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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle