Who are we to judge Rihanna's reaction to domestic abuse?

The singer is not a "bad role model" for staying friends with her ex-lover, Chris Brown.

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.

Rihanna is still entitled to make personal interpretations of what happened to her. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide