More Chris & Rihanna: This Time, With Extra Victim-Blaming

This is depressing:

Here’s a conversation starter: Nearly half of the 200 Boston teenagers interviewed for an informal poll said pop star Rihanna was responsible for the beating she allegedly took at the hands of her boyfriend, fellow music star Chris Brown, in February.

The Brown-Rihanna incident has created much controversy, mostly because of Rihanna’s reported continuance of her relationship with Brown after alleged past assaults. The case has been pointed to by advocate groups for domestic violence victims as an example of the challenges victims face in confronting domestic violence.

Health counselors are specifically concerned with teenagers’ views of the controversy. Of the teens questioned, more than half said both Brown, 19, and Rihanna, 21, were equally responsible for the assault. More than half said the media were treating Brown unfairly, and 46 percent said Rihanna was responsible for the incident.

Emphasis mine, to highlight a serious problem in the discussions about Chris Brown and Rihanna: Again, we’re focusing on the victim’s behavior rather than on the perpetrator’s. That isn’t how you teach kids that violence is wrong; it’s not how you create social norms that combat abuse. When the media narrative is all about what Rihanna did (if she had an STD, if she got jealous of Chris talking to an old girlfriend), and when the focus is on her behavior afterward (why did she go back to him?), it removes Chris’s decisions from the process. It’s the same story with sexual assault: When the focus is on what a woman wore or where she went or how she otherwise put herself in danger by engaging in totally normal social activities, it takes the responsibility off of the assailant.

This should be more than a conversation-starter, and this incident should be more than just a “teachable moment.” And while it should horrify us that so many people believe Rihanna is responsible for being beaten, it shouldn’t surprise us.

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24 comments for “More Chris & Rihanna: This Time, With Extra Victim-Blaming

  1. March 14, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    I don’t think that article is focusing on the victim’s behavior so much as that is the focus of the teens being interviewed. I found the results surprising, while I guess I shouldn’t have. Also, it doesn’t seem like the media has been reporting that there may have been prior abusive incidents (not surprising that there may have been) but I guess I am surprised that this situation had previously been known to the kids before the Oscar-night attack. The rest of the article I was OK- I’m glad people are asking the questions. The comments of course are disgusting- many “what if he was just defending himself?” kinds of bullshit.

  2. March 14, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Uh oh, I guess I said the “s” word.


    I don’t think that article is focusing on the victim’s behavior so much as that is the focus of the teens being interviewed. I found the results surprising, while I guess I shouldn’t have. Also, it doesn’t seem like the media has been reporting that there may have been prior abusive incidents (not surprising that there may have been) but I guess I am surprised that this situation had previously been known to the kids before the Oscar-night attack. The rest of the article I was OK- I’m glad people are asking the questions. The comments of course are disgusting- many “what if he was just defending himself?” kinds of BS.

  3. March 14, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    PP, definitely. I wasn’t trying to fault the article. I meant “we” as a culture, and “media” as the media in general, not THIS specific article. I emphasized that one line not because I think the Globe is wrong to say it, but because I think it’s disturbing that they’re right. But definitely good points.

  4. March 14, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    Thanks, Jill. When I read that article yesterday I felt very depressed that the responses were what they were- especially the even split was similar with boys and girls, but was heartened that people were even doing the study and that they were asking the questions.

    It isn’t always apparent to lots of high school kids that this stuff is clearly happening from very early ages and is more prevalent than some imagine- and it is being fueled by very widespread attitudes.

  5. MikeF
    March 14, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    The poll results and especially the comments on are ghastly… sometimes I’m proud to live in the Boston area, sometimes not so much.

  6. March 14, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    There is nothing “Boston” specific about that article- I suspect these are relatively universal feelings among teens in the US. This is scary. There is also some things that the responses are telling us. I think a lot of teens don’t understand the disconnect between feeling strong emotions, frustration, and conflict and violence. Little kids are violent and they don’t express themselves well. Teens are in between little kids and adults and it seems clear from this poll that many don’t get the origins of physical abuse, violence and control. The answers smack of the inability to separate how they view arguments/disagreements and how violence can enter into such things (they view them like children) and what their actions actually mean, and what they lead to and how wrong violence is, and how it is pervasively and insidiously used against women. The most troubling I think is the immature view of what is “fair.”

  7. Henry
    March 14, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    You have to remember that to a teenager (especially younger ones) it’s perfectly reasonable to kick someone’s ass just because they made you angry. So with all the rumors going around about how Rihanna “started it” by giving him an std or hitting him first or whatever, I’m not surprised that a bunch of kids thought she deserved it. One hopes their attitudes will mature as they get older.

  8. March 14, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    i’m not at all surprised by the results of this poll, but i am so tired of having this conversation…it’s exhausting.

  9. Andrea
    March 14, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    I wonder if Rihanna were white, if the public response would be different. Something tells me yes.

