveness and reunion hasn’t gone very smoothly for the pair, possibly because Brown fails — over and over again — to win the affection of the media. Despite that, Rihanna and Brown are still both among the pop-culture elite, making music and getting nominated for awards. But how long can they tame their story to work for them, rather than against them?

“That’s when you see someone separating from this process, when the shit really hits the fan,” Lekas said, evoking the premature deaths of Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston. “[What Rihanna and Brown have] is now a product. But if it continues, if it becomes no longer palatable and marketable, then there’s a problem.”

Addressing the Real Problem

So how can we start to talk about the issue more constructively, so that Rihanna — and the many women and men out there suffering from domestic abuse — do not become further victimized?

First of all, we need to avoid casting blame on Rihanna, and explore the causes of domestic abuse with empathy and understanding. But most importantly, Jasmine points out, “We need to take the focus off Rihanna specifically and make it more about abusive relationships.”

Jasmine feels that other questions demand exploring: “What resources do women have to get out of these relationships? Or why is this happening in the first place? Why does our culture have this ideal masculinity, why do we have this rape culture? All those things are tied together in this matrix of domination against women, and I think people don’t see that.”

“It’s a tragedy and it’s not a tragedy of Rihanna,” Lekas said. “It’s a tragedy for actual girls.”


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