The XX Factor

Why Do So Many Teens Still Blame Rihanna for Chris Brown’s Violence?

Rihanna and Chris Brown perform on stage at Madison Square Garden in 2008 in New York City.

Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images.

Zerlina Maxwell at Feministing comments on a distressing story from NPR about how Chris Brown’s fans have reconciled their fandom with the fact that he seriously beat up his then-girlfriend Rihanna two years ago: by blaming Rihanna. I wish I could say I’m surprised, but unfortunately, personal experience and testimony from domestic violence experts over the years have convinced me that a common—probably the most common—reaction to domestic violence in a community is for people to seek ways to claim that the victim played some role in it that mitigates the severity of the crime.

Prevalence is no excuse, however, and I agree with Zerlina that it’s seriously upsetting to read that half of teenagers surveyed in the Boston Public Health Commission’s Start Strong Initiative poll on the incident believed Rihanna was the one to blame. NPR quotes teenagers at a Brown concert in Baltimore saying things like, “Obviously she played a part in getting beat, or whatever,” or worse, “He’s kind of what we would like our boyfriends to model after, in a way.” It’s distressing because it shows that they’re unlikely to support the victims when they’re exposed to domestic violence.

More than that, I seriously worry about the safety of women who express views like this. As NPR notes, one in five teenagers experience dating violence, and overall, 23.6 percent of women report suffering from domestic violence at some point. One of the favorite tactics of abusers is to blame the victim for their violence, to tell her that she was the one who caused it, usually be claiming she’s mouthy or obstinate or any other term to express insufficient subordination. (Penelope Trunk’s recent blog post about her partner beating her describes him excusing his behavior by claiming she talks too much.) Since a percentage of the young women expressing victim-blaming sentiments are almost surely going to be victims themselves at some point—with statistics like these, it’s a dead certainty that some will be affected—how will they respond when their abusers say that it’s their fault? They already believe it’s the victim’s fault; many will likely accept this version of events when it happens to them, which will impede their escape. How many of them will sound like Penelope Trunk in future years, burying their righteous anger at abuse under a sea of questioning themselves, asking if there was a way they could be more submissive and prevent future violence? (There isn’t; abusers aren’t known for being rational. If you meet their demands, they just bring up new ones.)

I understand that it’s hard for fans to accept that someone whose work has given you great joy might personally be a bad guy. The solution to the conundrum is not to excuse the bad behavior. Take it from a long-time pop music fanatic who loves the work of many, many men who are absolute monsters, especially to women. The secret is to separate the man from his work. Enjoying someone’s work is not the same thing as endorsing that person as a person. I can safely say that I think that Phil Spector and Ike Turner are geniuses who completely remade pop music without that implying that I support murder, wife-beating, or kidnapping The Ramones. The beauty of art is that once it’s made, it has a life of its own, one that is largely separate from the morality of the person who made it.