  10. SweetSue
    March 14, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    Exactly, what would kids think when Rihanna “makes up” with that creep?
    That they were both at fault and they’ll work it out.

  11. March 14, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    You’re completely right–There is way too much victim blaming here and while we have heard several rumors about Rihanna and people talking about her decisions but completely disregarding what Chris Brown did. It is such bullshit. Violence is never okay and you’re right, this is not how we teach people that violence isn’t okay.

  12. Morningstar
    March 14, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    i think the main lesson i should take from that is that should never ever read the comments section of newspaper articles.

    p.s. i love how they put up up a pic of chris brown flashing vampire teeth. classic.

  13. March 14, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    Exactly, what would kids think when Rihanna “makes up” with that creep?
    That they were both at fault and they’ll work it out.

    …I think you may have missed the point,

  14. debbie
    March 14, 2009 at 11:53 pm

    On a positive note (well, sort of), this led to an interesting discussion in the women’s studies tutorial group that I teach. It was definitely one of those teachable moments, and I was pleasantly surprised by the number of students (mostly 17-19 years old) who were very critical of the idea that Rihanna had some kind of responsibility to be a good role model for young women, and squarely placed the blame on Chris Brown.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the media/people in general decided to hold Chris Brown accountable – I haven’t seen anyone demanding that he address his abusive behaviour through therapy, etc. I mean, wouldn’t it be great if people expected him to respond as a role model for young men? I don’t necessarily know what that would look like, but think about the possibility of this much media attention on a man who was sincerely and responsibly addressing his abusive behaviour, and trying to change.

  15. March 15, 2009 at 12:02 am

    I tried to make this point on Tuesday in Rihanna, Chris Brown, myths of male weakness and lies about transformation:

    And while we might be right to question Rihanna’s judgment in returning to this callow young man, it’s vital that we don’t put the onus for his transformation on her. Women are not responsible for “making men change.” Despite what the myth of male weakness tells us, men do not need to be nurtured and guided by their wives and girlfriends into becoming competent adults with a reasonable degree of self-control. If anyone is responsible for holding the Chris Browns of the world accountable, it’s other men — particularly older men — who need to signal, in an unmistakable way, that this sort of violence is puerile and utterly unacceptable. Chris Brown must change even if Rihanna doesn’t; whatever “issues” she has that leads her to be willing to return to a man who has beaten her savagely do not mitigate his moral and legal responsibility to deal with his own violent nature. If he hits her again, he is entirely responsible and she is entirely innocent. The first person to escalate a domestic dispute from a verbal exchange to a physical one is always to blame; to say otherwise is to repeat the odious lie that we humans are so frail that words can override our capacity for self-restraint.

  16. March 15, 2009 at 1:21 am

    Hugo, that paragraph is almost too good to be true. You are a ray of hope in a depressing world.

  17. JRune
    March 15, 2009 at 1:25 am

    It would be helpful if the story made clear what these people believed actually happened. I have seen reports that Rihanna was hitting him in the face while he was driving. Now I am not sure if that is true, but if the people who were surveyed believed that then I can see how they would think that someone punching a person in the face who was driving a $250,000 car might bear some responsibilty.
    Now the sad thing about this culture is that had he not retaliated, she would have been arrested and Chris Brown would have been mocked and made fun of for letting himself get beat up by a girl.

  18. Addie
    March 15, 2009 at 4:15 am

    *I* have problems with Hugo’s paragraph:

    And while we might be right to question Rihanna’s judgment in returning to this callow young man

    That’s a terrible way to start out a passage that tries to make the point he is entirely responsible and she is entirely innocent. You undercut a call to hold an abuser wholly responsible for his behavior by saying, Well, it “may be right” for us–people with no personal ties to the victim and no special insight into her actual life–to divert some of the discussion about the abuse to scrutinizing and judging the victim’s behavior.

    And what is with the focus on Chris Brown’s age and presumed maturity level, with Chris Brown as the kind of “callow young man” who particularly needs “older men” to explain to him that beating a domestic partner is wrong? This kind of violence isn’t unacceptable because it’s “puerile”–that is, boyishly silly and trivial–it’s unacceptable because it’s wrong.

    Men of all ages and levels of maturity and refinement perpetuate this kind of violence because they have absorbed the worst messages about what their male privilege entitles them to in a misogynistic society. That’s what men need to talk about more with each other, to effect change–about rejecting male privilege and accepting women as fully equal human beings.

    What they–and we–do *not* need to do is start thinking of a young black man as someone whose “violent nature” makes him “savagely” commit abuse and who thus needs presumably more rational men to impart the civilized virtue of “self-restraint.” (Ugh. Of all the objectionable implicit threads running through that short paragraph, I find this one perhaps the creepiest.)

