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.

Photo: Getty
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Lowering the voting age is the best way to protect the franchise we've fought so hard for

Empowering young people is the best way to renew civic and political engagement.

Too many believe that politics isn’t working for them. That those who make decisions are not acting in their interests. And too often, narrow interests win over the wider public interest. Our economy isn’t working either. It never will until we repair our fragile politics.

When I was leader of Oldham Council I recognised that to reform, it must open up. It needed to bring forward ideas and challenges from all those who are affected by decisions taken in their name.

We gave constitutional rights for the youth council to move motions and reports at our full council meeting. We opened up our meetings with live web-streaming and questions from all residents. And we embraced social media, combined with instant comments, which were shown in the chamber during debates.

It opened up democracy and gave councillors an insight into issues which affect young people. But two things stood out. The first was that many of these issues are the same ones which affect the wider public. But they are affected in different ways by decisions or the lack of action by government. Second, and most importantly, while we were engaging young people they had no say over who was making decisions on their behalf.

So of crucial importance to me is how we bolster democracy to weather the challenges it faces today and in the future. Recent events at home and abroad have convinced me of the importance of this. There are two separate approaches that parliament must take. Firstly, we must devolve more power from central government to local communities. And secondly, we must at all costs renew civic and political engagement here in the UK. I’ve come to believe that getting more and more young people engaged in politics is fundamental to realising this second point. And I see lowering the voting age as key to cementing this.

I hear the arguments against this loud and clear. Eighteen is the official age of independence. Eighteen is when someone forms their world view. And 18 is when reasoned, judgemental thought suddenly kicks in. On that basis, the years preceding that are presumably some kind of wilderness of rational thinking and opinion forming. Someone even tweeted at me this week to inform me that under-18s don’t know what they want for dinner, let alone how to vote.

Needless to say, I find all these points unconvincing and in some cases dismissive and patronising.

I speak with people even younger than 16 who have coherent views on politics, often a match for any adult. They even know what they want for dinner! And I am of the strong belief that empowering young people through a wider enfranchisement will speed up this development. Even better if votes at 16 is accompanied by compulsory political education in the preceding years.

So if your argument is that young people are too immature, that they lack political knowledge to be given the vote, or that they aren’t responsible enough – then I say to you, bring on lowering the voting age! As my argument is that empowering young people to vote will help overcome these challenges where they exist.

But where do other countries sit on lowering the voting age? Admittedly, among western democracies, the UK would be taking a bold step-forward. In Europe, it’s only Austria where all 16-year-olds can vote. There are some patchwork exceptions to this closer to home. For example, the voting age on the Isle of Man is 16. And this week we heard that the Welsh Assembly is considering lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections.

Outside of these scant examples, there is little precedent for change. However, we shouldn’t find ourselves cowed by this. Our past is littered with bold actions, proud speeches and even lives lost to win and defend the right to vote.

200 years ago on Tandle Hill in Royton hundreds of protestors, who had travelled from nearby mill towns like Oldham and Rochdale, gathered together. They were preparing to march on Peters Field in Manchester on a summer’s day in August 1819. What was at stake was a greater say in parliamentary decisions, at a time of famine and widespread poverty. Non-land-owning workers were entirely excluded from the franchise. By the end of the day, government cavalry had cut down 14 protesters, and injured hundreds more. In 1832 only men renting or owning valuable land were given the vote. And it wasn’t until 1918 that all men were included in the franchise.

This month we remember the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. The sacrifices made during the First World War by our working-class men and boys, 250,000 of whom were under 18, was a catalyst for extending the vote to all men.

Next year we celebrate 100 years since the start of women’s suffrage. In Oldham, Annie Kenney and Emmeline Pankhurst fought tirelessly. They would both be arrested before seeing that privilege granted to only some women in 1918. Today it is sobering to think that women didn’t have the vote before 1918.

And it was only in 1970 that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, allowing teenagers to vote for the first time in the UK. Prevalent then were exactly the same arguments that stop 16- and 17-year-olds voting today.

While we recognise the fight of others, we fail in our duty if we believe the fight for democracy is settled.

So I draw inspiration from how the franchise has steadily grown throughout our history. And I reflect on the acts of courage, grit and determination that have won us that change. With the extension of the franchise have come the liberties, freedoms and values that make our society what it is today. It hasn’t happened of its own accord. Lives have been lost and bold steps have been taken for us to enjoy placing that cross alongside the candidate of our choosing.

This cannot be seen as a way to shift the political debate to young voters either. Many older voters, including many of my friends and family, feel that politics isn’t working for them either. Reducing the voting age isn’t the silver bullet to address that disconnect, but it is vital to strengthening connect between decision makers and those who pay taxes.

I welcome the debate on lowering the voting age. A debate about once again spreading the freedoms and responsibilities of our society to many more people. And I’ll match arguments against this every step of the way. Because I am clear in my mind that defending the franchise and extending the franchise are two sides of the same coin.

Jim McMahon is the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.

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