America’s concern over sending a message of tacit approval or even forgiveness of domestic violence motivates a level of vitriol directed toward Brown that provides a case study on the way we shame now.
"Fine China," first single from Chris Brown's upcoming album X, features the lyric, "It's alright, I'm not dangerous, when you're mine, I'll be generous." Released this month, the song gestures at atonement for an attack that four years ago splattered blood along the interior of Brown's car. Like Brown, the public hasn't forgotten either. As Rihanna and Chris Brown pursue massive careers and a renewed relationship, the assault remains the primary lens through which to view both. The attack itself isn't nuanced; even the restrained police report couldn't diminish the stomach-turning details. And ensuing condemnation of domestic violence deserves to be unequivocal. But certain forces shape both the media narrative and public perception of the stars involved.
Unlike most other victims of celebrity violence, Rihanna was already a public figure. The photo of her bruised and swollen face has become one of the last decade's most widely circulated and shocking pop culture artifacts. These combined to not only guarantee future awareness of the assault but also elicit a mainstream, unapologetic disgust indicative of a society no longer tolerant of violence against women. At least, almost.
Two groups emerged unrepentant: The music industry and "Team Breezy," Brown's loyal fanbase. In early 2012, Grammy executive producer Ken Ehrlich defended Brown's return to the Grammy stage saying: "If you'll note, he has not been on the Grammys for the past few years and it may have taken us a while to kind of get over the fact that we were the victim of what happened." Even if Ehrlich's words reflect poor taste more than latent psychopathy, they articulate an industry tolerance of violent offenders with commercial viability.
For everyone who believes Brown's six months of community service were not sufficient atonement, that viability signals he "got away with it," a perception cemented by allegations of fraud regarding whether or not he even fulfilled the sentence and the prosecution's calls for repeating it. Those reconciled to Brown's seemingly remorseless attitude expend their energies rebuking Rihanna for maintaining both professional and romantic relationships with him. And no matter how long Rihanna insists on a hypersexual aggression, apparently designed to reclaim herself from the humiliating position of victim, she'll garner withering judgment.
In January on WNYC Lena Dunham—creator of HBO's Girls—told host Alec Baldwin, "I just think about how many little girls beyond what I could even comprehend are obsessed with Rihanna…And then she gets back together with Chris Brown…And it cracks my heart in half in a way that makes me feel like I'm 95 years old." As tragic as Dunham's premature aging may be, it's essentially moralizing dressed as acumen; a chorus to which white America routinely feels entitled to submit their voice. The latest offered by Daily Beast's editor Tina Brown who called Rihanna "a big fat zero."
America's concern over sending a message of tacit approval or even forgiveness of domestic violence motivates a level of vitriol directed toward Brown that provides a case study on the way we shame now. In London stickers warning "Do not buy this album! This man beats women" labeled Brown's 2012 album Fortune (RCA). The same album received this six-word review from Chad Taylor of Iowa's independent weeklyCityView: "Chris Brown hits women. Enough said." On any slow day, comedians on Twitter can rely on a lazy dig at Brown to earn them a satisfactory number of favorites and retweets. Twitter comedian Jenny Johnson displayed a particular penchant for antagonizing Brown, manually retweeting him with references to the assault. He tweeted, "Can I wow you?" She retweeted with, "You misspelled "beat the shit out of you." Brown tweeted "#DontGiveUpBecause you are special!," Johnson added " #GoToPrisonBecause you are a woman beater! This went on for years until last November when, to Chris Brown's tweet of, "I look old as fuck! I'm only 23…," Johnson added "I know! Being a worthless piece of shit can really age a person. This resulted in Brown replying for the first time, telling her to perform a number of sexually explicit acts and eventually deleting his twitter account. To Glamour magazine, which congratulated Johnson last month for "speaking her mind," Johnson said, "Any type of abuse should never be tolerated."
