Over the past week or so, countless blog posts have been written, and then deleted, about Rihanna‘s buzzy collaboration with the man who almost beat her to death. On the one hand, people are confused and upset as to why one of the biggest pop stars in the world would not only forgive, but appear, via amorous tweets and duets about rough sex, to be getting intimate again with her abuser. This is especially gutting, considering the fact that Rihanna has previously stated in interviews that she wants to break the cycle of abuse both she and Chris Brown grew up with, set a good example for her young fans in similar relationships, and take good care of herself. “Even if Chris never hit me again, who is to say that their boyfriend won’t?” she told Diane Sawyer in 2009 of her decision to stay away from him. “Who’s to say that they won’t kill these girls? These are young girls, and I just didn’t realize how much of an impact I had on these girls’ lives until that happened. It was a wake-up call.” What happened to that sentiment?
Then again, what, if anything, can we reasonably ask of a victim of abuse? None of this is Rihanna’s fault, and imploring her to be a better role model feels an awful lot like victim-blaming. Articles like The Hairpin’s “Why, Rihanna?” rub me the wrong way, because by judging a victim of abuse for not “snapping out of it” and cutting the guy from her life as quickly as we’d like her to, we are subjecting her to yet another attempt to dominate, even if we think it’s for her own good. Victims of abuse do not need to be shown “tough love.” They’ve experienced enough fucked up manifestations of love already. Even when you care deeply about someone, this is a hard line to walk. To do it to someone you don’t even know seems fairly indefensible, even if that person is a public figure.
This topic hits close to home for me, as I’ve tried to help a friend through a similar situation. Your friend needs you very much when this shit happens to her, and if you yell at her or try to shame her into doing what’s best for her, you are knocking a leg out from under her support system and increasing the chances she’ll get back with her abuser. You may feel powerless in this situation. You may want to kidnap her and feed her steady a diet of Xena: Warrior Princess and tell her she is awesome and strong and amazing until she no longer has any tender feelings for the asshole who sent her to the hospital, but you can’t. What you can do is less dramatic, but much more helpful in the long run: You listen. You help her work through her complicated feelings, again, by listening and understanding. You offer up advice in a non-judgmental way. You do the things you like to do together, to help remind her that she has a great life and will be fine without him. You do not act weird around her or treat her like a wounded animal. You do not let victimhood define her in your eyes, because that’s giving the narrative over to the abuser. She’s still the same rad person. He can’t take that away!
And yet, this situation feels different, because unlike most people in abusive relationships, Chris Brown and Rihanna are using this “controversial” reconciliation to promote their careers. From the forgiving tweets (“no pain is forever”), to the sexy lyrics, to the inevitable sexy photos, this collaboration seems intentionally designed to profit off the buzz generated by internet arguments. And, like it or not, it’s working. Both singles are getting a ton of attention. To make matters worse, the music establishment is apparently totally cool with Chris Brown now, as evidenced by a Very Chris Brown Grammy Awards. To illustrate how deep this goes, when I was writing for MTV, I had to cover Chris Brown’s music without mentioning how he was The Worst, because MTV wants to maintain a good relationship with his fucking record label. Ugh.
It’s okay to be mad about this stuff, but don’t be mad at Rihanna. Be mad at all the handlers and PR people who thought “abused woman gets back with abuser” was a great narrative to use to promote two singles. Be mad at all the music business types who are either going along with this, or actively pushing it, because it will make them money. Be mad at an industry that accepts an unrepentant abuser with open arms. Be mad at the misogynistic society that taught Rihanna’s young fans that if you get beaten up by your boyfriend, it’s partly your fault. Be mad at a culture that rewards a woman for making up with her abuser, and penalizes her for staying angry at him. Staying angry might have worked for someone like Lady Gaga, but Rihanna’s image is basically that of a sex object, and nobody wants their sex object to be pissed off. Rihanna is smart enough to know this.
People are acting shocked about this when they shouldn’t be. This shit happens all the time, and it’s only shocking if you’re really sheltered. However, you should indeed be angry, even more so because it’s so common. However, like I said, and I cannot say this enough times, being mad at Rihanna is a horrible misdirection of blame that would be more productively directed at the patriarchy. Then again, I guess it’s easier to berate a single person than it is to acknowledge that our society as a whole is still, in 2012, deeply misogynistic and in need of revolutionary overhaul. Easier, more complacent, and a total cop out.