I’ve been thinking about how I feel about Rihanna and Chris Brown collaborating on two upcoming songs.

I don’t like it. I think it’s a no-win situation for her, and an all-win situation for him. I think it sends a very public signal that Rihanna forgives Brown for something that should be considered unforgivable. And if even she does forgive him, why does she have to put herself back in his life in such a significant way? And with the creepy lyrics?

But unlike some people, I worry less about what it teaches young girls. After Buzz Feed posted a round up of girls saying that Chris Brown could beat them whenever he wanted, it’s a valid concern.

I think we have to remember that in essense, at it’s very core, the Rihanna/Brown situation is really no different than other situations of celebrities acting badly. Is it bad behaviour on steroids? Yes. Is it something horrific? Yes. But it’s still just another example of celebrities demonstrating how we shouldn’t live our lives. An example of things that should never happen.

Rihanna has given us a teaching moment. She has given context to those of us have been earnestly and sanctimoniously raising shit for years about violence against women. She has tried to forget and avoid becoming a perpetual victim by adopting one of the most dominant personalities in music and “forgiving” her abuser in the most unfortunate public display. If I had children, I’d use the Rihanna/Brown situation as an example of unhealthy and inappropriate response to violence.

We don’t expect celebrities to be role models for healthy eating habits, substance use (not that it’s even healthy), and other life choices. We can’t put it on Rihanna to be a role model in this situation. As Jaclyn Friedman said, she didn’t ask to be abused. She didn’t ask to wear the mantle for all abuse victims. She’s dealing with it in the way that she thinks is best. I still think Rihanna’s response is wrong. But that’s a valid point.

It’s important to take the teaching moment of Fenty and Brown into a larger context. Kate Carraway pointed out quite simplistically and aptly that Chris Brown is not the first monster. American literature is full of men who truly and deeply hate and disrespect women. Norman Mailer was flat out psychotic. The conversation needs to be about more than Chris Brown.

The majority response to Chris Brown at the Grammys gives me hope. The consensus was that Chris Brown is an asshole and what he did was unforgivable and our society’s percerption of violence against women in still messed up. I mean, the Grammys producers were congratulating themselves on giving Chris Brown a two-year “time out.” Seriously.

We took our teaching moment. A dialogue was started, from the feminist blogs to CNN, and everywhere in between.

As an organizer of Take Back the Night Calgary, I often wonder how we bring the conversation of violence against women to a larger sphere. As with so many other difficult topics (gay marriage, drugs, death), pop culture may be our saving context. It may provide us with a chewable, understandable example of violence against women. Rihanna has given us a common situation to debate and discuss.

And that’s more than we can ask for. She didn’t ask to be a victim. She’s isn’t a role model. It isn’t her job to tell us how to handle abuse.

But maybe, if we can all agree that Chris Brown is a terrible human being and these songs are weird and uncomfortable, we can move forward on how we think about violence against women. I mean, at least the public is thinking about it at all.

Additional Reading:

  • http://www.bailingbucket.com/ Rhett Soveran

    Why can’t we expect Rihanna to be a role model? Or, further, isn’t she a role model no matter what her reaction is? Isn’t that just the nature of desiring to and being in the public eye? As a public figure she is modelling a behaviour, right or wrong. This is obviously not a conversation about what is fair, but just what is. She is a role model and it seems to me a lot of pissed off that she’s not modelling the “right” thing.

    • allisonmcneely

      I think we’d all like Rihanna to be a role model in this situation, in an ideal world. But ultimately I don’t think we can expect that of her. And as I mentioned for reasons related to the fact that she is a victim, I’m not sure that it’s necessarily fair. However, one could make an argument that if she didn’t want to be a role model or a poster child for abuse, then she could have dealt with things a little more privately. I don’t know, it’s a really tough call.

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