  19. March 15, 2009 at 11:55 am

    Addie, if you read the whole post in context, I was responding to the likes of Jane Velez-Mitchell and Oprah Winfrey, who have been publicly critical of Rihanna’s decision to return to Brown.

    We have cultural expectations that little boys will fight. Those expectations are problematic, but we too often take it for granted that very young men will get into scraps and solve problems with violence or threats of violence; the transition from boy to man is often wrapped up in a willingness to be violent in defense of one’s fragile masculinity.

    Perhaps having a white man using the word “svagely” to describe a black man’s beating of a white woman is unacceptable — it certainly seemed an accurate term, and it’s a word I would use if we were describing a white man who had behaved similarly. But I understand the charge the word has; perhaps “beaten her badly” would be better.

  20. J.Goff
    March 15, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    I have had so many of my students talk about how she was “asking for it”. The worst is when one of my best students, a young woman, began a tirade against Rhianna. I basically said to all of them that there is zero excuse for misogyny and violence against women, and to imply otherwise is straight up woman hating.

    The bright side was that my kids now have heard the word “misogyny”, know what it means. The horrific side is that they still don’t see what they have been told by society as misogynistic.

  21. March 16, 2009 at 2:27 am

    I watched and blogged on Robin Givens’ Larry King Live appearance about Rihanna. On the show was psychologist Stan Katz who had the following distinction to make between Rihanna’s behavior and Chris Brown’s behavior.

    BEHAR: Let me start with you, Dr. Katz. You say there is a difference between female aggression and male abusiveness. Can you explain?

    DR. STAN KATZ, PSYCHOLOGIST: Everyone was throwing this around, like there was violence in the car and she may have hit him or provoked him. Let’s make a distinction right away. Women can be aggressive with men, but they’re not abusive. Here is the difference, abuse contains intimidation, control and coercion.

    BEHAR: It’s a power thing.

    KATZ: A woman gets into a guy’s face. She may even spit at him. She may even stand right there with him. But it’s the power and control and coercion that really classifies as abuse. We have to make a distinction. Everybody can be aggressive. Lots of aggression in couples, intimate aggression. There’s a difference between aggression and abuse. We must clarify it.

    Another guest, a domestic violence prosecutor and a woman, pretty much silenced him saying she didn’t want to hear any discussion. If anybody hits anyone it’s assault.

    JEANNINE PIRRO, DOMESTIC VIOLENCE PROSECUTION EXPERT: Put them in jail. Stop this hogwash about treatment and intervention and getting everybody together. You don’t get the victim together with the abuser. To what? To try to —


    PIRRO: It’s not a situation. It’s a crime. The sooner we recognize that, whether we talk about abuse or aggression, it doesn’t matter. It’s against the law. You hit someone, you go to jail.

    I have personal experience with this mentality in the court room. Victims of domestic violence are told to not fight back because if they do, the judge will call it a fight and not an instance of wife abuse or partner abuse. Yes, I’ve been told that women should let men beat them to a pulp if they hope to win a domestic violence case.

    I think teens approach the Brown/Rihanna situation the same way, remembering rules from their parents who, like the prosecutor, have a primary motivation of enforcing law and order/peace and quiet. So what do they say, “Nobody touch anybody.” And then they assign blame for the fighting based on who hit whom first.

    If we can’t open up to a more intelligent discussion on domestic violence and stop looking for the most simplistic ways of addressing it, then we’ll keep seeing this disconnect on the topic, the inability to see that something’s wrong with someone beating the hell out of someone else who’s not nearly as strong as he is simply because “she hit me first” or worse, “she disrespected my manhood by mouthing off at me”

    Perhaps we should explain it in terms of why a teen would be considered a coward for beating up a 4-year-old that kicked him or her in the shins. It’s a power issue and while we need to address the 4-year-old’s aggressive behavior, nothing excuses the teen for pounding the 4-year-old.

    Analogies only go so far. I can already hear someone objecting that I’ve put women in the category of 4-year-olds, which I have not.

    I think some men are happy to use the feminist movement as the reason it’s okay for them to beat up a woman who threw a shoe at them or punched them on the arm, whatever. It’s another twisting of reality such as claims that Affirmative Action is reverse discrimination. Simplistic views of society.

  22. ROXIE
    March 16, 2009 at 6:20 am

    I am very tired of people deciding that Rhianna is being a bad role model and talking about how about how very disappointed they are that she didn’t transform into the poster child for DV issues.

    B/c, evidently, that’s what she was supposed to have done and now she has failed to met their expectations, thus, she is a failure. And “what kind of message does this send to the kids?” makes me seriously angry.

    This is a teachable moment. Stop making Rhianna responsible for someone else’s handling/viewing of the world. She’s a singer. A performer. It’s not her fault that you get all upset that she’s human too.

  23. mojo
    March 18, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    I agree.

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