In 2009, pictures of pop star Rihanna, brutally beaten and bruised at the hands of her then-teenage boyfriend Chris Brown, dominated the western media, causing widespread outrage. Brown turned himself in to a police station shortly after an argument with his girlfriend allegedly escalated into blows. The ensuing [social] media frenzy was one of incredible proportions: some young girls tweeted that they would let good-looking celeb Brown "hit them any day"; another set up a (very temporary) website shaming the tweeters who had most outrageously proclaimed such statements, seen as disregarding a shocking act of domestic violence in the most disappointingly blasé way. Even as the eye of the storm moved away and another celebrity relationship muscled its way into the spotlight, rain continued to pour on Chris Brown's apparently audacious attempts to further ingratiate himself into the world of popular music. A so-called critique of his latest album trended across all possible social media outlets this year, summarising the writer's opinion of his contribution and character in one sentence: "Chris Brown hits women".
In light of the polarising reactions to an act of violence that came to define Brown and his partner's relationship in its entirety, we can see why Rihanna's recent interview with Oprah Winfrey was so difficult for everyone to swallow. In it, the young star admitted that Brown would always hold a special place in her heart, that she considers him "the love of her life", and that she has forgiven him for the incident that, for many, destroyed his credibility forever. "It happened to me," she said, insisting that she should be allowed to respond in her own way rather than as a public role model. Both of them had grown up in households were domestic abuse was the norm, she revealed. And in the background, Joan Rivers tweeted that it was "now [her] turn to slap [Rihanna]" for such irresponsible interviewing.
An excellent article in online women's magazine Jezebel responded that in fact, we as onlookers carry some of that burden of irresponsibility ourselves. We had a responsibility which we have ignored, the writer argued, to listen to Rihanna's words, even if we don't like them. And when we listen, questions will inevitably arise that perhaps we should rethink before we answer them in a kneejerk fashion. Can a relationship ever be repaired after violence? Do abusers ever change? Does Brown's crime mean that everything he ever did and ever will do is now negated? And how much leeway to we give to adults who abuse because they witnessed similar abuse as children?
Part of the reason that 24-year-old Rihanna chose to conduct such an incredibly personal interview on a show with a huge audience was to set the record straight. Amongst that media storm that mostly condemned Brown's actions in the strongest terms was a cruel backlash against speculations that the two had become either friends or lovers again: Rihanna herself was called a "fool" and an "idiot" on multiple occasions. The defence that she put forward to these accusations was that she felt sorry for her partner because of his difficult childhood - one painfully similar to her own - and was willing to work through his actions because of that. She suggested, to the horror of many viewers, that Brown himself needed to be protected.
There's not necessarily anything new in the idea that abusers are often weak and emotionally vulnerable people. Everyone knows that the school bully is often the saddest kid in the playground. We can choose to see Rihanna's candid reaction to her own situation of domestic violence as a classic victim mentality, or symptomatic of unaddressed psychological trauma, but then we might be disrespecting and devaluing her views ourselves. Similarly, writing off her ex-boyfriend's character entirely writes off their relationship and shared memories at the same time. Love has altered her perspective on the incident in a way that we, as casual outsiders, cannot know, and we have to respect that, even if we don't care for the attitude ourselves or indeed see it as one conducive to positive attitudes towards women and survivors of domestic abuse in the media.
Despite her position on the front of many popular magazines, she's still entitled to make personal interpretations.
Not all children who witness abuse go on to act out that abuse themselves - far from it - so where else do we point the finger in this instance? It would be tempting to join in a simplistic chorus that claims the musical scene Brown was moving within - hip hop and rap, predominantly - contributed to his attitude and, ultimately, his actions toward his partner. However, violence within the context of romantic or sexual relationships is ever-present in the media and always has been. For every Eminem song that seemingly glorifies abusing his wife, there's a 50 Shades of Grey that raises uncomfortable issues where the line in sexual violence is definitively drawn between 'consensual S&M' and 'assault.' Indeed, here in the UK, the domestic abuse charity Wearside Women In Need announced last week that they would stage a book-burning night of the novel in November, in protest against its 'vile' depiction of 'abusive... sexuality.'
Aggression is a fact of humanity that we will always come across; it's only our reactions to the world that we can definitely change.
It's worth mentioning, of course, that men make up a significant minority of domestic abuse victims, and find themselves massively stigmatised. Chick and dick flicks alike have long allowed a female character to supposedly 'justifiably' slap her untoward partner around the face for particularly bad behaviour. 'Never hit a woman' is often driven home to schoolchildren who should be told never to raise their hand against anyone, and there's no denying that 'spanking' a child who is smaller and comparatively defenceless communicates the message that violence solves displeasing situations, even when the offender is in a less powerful position.
We cannot tailor the media to our own attitudes, so we have to make sure that our own children don't inherit a dysfunctional toolkit with which to analyse what they encounter. This begins with respecting the viewpoint of a first person account without feeling the need to generalise; with teaching that cycles of abuse are not inevitable but are existent; with frank discussions about sex and relationships that recognise the complexity of everyone involved. If we don't want to draw Daily Mail-type conclusions from what Rihanna, Chris Brown and Christian Grey taught us about violence, then we have to prepared to wade in to some much more difficult conversations. And while they may not make such snappy headlines, they'll certainly be well worth having.