[Content note for discussion of domestic violence and misogynistic slurs]
Rihanna has been getting a lot of shit in the media lately because of how she has spoken about Chris Brown in her interview with Oprah and other sources.
The media has a tendency to search for and present people as either perfect victims or perfect villains. It likes to present stories with a fairytale sort of narrative, where there a clear goodies and baddies. Obviously real life is not this simplistic.
Human relations tend not to fall into clearly defined categories of good and evil. Chris Brown was Rihanna’s first love. They had (according to media reports) a deep, tumultuous and passionate relationship. Even when someone betrays your trust and hurts you deeply it does not always mean that those feelings disappear and it certainly does not always mean that love turns to hate. Rihanna reported the abuse. This more than what most women do. Rihanna left the abusive relationship, and this again is more than what most women do. If we spend our time looking for victims who are sufficiently deserving of our sympathy and support then I believe we will all be sorely disappointed. There are few people anywhere who could live up to this ideal.
Women returning to men who abuse them is not an uncommon phenomenon. The reasons are complex and are tangled in layers of relationships and feelings and other considerations. When you have never had a functional relationship it is impossible often to even imagine what one can be like. For women who come from physically or emotionally violent situations it can take many years of intensive therapy before you even come close. I would venture to say that unless you have been in a similar situation yourself you have no idea what it is like. Rihanna does not deserve to be vilified, she is working through a deeply traumatic issue and unlike most of us she has to do it in front of the eyes of millions.
While Rihanna may not be reacting in the way we want her to, denouncing the man that beat her and standing up as a role model for all the young women who look up to her, saying you do deserve more than this, we have to remember that she is a human being. She deserves, just as anyone deserves our patience and empathy, because this is hard. On what planet does calling her a “dumb bitch” fight the patriarchy or combat misogyny that leads to domestic violence?
Domestic violence is a difficult issue and there are many layers to it. Talking about it and getting it out in the open is a good thing, but vilifying Rihanna simply tells women that if they aren’t willing to cut off their abusers completely they are undeserving of any help or support. For many women this choice is inconceivable. There is no magic victim criteria that makes a woman living with domestic violence worthy of help and support. They all need it and they all deserve it.