This is a pretty good article about some of the controversy surrounding Chris Brown performing at the Grammys tonight. For the link-phobic, a quick summary: Three years ago, Chris Brown, at that time in a relationship with Rihanna, beat her so badly the night before the Grammys that she ended up in a hospital and he turned himself into the LAPD. Neither wound up performing. What followed was an absolutely ridiculous storm of apologeticism from most of Hollywood featuring such alarmingly neutral statements as “we should try to support everyone” — either not realizing or not caring that half of the “everyone” in question was someone who had, you know, beaten a woman. Now, three years later, Chris Brown is being invited back to the Grammys (who somehow managed to view themselves as the victim in this situation?) and it’s being treated like the return of some prodigal son, and like a landmark we should all celebrate as we ponder the ideas of redemption and second chances.
I have a few beefs with this.
The first is that honest to God, Chris Brown is one of the least repentant people I’ve ever seen. I’ve been following this whole story with some interest ever since February 2009, and I’ve never once seen him issue, formally or casually, anything that even came close to approximating a sincere apology. He’s been like a kid who was caught eating cookies before dinner: “sorry you caught me”. In addition to the seeming lack of any remorse, especially any made public, he’s also expressed a ridiculous number of sexist, homophobic, and other generally disgusting sentiments since then through the wonders of social media. (I’m hoping to come back and add links to this post, but for now I’m just struggling to get this content out.) Basically: he’s gross. When you’re a celebrity there’s a certain personality that you maintain for the general public, and from what I’ve been able to see while paying pretty careful attention to Chris Brown over the last three years, he really does seem to be a genuinely bad person. So where do redemption and second chances fit in when the guy in question isn’t sorry at all?
My second problem with this whole thing is what the article touched on: ignoring (at best) a domestic violence issue of this magnitude, focusing on a young, attractive, successful woman with an extremely broad fanbase, as a lot of mainstream entertainment media have done — and completely blaming it on her at worst — sends a message to women who are not Rihanna that is endlessly hopeless.
I’m carrying a pager right now. I’ve spent the last six months learning to respond to domestic violence in Washtenaw County. I spend 96 (volunteer) hours a month responding, by phone or in person, to women who, immediately before I get to talk to them, were abused in intimate-partner relationships. Last week I went to the hospital to hold a woman’s hand while she struggled not to cry through a freshly-broken nose, and later that evening I counseled a woman who wasn’t sure whether to seek shelter because her husband isn’t always violent and he probably wouldn’t try to kill her fresh out of a jail release because he will probably respect his bond conditions.
Here are some things that I’ve learned through this volunteer work that I don’t think people are always aware of when they think about domestic violence:
No matter where you live, it happens where you are.
Domestic violence happens to women of all demographics. It happens across races. It happens across income levels. It happens across sexual orientations. It happens across ages. It happens to our neighbors, to our baristas, to our doctors, to our teachers, to our friends… and it happens to women who are often too afraid to come forward and ask for help. Because why would you ask for help if this is what happens to someone like Rihanna?
Unlike many of the calls I get every shift, nobody doubts the facts surrounding the incident between Chris Brown and Rihanna in February 2009. Nobody says “maybe she punched herself in the face”, nobody says “maybe she made everything up”. The doubt comes in when people have to make the connection between “Chris Brown hurt his girlfriend by hitting her in the face” and “so Chris Brown is an assailant”, a connection which frankly should be instantaneous. We live in a world where that somehow isn’t an instantaneous assumption — this entire case just highlights that disconnect — and that makes it very, very hard for any woman who’s even peripherally seen any coverage related to this case to come forward if something similar is happening to her and there’s even a chance that someone in her life may not believe her, or might blame her. And this needs to change, because that isn’t a world where domestic violence goes away.