This Conversation Isn’t About Rihanna and Chris Brown – It’s About Our Culture

It’s 2013 and we’re all still talking about 2009. Why isn’t the conversation evolving?

“It’s like you’re screaming, but nobody can hear. You almost feel ashamed that someone can be that important, that without them, you feel like nothing. No one will ever understand how much it hurts. You feel hopeless, like nothing can save you. And when it’s over, and he’s gone, you almost wish that you could have all that bad stuff back so that you could have the good.”

- Intro, “We Found Love” video by Rihanna, circa 2010

“Not really sure how to feel about it. Something in the way you move makes me feel like I can’t live without you. It takes me all the way. I want you to stay. The reason I hold on? ‘Cause I need this hole gone.”

- “Stay” lyrics by Rihanna, circa 2013

The last time I delved into Rihanna and Chris Brown, I was angry: at the music industry, at their peers, at #TeamBreezy. I still am. To this day I like to imagine a pop culture landscape not littered with the remains of their public breakup and the abuse scandal which changed their lives and careers, as well as our own culture’s perspectives on relationship violence, forever. (I also like to imagine a pop culture landscape where Chris Brown completely and totally fades out of existence, both literally and in terms of relevance.)

But that’s old news.

This time around, we’re in a post-Grammys Rihanna and Chris Brown world. And after the Grammys this year, in which a reconciled Brown and Rihanna sat and posed all cutesy for the camera together before RiRi sang her new ballad “Stay” on stage, the media struggled to come to grips with what was, for many of us, the first time we’d confronted their relationship’s new stage in such a public way. Some of us wondered if Rihanna and Chris Brown were our business – and others remembered that they are. That isn’t what matters. Addressing this issue from the standpoint of “Rihanna and Chris Brown” is wrong. That isn’t the real problem: the real problem is the culture that created and sustained the violence in their relationship.

To discuss Rihanna and Brown’s relationship, you don’t need to be prying or passing judgement. You just need to understand the impact of media on women, and on our world at large. You just need to be watching MTV, and VH1, or be on YouTube listening to Rihanna’s new album’s leaked tracks in a never-ending video. Because here’s what we know: the media has impact. And when we talk about and analyze celebrities and the media they’re producing, it’s not personal – it’s technical. Because it’s going to have real effects on a culture.

Rihanna herself addressed concerns about her relationship on her new album, on “Stay” but most notably on “Nobody’s Business” with Chris Brown:

(Brown) I love to love to love you baby
I love to love to love you baby
Me and you, get it?
Ain’t nobody’s business
Said it ain’t nobody’s business

(Rihanna) Your love is perfection,
Please point me in the right direction
I’ma 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 wonder can we become love’s persona

The message is loud and clear: nobody should be talking about what happened. (And the underlying message? That Rihanna still believes her relationship with Chris Brown is somehow indicative of some fairytale romance, and that Chris Brown finds himself fit to perform over a Michael Jackson sample. SMH.)

In light of recent coverage of Rihanna’s might-be could-be hopefully-is-a-publicity-stunt pregnancy, as well as the new, mounting celebrity case in which olympian Oscar Pistorious is accused of murdering Reeva Steenkamp (a model, as well as survivor and advocate for those in abusive relationships), the idea that a public romance is blossoming in the wake of a public abuse scandal (which resulted mostly in only a handful of standard apologies, additional violent outbursts, and other obnoxious acts – but overwhelmingly in silence) has harmful implications. It isn’t fucked up to acknowledge that – because we need to somehow change the discourse here from “is this or is this not a problem (and who is to blame)” to “how can we, as populations receiving these messages, work to disrupt their impact?” We know this is a problem because it remains a recurring situation that needs to stop. We know this is a problem because lives have and will continue to be lost to partner violence until it stops.

A disturbing thruline here is that we all predicted that this would happen, and although we read the signs as Rihanna cried to Oprah about still loving her abuser and began appearing publicly with Brown at performance spots, we knew it would happen mostly because of the numbers. Many survivors will return to their abusers following a domestic incident. It takes most up to seven shots at leaving to really get anywhere at all. When the public commentary on Rihanna and Chris Brown’s relationship becomes heated and passionate, it isn’t out of a place of personal judgement – it’s out of a deep understanding of what’s going on here and exactly what’s wrong with it.

It would be wrong to imply that the ongoing situation between Rihanna and Chris Brown hasn’t affected young people, or to overlook that it’s already become fodder for TV, a punchline for Seth MacFarlane at this year’s Oscars (because the best way to begin this conversation is a trivialization, obviously), and an inspiration for teen girls everywhere waiting for their day to be beat by Brown themselves (again, SMH). To only address the situation in light, to only address it as a fictionalization, doesn’t do justice to the weight of it. Why have we not spoken out about this, come together as a culture to say – we don’t care about your personal decision, but we need to fix this culture? This situation has already impacted and affected our lives. We do ourselves a disservice not to talk about it. The people involved have done themselves, and their platforms, a disservice by deliberately choosing inaction and retaliation against action.

Celebrities don’t owe us anything and they don’t implicitly sign up to be role models when they begin their careers (although you’d think someone would have penned a memo by now informing them that they would be made so against their will). That being said, it can be assumed that they are aware of their presence in the public eye and the visibility they have, as well as the amplification of their lives and words. When artists release work, we will most definitely unpack it and ask questions about it – and as part of the artistic process, that’s very normal. Why is it not okay to be uncomfortable with music being released, and widely accepted, which implicitly forgives violence? Why is it somehow being questioned whether or not feminism, and feminists, should be allowed to break down and criticize the gendered and often problematic scripts present in Rihanna and Brown’s new music addressing abusive relationships that characterizes them as acts of rebellion, love, and general badassery? Why the songs about staying with your abuser because you “needed saving?” Why are we listening to this, consuming this? How could we possibly do so without talking about it?

I want to respect Rihanna’s decisions and agency, and I accept that I don’t know what’s been going on in her personal life behind-the-scenes or at all intimately. To be honest, it wouldn’t even be fair of me to assume I somehow know whether or not Chris Brown is truly sorry, or what he’s done to make changes in his own life. I’m not trying to say it’s her fault these messages exist or blame her for being part of an ongoing cycle and culture of violence which consumes all of us – abusers and abused – until we’re sort of stuck in all of it just trying to make the best sense we can. I’m just asking that we not reserve the opportunity to make productive, and helpful discussions bloom here rather than the media’s scandalization, mockery, and complicit acceptance of this situation. Rihanna and Chris Brown are not a unique situation – many people will unfortunately find themelves in Rihanna’s shoes, one way or another, during their lifetime. Survivors of violence do not have to adhere to guidelines or follow rules following their experiences, and they are allowed to make their own choices and create their own futures in the process. But as critics of culture, and as activists, it is important for us to remember and maintain that our vision for a world free of violence means acknowledging, owning up to, and building dialogue around violence. Silence is not what breeds change, or even closure.

Domestic violence is not normal. Violence and aggression toward a partner are not normal. Hurting someone is not a step toward loving them, nor is it a step toward love. And the media should not be contemplating whether or not that’s so. We know the facts and we know the ultimate goal: for our world to be free of violence and the kinds of actions that enable and justify it. And if we don’t start addressing it soon, it will just continue to be too late.

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