by Katie Reyzis
As much as I try to remove myself from the gossip-laden world of pop-culture, the story of Rihanna and Chris Brown hits closer and closer to home for me with every update. To make a long story short, a verbal dispute between Rihanna and her then-boyfriend Brown, also known as ‘Breezy’, escalated to physical violence and resulted in assault charges against Brown in early 2009. Brown pled guilty to felony assault and the couple split, but media coverage of the incident continued as rumors surfaced about their reunion and their professional collaborations in music.
Through my work and experience with women’s issues, I have been exposed to the issue of domestic violence time and time again. While each situation may present different details about the people involved and the type of abuse, there are many overarching principles that remain the same. Chief among them is a concept known as the ‘cycle of violence,’ which I think has been largely ignored in the media’s coverage of Rihanna and Brown’s tumultuous relationship.
Holy moly, I must say I didn’t see this one coming.
Brown’s latest contribution to the tabloids was released two days ago, when he was photographed with his newest tattoo of what at first glance appears to be a battered woman and bears a striking resemblance to his ex-girlfriend. While he claims that the image is art to represent a Mexican holiday called Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the tattoo’s resemblance to Rihanna is uncanny. Even despite the most recent affirmations from Brown’s tattoo artist that the tattoo was in fact an illustration of art, I am not convinced that Brown’s motives were purely creative. The placement of the tattoo coupled with Brown’s history of violence and continuous lack of remorse for his actions make me skeptical that he isn’t just looking to brag about his apparent immunity to punishment for his actions.
While Brown’s tattoo may truly be an artistic illustration of a M.A.C. cosmetic design, it still begs the question – why did a convicted felon of domestic assault choose to get a highly visible tattoo that can at best be described as a female face that has either been beaten or is “half dead”? And why is it that instead of Brown, Rihanna tends to be the one who catches the heat for the back and forth rumors that she and Brown are getting back together?
Rihanna, affectionately dubbed ‘RiRi’ by the press, may be a pop-singer and a high-fashion icon, but her personal exposure to domestic violence makes her like 1 in every 4 women in this country who experience physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by their intimate partners, family members, roommates, and other loved ones. Furthermore, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) reports that, “Females who are 20-24 years of age are at the greatest risk of nonfatal intimate partner violence.” Rihanna fits into the statistics so neatly that her story should come as no surprise, but the media’s coverage and, subsequently, our society’s response to this issue remains stagnantly ignorant and it is time to catch up with the times.
Critics in the Public Relations field claim that Rihanna’s response and continued connection to Breezy demonstrates the normalization of domestic violence, but I argue to the contrary. I think that by blaming Rihanna, her critics are in fact the ones contributing to said normalization and disregarding a central component of abusive relationships, the aforementioned cycle of violence.
The cycle of violence is comprised of four phases, which form a pattern of abusive behavior: 1.) Tension Building 2.) Incident 3.) Reconciliation and 4.) Calm. These phases revolve in a circular paradigm that makes leaving an abusive situation extremely difficult, particularly when that situation, like Rihanna’s, involves an intimate partner. Although some critics of the cycle of violence state that it isn’t applicable to all intimate partner violence, it is a helpful tool for the public to explain how a person’s psyche and willpower can be broken down and how it can be incredibly difficult to leave an abuser. The psychological, emotional, and physical implications of this pattern are vastly complicated, and Rihanna’s status as a popular icon is a chance to highlight a horribly invasive issue in our daily lives and educate the public about domestic violence.
Sadly, the social reaction to the Rihanna – Brown saga has been disappointing to say the least. For instance, in March 2012, a steakhouse in Georgia had the audacity to create a ‘black and blue’ sandwich as a parody to the incident. The ‘cleverly’ titled sandwich certainly elicited quite a negative retort and an eventual apology from the restaurant, but this was not the first or the last disappointing play on words about the episode.
