This particular Confession Bear put me over the edge today. For the uninformed: On the four-year anniversary of Chris Brown's bloodying Rihanna’s face, the two snuggled together at the Grammys. Days earlier, she blew him kisses at his probation hearing where he was in court for falsifying community service documents — service Brown was supposed to complete for beating her. Unsurprisingly, commenters and columnists are again dismissing Rihanna as stupid, essentially blaming her for her own abuse.
Look, despite her celebrity status, Rihanna’s on- and off-again affair with Brown is in many ways very typical of an abusive relationship. On average, domestic violence survivors attempt to leave seven times before getting out for good. Leaving is far more complicated than realizing, “He’s mean, so I’m going to end this.” There are many reasons why survivors can’t or don’t successfully leave their abuser: they may fear their partner will harm them, will harm their children or pets, will commit suicide, or otherwise harm himself. In most cases, their fears are well-founded. Survivors are at an increased risk when they try to leave, facing stalking, harassment, threats, kidnapping of her or her children, and even homicide. Many lack the social or financial resources to successfully get away. There are complicated emotional and logistical elements at play. Rihanna seems to have resources and support, so what should her case tell us?
First, domestic violence is common and deadly, and being a celebrity isn’t enough to escape it. It is the leading cause of injury to women — more than car accidents, muggings, and rape combined. At least one in three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused during her lifetime. Yet most commentators haven’t examined the pervasiveness or roots of domestic violence in our society, but have instead focused on belittling Rihanna’s intelligence and chiding her for not being a better role model. What we should be talking about is how misogyny runs so deep in our culture that even wealthy and talented young women like Rihanna (and Tina Turner, Halle Berry, and Madonna, etc.) not only can be victims of violence, but also get blamed for it.
Although Chris Brown has received his share of (well-deserved) criticism, what about all the other celebrity abusers? Where is the outrage at Charlie Sheen, who shot his fiancé, beat his girlfriend, and received a restraining order from his ex-wife? What about Sean Penn, who beat Madonna with a baseball bat? And Sean Connery, who verbally and physically abused his first wife? The list goes on, and there’s definitely a racial element to the discrepancy in outrage that should be explored. Yet all these men are incredibly successful, and seemingly paying little or no consequences for their crimes. No one asks why they’re not better role models — they’re just boys being boys and they've done their time. Who do we continue to demonize? Rihanna. And the message we send? Violence against women is no big deal.
Rihanna is our scapegoat. We dismiss her behavior as “stupid” and use faux concern and high-minded talk of “her responsibility” to avoid talking about our own responsibility. It’s far easier to put the onus on one woman for not leaving her abuser than it is to examine what it is about our communities — and about us as individuals — that perpetuates this toxic sexism.
Our treatment of Rihanna is a good old-fashioned case of victim-blaming. Victim-blaming is when we ask what she did to “provoke” him. It’s also when we ask what a rape victim was wearing or we doubt her story because she’s been sexually active in the past. It’s when we tell a woman to dress “modestly” so she doesn’t get assaulted or so she doesn’t distract or tempt men. Our culture is seeped with misogyny. It’s when we scrutinize a female politician’s wardrobe and wrinkles more than her policy. It’s when we criticize female celebrities for simply enjoying sex (slutty!) or enjoying food (fatass or baby bump!?).
It’s time to ask ourselves: What am I doing to combat this? And what am I doing to perpetuate it?