Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images.
It comes as no surprise that Rihanna has been dragged into the Ray Rice saga, despite having no connection to either Ray or Janay Rice. Last Thursday, CBS cut her pre-recorded performance, which was meant to air before Thursday Night Football in favor of more news coverage of the scandal. The networked cited the need for "appropriate tone and coverage." Today, Rihanna responded to CBS with two barbed tweets.
But, really, it all goes back to this: In February 2009, after leaving a pre-Grammy party, Chris Brown beat Rihanna, and thus began a saga that is still, in some ways, playing out in the public eye. Shortly after the “incident,” TMZ released a picture of Rihanna’s face, swollen, bloody, and beaten. It was a haunting image — one, some would argue, we all needed to see, to better understand domestic violence. This, of course, implies that without such documentation, without such evidence, a woman’s story is not enough. Sadly, this is probably true.
In the beginning, Rihanna properly played the role of "a good victim." She said what we wanted to hear. She was interviewed by Diane Sawyer and acknowledged her position as a role model, saying, “When I realized that my selfish decision for love could result in some young girl getting killed, I could not — I could not be easy with that part. I couldn’t be held responsible for telling them to go back. Chris, even if Chris never hit me again, who is to say that their boyfriend won’t? Whose to say that they wont kill these girls and these and these are young girls and I could not. I just didn’t realize how much of an impact I had on these girls lives until that happened.”
In more recent years, however, Rihanna has rejected the survivor narrative we would like to thrust upon her. She has not behaved the way we expect and seemingly want a victim of domestic violence to behave. Not only did she briefly reunite with Brown in 2009 after the assault, they reunited again in 2011. The two were on-again off-again for a couple of years — never hiding their relationship from the public, whether sharing images of their time together on Instagram or appearing together courtside at a Lakers game.
Rihanna has continued to live her life exactly as she pleases, and her irreverence is as refreshing as it is, for some, infuriating. In 2010, for example, she appeared with Eminem in the music video for “Love the Way You Lie,” a searing ballad that explores the cycle of domestic violence in romantic relationships. In the chorus, Rihanna sings, “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn, but that’s alright because I like the way it hurts.” The song’s lyrics and the video reveal the uncomfortable truth of how love and violence can be intimately intertwined. Some critics, however, felt the song and the video glorified domestic violence. They also felt that with her participation, Rihanna herself was glorifying such relationships. She was deviating from the preferred narrative. She was not meekly sitting around with a scarlet “V” emblazoned on her chest.
Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images.
In a 2011 Rolling Stone interview, Rihanna explained how she dealt with the aftermath of her private experience being exposed so publicly, saying, “I didn’t want people to feel bad for me. It was a very vulnerable time in my life, and I refused to let that be the image. I wanted them to see me as, ‘I’m fine, I’m tough.’ I put that up until it felt real.”
Rihanna made it clear then, as she has in the years since, that she did not want the abuse she suffered to define her. In the same interview, she noted how the public would never be satisfied with the choices she made about Brown, saying, “But you can never please people. One minute, I’m being too hard, and the next minute, I’m a fool because I’m not being hard enough.”
She was equally frank two years later, when discussing her rekindled relationship with Brown. “I decided it was more important for me to be happy…and I wasn't going to let anybody's opinion get in the way of that,” she told Rolling Stone in 2013. “Even if it's a mistake, it's my mistake.”
Those are the words of a woman whose eyes are wide open, even if we don’t like what she sees or where she is looking.
This is the rock and the hard place between which women who experience domestic violence reside. We judge these women when they stay in abusive relationships. We judge how long it takes them to leave. We judge the manner in which they leave the relationship. We judge them if they return to that relationship. We judge them for how they comport themselves when the relationship is over.
Why do we insist on seeing Rihanna as a victim of domestic violence instead of as an intriguing young woman and very successful recording artist? Why do we want to understand her life so narrowly? We cannot look away. We cannot look past what we know. Here we have a young, beautiful, and successful woman who was in a volatile relationship with a young, beautiful, and successful man. If this could happen to Rihanna, it could happen to anyone. Perhaps we keep seeing Rihanna so narrowly because we are afraid of our own vulnerability. Or, perhaps we do this because it’s easier to understand people narrowly instead of accepting that life is complicated and messy and rarely do people live their lives along neat narrative arcs.
Rihanna has shown us what it looks like to endure and overcome domestic violence on her own terms. It seems short-sighted and a bit cruel that no matter what she accomplishes over the rest of her career, we will still talk about her as a victim or a survivor of domestic violence first. There are those who would suggest that Chris Brown will be subjected to the same scrutiny for the rest of his career, and they may be right, but our culture loves a good redemption story. Men in the public eye who treat women badly have a long history of continuing to thrive. I am nowhere near as interested in redemption as I am in reclamation for those who have endured violence.
Clearly, part of the thinking behind the NFL’s decision to cut Rihanna’s pre-game segment was that it would be inappropriate to feature Rihanna, an artist we closely associate with domestic violence, before a football game featuring one of the teams at the heart of the NFL’s latest domestic violence scandal. It’s strange though, that Rihanna had to pay the professional price for violence she suffered five years ago. It’s strange that she had to pay the price for Ray Rice’s crime. Frankly, it was entirely appropriate for Rihanna to perform the Thursday Night Football theme song. We cannot forget that domestic violence is pervasive. It can happen to anyone, whether or not it makes the tabloids.