Just last month, comedian Joan Rivers tweeted the following message to Rihanna directly, “Rihanna confessed to Oprah Winfrey that she still loves Chris Brown. Idiot! Now it’s MY turn to slap her.” As repulsed as I am by Rivers’ remark, I am even more disappointed that her view, in various capacities, is shared by the media, the general public, and my own circle of friends.
As someone who due to her age and gender fits so neatly into the statistical risk factors for domestic violence as Rihanna, I am appalled by critics’ reactions to this situation and disappointed by the fact that coverage of her story has not taken a different angle. For instance, why, instead of criticizing Rihanna’s coping mechanisms with her love of an abusive ex-boyfriend, are we not focusing on how this story demonstrates that domestic violence can affect everyone, even the wealthiest, prettiest, and most famous people in our society? This could have been a chance to underscore a crucial issue and, most importantly, accentuate the cycle of violence that is so common among those 1 in 4 women who are faced with domestic violence. I purposely repeat this statistic twice to draw attention to that fact that it is highly likely that someone you know has experienced it as well.
Yet, despite my loathing of Brown’s actions in this case and the media’s uninformed coverage of this issue, it is important to consider that Brown doesn’t exactly have the statistics on his side either.
The NCADV indicates that “Children witnessing domestic violence and living in an environment where violence occurs may experience some of the same trauma as abused children.” By the same token, “Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.” Brown’s mother has been very candid about her history of domestic abuse and very supportive of the steps her son has taken to right his wrongs, but the fact remains that his history cannot excuse his actions in adulthood.
The facts are simple: We know domestic violence exists in America. We know that no one is exempt from it. We know we can report it and speak out against it. So why do we tolerate it?
Even if Rihanna and Brown really did laugh about all this ‘erroneous’ media coverage of the tattoo that resembles a face very similar to hers, the moral of this story is that her brush with domestic abuse and Brown’s unapologetic demeanor are far from unique. Belittling Rihanna’s emotional struggle and continued feelings of love toward her abuser only heighten the obstacles domestic violence victims face in coming forward and seeking assistance.
In my ideal world, I would emphasize a few reforms to the current status of this story in the media:
First, let’s show our understanding for someone in Rihanna’s situation, that leaving an abusive relationship is not black and white and takes many times to leave and return before finally leaving. Let’s not engage in blaming attitudes that place blame on the wrong person – the victim not the abuser. Shifting our focus away from the victim is crucial not only in the cases of celebrities in the media, but also in the very likely event that we are exposed to similar situations in our personal relationships with neighbors, co-workers, friends, or family members.
Second, let’s stop awarding Brown with Grammys and stop buying his records. How is it that Breezy remains unscathed from his well-deserved assault charges? Not only did he win a Grammy in 2012, he also performed at the Grammy Awards in front of a national audience. At the same time, fellow celebrity and football star Chad Ochocinco was held much more publicly accountable for battery charges as his TV show was cancelled and his contract with the Florida Dolphins was terminated.
It’s time we even out the playing field, take a stand against an issue that is so invasive in our everyday lives, and hold Brown accountable. So he was put on probation, his Got Milk ad was dropped and he was sentenced to some community service hours. Do those punishments fit the crime? Do those three things even fall in the category of ‘punishments?’
One of the most important ways to curb the prevalence of domestic violence is to set a strong precedent so that abusers are afraid of the consequences. As Kim Gandy, President of the National Organization for Women stated, “Young girls and boys watching this [Chris Brown’s trial] unfold on TV will see than men who commit violence against women practically go scot-free.”
Education and awareness about domestic violence and related issues is essential to fostering more healthy relationships in our communities and more resources for individuals who face these crimes in our world. Shifting society’s focus from the victim to the abuser and equipping the public with tools for avoiding and coping with the dangers of domestic violence is the key to prevention. Intolerance to the obvious implications of a continued lack of remorse from a convicted batterer like Chris Brown, artistic or otherwise, is step one on this high road.