Hating on Chris Brown isn't part of a buzz cycle; that would imply an arc towards irrelevance. It's a cross between being a meme and a national hobby, with all the depth of the former and the level of engagement of the latter. From Facebook statuses broadcast to friends and coworkers to publicly shared tweets, the assault on Rihanna is made all the more significant for occurring in an era that mutated water cooler tut-tutting into self-righteous, far-reaching pontificating. Brown's detractors, while not wrong, are hailed as heroes and ascribed a bravery they probably didn't employ in deriding one of America's most reviled pop stars.
While a slew of white celebrities have assaulted women with not so much as a footnote on their IMDB pages, Brown's constant defamation has become a drone as common to the Internet as making fun of Nickelback or upvoting jailbait. The loathing he inspires can't be divorced from the obvious circumstances that fostered it: He perpetuated a vicious assault that sent a woman to the hospital; that woman was Rihanna; the photo of Rihanna's face after the assault was made public; Brown has espoused a consistent, goading churlishness since the incident; his music isn't exactly vital.
But these extenuating circumstances don't fully account for the discrepancy between the reactions Chris Brown elicits and the relative silence over similar offences committed by white actors. Chris Brown as a more culturally resonant villain than Michael Fassbender, Sean Penn, Bill Murray, Sean Connery, or Charlie Sheen exemplifies the enduring limitations of white America's imagination toward black men, even one with a history of witnessing domestic violence as a child.
It's not that Brown doesn't deserve criticism for his especially obnoxious proclamations or indelicate public appearances; the message that we as a society will emphatically reject a man for violence against women is long overdue. But the media's reluctance to cover cases involving white celebrities charged with domestic abuse means that it isn't yet our message. Certain narratives have cultural salience and others don't, and the distinguishing condition happens to be race.
If recognizing racial bias in this case is too much of a stretch because it hints at a guilt you're unwilling to partake in, consider Charlie Sheen. In 2009, the same year Chris Brown attacked Rihanna, Sheen was arrested for violently assaulting his wife at the time, Brooke Mueller. According to Mueller, Sheen pinned her to the bed and held a knife to her throat after hearing she wanted a divorce. This incident was not alone: In 2006 Denise Richards filed a restraining order against Sheen for his "abusive and threatening manner"; in 1996 Sheen slammed then-girlfriend Brittany Ashland on the floor, and the resulting split lip required seven stitches; in 1990 Sheen shot Kelly Preston, whom he was dating at the time, with a revolver. For his 2009 assault, Sheen was sentenced to 30 days in a rehabilitation center, 30 days of probation and 36 hours of anger management. Attorney Gloria Allred said at the time, "It was a serious, real-life dangerous situation, and should carry serious real life consequences... rather than the extremely light sentence that he received."
Instead of being presented as threatening and angry, Sheen is presented as troubled and eccentric—he's been roasted on Comedy Central, he went on a stand-up tour, a Fiat Abarth commercial fictionalized his house arrest complete with cheering models, and his post-Two And A Half Men sitcom got a 100-episode order from FX. Its title? Anger Management.
Brown, however, isn't explored as a damaged individual worthy of our amused attention or measured pity. His participation in the culture at large is limited to two dimensions, pop-star and villain. As such he remains an easy target.
Encouraging an analysis of context is not an attempt to dismiss the assault. At no point does trying to understand the ongoing public reactions to Chris Brown require absolving him of his crimes. Simply put, Brown and Rihanna's fame makes them entities of public consumption and the way we consume them tells us a great deal about ourselves.
But maybe questioning cultural narratives requires a distance even those indifferent to the involved artists can't assume. Maybe domestic violence is too heavy, too emotionally charged to allow a measured consideration of the context in which it's perceived. Maybe discussing how stereotypes of black male violence and black female victimhood interact with coverage of Chris Brown's assault on Rihanna is just too complicated. But maybe it's necessary.
In October of 2012, Waverly High School in New York earned national attention for a pep rally, which, as part of a comedic sketch contest, featured a black face reenactment of Brown's assault on Rihanna. Three white high school students in body paint pantomimed physical assault to laughs and applause in front of alumni and faculty. The responses from students who attended the rally and local residents were overwhelmingly of irritation, not at the gross revival of an old tradition, but at the negative press that followed. Explaining her position one Waverly student shrugged, "I mean it really did happen. Chris Brown really did beat Rihanna."