There has been a lot of conversation happening about Chris Brown lately (I’m sure you’re sick of reading it, so I”ll try to be brief), and specifically about his re-acceptance into the music community. There has been a lot of talk about the effects of this on young people, and the message it is sending to them. I see the victim blaming and smoothing over of the issue as deeply problematic, don’t get me wrong, but I haven’t seen this issue being framed in the feminist blogosphere in the way that I find it the most troubling.
The other day, I walked into my job at a domestic violence shelter to find an issue of US Weekly sitting on the counter. Now, I don’t normally pay any attention to these kinds of things, but Sundays are unusually slow days. On the cover, there was a headline about Chris Brown and Rihanna.
“Back With Her Abuser: Rihanna’s Secret Affair With Chris.” (You can read it here)
This article doesn’t once blame Rihanna for the abuse, question whether or not it happened, or say that Chris Brown is being judged too harshly. Instead, this article does something much more sinister: it makes Rihanna’s relationship with Chris Brown seem illicit and exciting. The way this article portrays the pair is as people so extremely attracted to one another they can’t stay away. According to US Weekly, even though Chris Brown has hurt her, even though it means Chris is cheating on his current partner, Rihanna loves him so much, wants him so bad she has to go back**.
Almost anybody who is a survivor of domestic violence, or does domestic violence support work can tell you that a survivor often goes back several times before leaving their abuser. When you love somebody, you want to see the good in them, and you want to see them change. And the trick to abuse is that if it weren’t really great sometimes, nobody would stick around for the bad. Abusers are charming and manipulative by nature*.
But the message being sent to young people isn’t only “it’s okay to abuse,” or “nobody will care if you are abused.” It is also “violence in relationships is exciting.” If we take stock of the images and messages young people are getting about relationships, it’s largely that drama is exciting and desirable, and stability, respect, and communication are boring. Take stock of what traits you really appreciate in partners, then take some popular music lyrics and match up the traits described in idealized partners in them. It’s not a pretty comparison.
What “sexy” couples on TV are there that don’t have a lot of drama and really poor communication? I don’t watch much TV, so I don’t feel comfortable naming a lot of examples, but all the shows I watch glorify just that idea of “meant for each other.” Look at Romeo and Juliette. Even though it meant their lives, they wanted so badly to be with each other. Or True Blood, a show where people root for Sookie to be with one of two men that have continually lied to and manipulated her for their own gains. The same here goes for movies.
I’d like to see a push for us all to be more mindful of what positive portrayals of relationships in the media look like (I recognize this is unlikely), but at the very least, I’d like to see more conversation around this in feminist circles. This is not an issue that is limited to the mainstream, either. While I see many feminists decrying rape culture, I don’t see many thinking about what makes people think these relationships are okay in the first place.
*I want to make a distinction here between “abusers” and “people who have been abusive.” When I talk about abusers, I’m talking about people who set up patterns of power and control to harm others. These people are largely sociopaths. Situational violence happens, is equally as horrible and traumatic, but the key difference is it can be corrected, and the perpetrator wants to correct the behavior.
**I also want to make the note that Rihanna has agency in this situation. If she loves this person, going back to him is her right as a human being. That is not in question here. This is not meant to wag my finger at Rihanna or say she shouldn’t go back to Chris or that she’s not actually attracted.