This week marks the start of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, an initiative sponsored by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Ironically, or perhaps more tragically, infamous singer Chris Brown released his latest single, aptly titled “Don’t Judge Me,” last week. For those of you who choose, whether consciously or not, to remain out of the loop, Brown is the same man who assaulted then-girlfriend pop singer Rihanna back in 2009.
I distinctly remember this incident as a senior in high school, hearing about it from friends and not believing the pictures I saw. I knew what domestic violence was—I had attended the mandatory health class sessions where the horrors of intimate partner violence were generously elaborated, the guidance counselors assuring us that “we are always here to talk.” However, seeing such clear and shocking evidence, on someone as “powerful” as Rihanna, marked a significant point in my progression to self-identify as a feminist.
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As news of the assault broke, I found myself hearing over and over again—from friends, mainstream news outlets, and the general public—both victim-blaming and a continued denial and dismissal of the severity of the incident. Rihanna should have known it was coming, the images were photoshopped, domestic violence doesn’t happen to wealthy people—the list of minimizing went on and on.
And Brown, claiming himself as the victim, deflected the blame he received for his actions onto his mother and cited his emotional problems as stemming from an abusive childhood. Although these factors play a large role in how someone develops, Brown has been let off the hook—indeed almost apologetically forgiven for the negative press—much more quickly than Rihanna, particularly given the attention the newly reunited couple recently garnered.
Rumors that the couple was back together started after the release of Rihanna’s 2012 single “Birthday Cake,” to which Brown contributed. Lyrics such as “Girl I wanna f*** you right now. Been a long time, I’ve been missing your body” and “Ooh Baby I like it, it’s so exciting. Don’t try to hide it, I’mma make you my b****” are jarring and problematic in their own right; however, given the context of the singers’ relationship and the fact that survivors of domestic violence often return to the perpetrators, the message behind these words is even more unsettling. Themes of domestic violence have run through both Rihanna’s and Brown’s songs and lives since the 2009 assault—from Rihanna’s collaboration on “Love the Way You Lie” with Eminem (another singer who has had his fair share of media attention from his violent relationship with his own partner) to Brown’s recent tattoo on his neck of what appears to be a battered woman. Now, with the couple back together, the media’s response has once again highlighted the ways in which domestic violence is gendered and the ways in which it is normalized.
Tabloids and online gossip websites criticized Rihanna on her decision to go back to Brown, accusing her of setting a poor example for other women who have been victims of violence. Others have called her stupid—implicitly insinuating that she is asking for another attack. Both of these responses reflect our society’s lack of understanding surrounding the complicity of domestic violence and the relationships this violence fosters.
Domestic violence relationships are drastically different from healthy relationships in many ways, not the least of which being the power dynamics that must occur in order for violence to fester. In these types of relationships, the perpetrator and the survivor/victim have their own “normalized” routine of abuse and reconciliation, a cycle which people who work in the anti-violence movement call “The Cycle of Violence.”
This cycle has three distinct stages, the tension building phase, the battering phase, and the honeymoon phase. The ways in which these stages interplay and overlap is one important reason why it is typically so difficult for survivors/victims to leave their abusive partners for good. Understanding this helps explain the ever pressing question people insist on asking survivors, “If it was so bad, why did you stay?”
Mainstream misunderstandings and flash judgments of people in abusive relationships—in particular in response to violence against women—is highly gendered, from the ways in which the victim (typically a woman) is represented as a passive recipient of violence to the general excusing of abusive behavior from the (typically male) perpetrator. Incidences of violence among the rich and famous reflect both of these reactions—the case of Rihanna and Brown recently, Sean Penn and Madonna in the late 1980s, and (on a separate but still very much connected thread of violence) Roman Polanski’s raping of a minor in the 1970s.
In all of these examples, domestic and sexual violence were recognized, discussed briefly, and then largely ignored. The perpetrators were not stigmatized; their respective careers were not ruined. The most they had to handle was a brief shaming by mainstream media and then the past violence was largely dismissed. The survivors/victims of these assaults are repeatedly subjected to far more public outrage, blaming, and—if they decide to exercise autonomous decision-making to return to the perpetrators—shaming and garner much less “sympathy” if another attack occurs.
What makes the media and public response to a couple’s reuniting after a violent incident interesting is the way it highlights how survivors are so often seen as the party responsible. A survivor is “crazy” for returning to an abusive relationship; however, the perpetrator’s responsibility in this exchange remains unanalyzed—and too often faces no consequence for the violence. Although vast improvements have been made in the past 30 years regarding both discussions of domestic violence and the response of community support to survivors/victims, too often mainstream media and the public slip back into victim-blaming tactics to delegitimize a survivor’s experience. Domestic violence is an uncomfortable issue to handle and reflects a larger problem in our society—the acceptance of violence towards women in general; however, in our uncomfortableness in discussing the issue we must never resort to thinking in black and white and making judgment calls regarding the decisions of a survivor to leave or return to an abuser. Patronizing and shaming add nothing to a conversation aimed at increasing awareness and outreach for survivors and as such these responses should not be tolerated, either from mainstream media and their opinions of the latest star scandal nor from community members and the neighbor down the street.
Hannah Walker can be contacted at