The Media on Rihanna: Love Doesn’t Hurt, But Abuse Is Complicated

Sarah Seltzer

A growing number of people in the media seek to dissolve the myth of women's culpability in violent relationships. But the question that is asked most often of the Rihanna/Chris Brown story is "Why did she stay?" rather than "Why did he do it?"

“If
a man hits you once, he will hit you again. Love doesn’t hurt.” That’s
been Oprah Winfrey’s mantra on domestic violence, and she used it again
last Thursday, when she and guest Tyra Banks devoted an episode of
“Oprah”
to “all the Rihannas of the world, and all the Chris Browns.”
They spent the hour giving viewers the lowdown on the teen dating
violence epidemic that now, according to stats used on the show,
affects 1 in 3 young women.

This weekend, the New York Times
also ran an article
(in the Styles section, the perennial ghetto for
female-related features) about why teenage girls are, in shocking
numbers, sympathetic to Brown, an article that delved into silent
social rules about “protecting boys.”

These two examples lie on
the sane end of the media frenzy. But mainstream coverage of domestic
violence needs a stronger emphasis on the way women’s secondary status
in society contributes to this epidemic and our often-misguided
reaction to it.

She can’t just leave

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Winfrey and Banks
debunked the idea that abuse victims can up and walk away (as some
high-profile outlets
have done, though not as well as our own Amanda
and Pamela). The “Oprah” episode anatomized several abusive
relationships and the long process of extrication. Stories told by
several guests and by Banks herself, who was in an emotionally abusive
relationship, made it clear that such relationships are complex,
cyclical, and immensely difficult to exit—and that help from family and
friends can only go so far when a victim is thoroughly enmeshed with
her abuser.

They also reminded their viewers not to judge
Rihanna differently because she is a “role model.” They pointed out
that her fame arose from singing, and that, “She is no better or
different than any other girl. She is just as easily pulled into the
cycle of abuse," as Banks said.

There’s No Excuse

Later
in the show, Tyra Banks stated that Chris Brown was a “victim of
circumstance” having grown up in a household with domestic abuse, and
she played a heartrending old tape of Brown on “Tyra” talking about the
violence he witnessed against his mom. But, she said, these revelatory
facts should not in anyway excuse abuse from Brown or other men. She
and Winfrey both told viewers that the only surefire way for men
exposed to violence to break the cycle was through professional help.

One
high school student, apparently speaking for many, said that she felt
an attack on Rihanna was justified due to a rumor that Rihanna struck
Brown first. Appalled, the two hosts explained the difference between
excessive force and self-defense—and pointed out that not only was that
sort of retaliatory attack wrong, it was illegal.

A feeling of vulnerability

That
high school girl’s protectiveness towards Brown was no anomaly. Times
writer Jan Hoffman explained the sense of vulnerability that many young
girls feel when the object of their desire is revealed to have another
side:

After all, sweet Chris Breezy — his nickname — even
appeared in a music video with Elmo of “Sesame Street.” Acknowledging
his attack would make them feel vulnerable: How could they have a crush
on someone who could do that? It was less terrifying to blame Rihanna.

These
revelations turn social conceptions of ideal relationships on their
head.  More than the fact that the cute celebrity may not be so cute,
this incident indicates a problem with our idealization of “perfect”
guys, the kind of guy women are supposed to “catch.” This is the kind
of world-view shattering moment that is often too disruptive to our
norms to comprehend, and that can lead to denial, or to re-focusing on
her.

“Why does he do it?” instead of “Why does she stay?”

The
endless spotlight on women (both Oprah and the Times’ Style section are
aimed at women) and on Rihanna intertwines with an outcry sparked as
much by her remaining in the relationship than it is by his alleged
abuse. We seem fixated on asking, “Why does she stay?” when we should
ask, “Why does he do it?”

Banks and Winfrey might have
followed up on the idea that abusers need professional help by pointing
out that Brown says he’s been receiving counsel from his family and
pastor
. There has been no public pressure for Brown to receive
counseling beyond the standard celebrity “anger management” routine.

And
that leads into social enabling of abusers. One of the answers to “why
does he do it?” appears easy to find: because he can. Many in the
celebrity/media communities have rallied around Brown as though he is a
high school quarterback in trouble.

Hoffman’s piece explains this phenomenon through a quote from Harvard Professor Marcyliena Morgan:

The
girls’ willingness to minimize Mr. Brown’s alleged behavior also
reflects a learned social signal… They’ve been taught, she said,
“What really matters is that we don’t destroy boys.” Teenage girls
think that if they speak out against an abuser, the boy’s future will
be shattered, she said.

Brown’s transgression has been downplayed by older fans as well, compared to the pot-smoking Michael Phelps and the pregnant Jamie-Lynn Spears. Furthermore, Brown’s fellow celebrities (and gullible media bystanders) have practically been tripping over each other in their rush to “not judge” Brown—seriously, count the number of big shots who have used that phrase or a similar one. But there has been little such reservation when it comes to judging Rihanna.

Women’s social position beyond “self-esteem”

Rihanna is assaulted on all ends: commanded to leave Brown and simultaneously blamed for provoking his outburst on the other. But she has done nothing of note since the story broke. We can’t be really sure if the couple is back together, as all the tabloid stories have come from his camp or publicity-seekers. If a brouhaha of blame is the reaction to her laying low, how would she be treated for speaking out out?  In a celebrity culture where being a labeled victim on one side (Jennifer Aniston), “outspoken” on another (Angelina Jolie, Susan Sarandon) or the third rail of “troubled” (Whitney Houston, Britney Spears) can stigmatize a woman for her life, Rihanna is in a lose-lose situation.

Banks and Winfrey discussed the personal reasons that abuse persists: the wearing away of self-esteem and the manipulation experienced by victims. But the phrase “self-esteem” ignores the social consequences for women and the light penalties that perpetrators often incur.

Media figures don’t have to use the word “patriarchy” to demonstrate this state of affairs. But it is responsible to point out that women’s view of themselves—and men’s view of women—are a reflection of wider norms rather than some sort of organic self-hate problem that women have.

Despite a lot of abysmal coverage, we can be impressed by the growing number of people in the media who seek to dissolve the false mythology around women’s culpability. The next step is exposing the way gendered double-standards, enabling of male celebrities, and the trivialization of a serious crime as a “scandal” all contribute to the continued tolerance of abuse in our midst.

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