"She's so beautiful and nice. How do you hit her?"

In its coverage of the Chris Brown-Rihanna incident, the media perpetuates subtle stereotypes about domestic violence.

By Judy Berman

Published February 10, 2009 2:41PM (EST)

I wanted to avoid writing about Rihanna's alleged assault at the hands of her (former?) boyfriend, pop star Chris Brown. Leave the woman alone while her wounds -- bruises, swelling, "a split lip, bloody nose and scratching to her face" -- heal and she weighs her options, I figured. But then I started reading the annoying media coverage.

In a story confirming that Rihanna is working with the LAPD to build a domestic violence case, the New York Daily News quotes sources who repeat noxious stereotypes about physical abuse. "She's so beautiful and nice," says an unnamed "industry insider." "How do you hit her?" You know, because sending an ugly, mean woman to the hospital is totally excusable. "Both of them are young and prone to jealousy," a "pal" of the pair chimes in, suggesting that the entire situation can be chalked up to youthful indiscretion or raging hormones.

Unsurprisingly, the worst story I've seen on the case comes from Roger Friedman at Fox News. Here's the sentence that originally raised my hackles: "Rihanna is recovering from her wounds, whatever they are, while Chris Brown must deal with the fallout from a percolating scandal." I sensed a note of condescension in Friedman's "whatever they are" aside (especially since, as I noted above, we now know the extent of Rihanna's injuries), and there seemed to be an undertone of annoyance at the "percolating scandal" Brown "must deal with." It occurred to me that I was, perhaps, being oversensitive. But then I read on. "It’s so far unclear if Rihanna will be willing to forgive and forget," writes Friedman. Right. Because the onus should be on the alleged victim of domestic violence to make all the bad press and legal trouble go away.

In the world of pop music, where young, black men often portray themselves as hardened criminals, Chris Brown appeared to be the anti-thug. On Monday, Wrigley announced plans to suspend an advertising campaign featuring Brown -- but the fact that a family-friendly company like Wrigley's recruited the singer to endorse its chewing gum in the first place speaks volumes about his image. And that persona has complicated the way the case is playing out in the court of public opinion. Some fans -- of both sexes -- defend Brown, while others are taking Rihanna's side. As one woman writes in the comments section of a Reuters piece, "looks can be decieving, he might’ve done it i wouldnt be surprised if he did ... i’ve been beat up by a guy that 'looked innocent' so don’t assume he wouldn’t do sumthing like that."

It's sad to see yet another potentially positive role model bite the dust. But I was encouraged by the news that, rather than backing down in an attempt to stem the tide of news and gossip, Rihanna is cooperating with the police. Her decision sends a powerful message to young men and women that domestic violence is neither the victim's fault nor an unavoidable side effect of being in a relationship; it's a crime.

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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