“At this point, Rihanna is the biggest abuse apologist since Ike Turner.”
I typed those words in a Facebook comment thread about Rihanna’s ongoing romance with Chris Brown. I meant them to be provocative, irreverent, facetious and hopefully a little funny. But there was even a teensy tiny piece of me that cringed.
Even though I’d thought that thought a hundred times, it felt weird to say it.
In 2009, of course I shared the horror and dismay that most people experienced when the leaked photos of Rihanna’s battered face showed up in the tabloids. As the years have gone on, I’ve been a combination of horrified and incredulous as the songs, videos, albums and Instagram pictures celebrating Rihanna’s renewed love for Chris Brown have piled up. Every day there’s something new and defiant in defense of her attacker.
I’ll cut to the chase. I am a committed, lifelong feminist, women's advocate, and in the interest of full-disclosure, I’ve been hit by an intimate partner, too. But there’s no denying it: I am really, really, really mad at Rihanna.
As you may have guessed, this being in the Unpopular Opinion section of xoJane and all, my Facebook comment, though tongue-in-cheek, went over like a lead balloon. My friends, lots of whom are sharp, engaged, thoughtful, amazing feminists, generally accept my insolent, if dark, sense of humor. I expected a wince and a laugh. But as I watched their responses appear, I realized that I had touched the third rail of discourse on this topic.
Questioning a survivor’s behavior is out of bounds.
Let’s get this out of the way. I hold these truths to be self-evident: Abusers are responsible for abuse. Full stop. When I made my tongue-in-cheek remark, I was in no way blaming anyone for what Chris Brown did in the past or what he (or anyone else) could do in the future. If Rihanna stays with Chris Brown and, God forbid, he harms her again, it will be 100% one person’s fault: Chris Brown.
But I’m not talking about what Chris Brown has done or could do again. I’m talking about what Rihanna is doing now. Of course we can't know for sure whether what I have heard about Rihanna is true, as so much of what is written and reported about celebrities is either false or embellished or out of context. But just in the last three years, Rihanna has released a string of songs, videos and albums with a common theme: the romanticization (even sexual fetishization) of her relationship with her attacker.
Her most recent album, “Unapologetic” actually features a duet with Brown, “Nobody’s Business.” In one verse, they simultaneously flaunt their relationship and their monetary wealth. Luxury, sexual chemistry and fuck-everything swagger are inseparable.
Me and you, get it?
Ain't nobody's business
Said it, ain't nobody's business
Your love is perfection, please point me in the right direction
I'mma give you all my affection
Every touch becomes infectious
Let's make out in this Lexus
There's no other love just like this
A life with you I want, I wonder can we become love's persona
Isn’t this at least, to use a word we feminists love, “problematic?”
When all this first started, I felt like a protective friend. I wanted to tell her, “He’s no good for you, girl! He’ll do it again!” But as the volume of songs, videos and, let’s just say it, “products” increased, I began to feel something new: anger. It seemed plain as day to me that this wasn’t just a private (if ill-advised) romantic union. This was a brand.
With chart-toppers that tacitly pardon and celebrate Chris Brown, to photos of him in bed, it seems clear to me that Rihanna is now consciously rebranding her abusive relationship into some sort of star-crossed romance. The CEO of a multi-million dollar brand, Rihanna sells a tidied version of her affair with her abuser: Chris and Rihanna as Romeo and Juliet, true love fighting against the pressure of the outside world. Public opinion of their relationship becomes the story’s antagonist. With millions of people buying what this revision of the tale of Rihanna and Chris, isn’t it reasonable to at least ask if its narrative is dangerous?
Something terrifying happening in the zenith of opinion with respect to intimate partner violence and young people. The excuse of abusive men is nothing new in a misogynist culture. But it feels like the tide, once moving (if slowly) towards the public condemnation of the abuse of women, is turning back toward a “These things just happen sometimes” paradigm.
The “I’d Let Chris Brown Beat Me” trend in social media is well documented and widely reported. His defenders are many and vocal. In recent news, there has been no shortage of rationalizations for Jovan Belcher when he brutally murdered his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins and took his own life. It seemed everyone that knew Belcher had a “Twinkie defense” ready. Every newspaper knew the “real” reason for the murder of Perkins, as long as that reason wasn’t Jovan Belcher flying into a rage and killing the mother of his child.
There is certainly no simple or singular cause for what seems to be increasing cultural sympathy for abusive men, including Brown. But Rihanna is arguably the biggest female pop star in the world right now. Her work largely centers on reframing her abusive relationship as passion, spilled over from true love. Is it so crazy to ask if she plays a role in the public perception Chris Brown and the men like him?
I understand that it just feels icky to criticize any survivor of abuse, no matter how reasoned or fair the arguments are, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever do so.
I have to say, it feels weird to come down on the “wrong side” of a discussion about intimate partner violence. I’ve generally led the charge, pitchfork in hand, against misogyny where issues of violence against women were concerned. Being called a victim blamer, having my feminism policed by friends was surreal.
I tried to explain. Of course I believed that people react to abuse in a panorama of ways, pretty much all of which are acceptable. Of course I grasped the impulse to apologize for an abuser. I’ve experienced it personally. I tried to draw a clear distinction, explaining that in no way was I placing any responsibility on Rihanna for her abuse. And while I mourned that women sometimes choose to make excuses for their abusers, I know that they do so for complicated reasons including but not limited to fear, manipulation and financial concerns, and deserve no criticism for what they do in their private lives.
But I’ll say again what I said at the time, this is not a private matter. Millions of dollars are being invested to ensure the absolute publicity of this reconciliation. And the investment is paying off. Her album, “Unapologetic” debuted at number one. The single, “Diamonds” was her 12th number one single. She has sold more than 25 million albums. The fact that record labels and management companies are complicit does nothing to lessen her responsibility for selling a glamorized version of her relationship to young men and women, many of whom are living the very unglamorous reality of intimate partner violence.
For those that would call me a victim-blamer or shame me for criticizing the abuse of Rihanna simply because she survived a violent act, I would submit two scenarios for your consideration.
1. Rihanna was beaten by a partner, therefore she is no longer capable of making measured conscious creative, artistic and professional decisions and is largely, if not completely, unaware of what she’s doing as an artist.
2. Rihanna is a grown-ass woman and has a pretty good sense of what she’s doing and how it benefits her.
Being a feminist doesn’t mean we don’t ask hard questions about other women. Being the victim of a violent crime doesn’t remove us from all agency or absolve us of any responsibility for our actions. Believing Rihanna has no idea what’s she’s selling or how it benefits her seems, willfully myopic to me.
Isn’t acknowledgment of the fact that she is in charge of her life, her decisions and career, the idea behind the title of the album, “Unapologetic?” Isn’t she publicly declaring her own agency without defense or explanation for her actions?
Rihanna may be “Unapologetic,” for her behavior, but for what little it’s worth, I am unapologetic, too. I refuse to treat women that have been hit as if they were children, who have no conception of the ways their actions could impact people around them. And unpopular or not, it is unapologetically my opinion that the way Rihanna markets her abuse as passion and her abuser as true love is dangerous.