The battle over Rihanna

The battered singer's leaked photos generated a firestorm of controversy, but also an important conversation.

Published February 23, 2009 5:14PM (EST)

Critics everywhere have weighed in on last week's leak of police photos showing Rihanna's badly injured face, taken after she was reportedly beaten by her boyfriend Chris Brown. Broadsheet's Tracy Clark-Flory wrote on Friday, "I can't bring myself to even link to it, because it seems like such a sickening violation of Rihanna's privacy." Over at Feministing, Jessica Valenti clearly agreed, dedicating her "Friday Feminist Fuck You" to TMZ (the outlet that released the photo) and a "double fuck you" to any blog that reposted the image, since "exploiting a physical assault for traffic is beyond disgusting." At Jezebel, Anna Holmes wrote a post announcing that "we won't ignore [the photo], but we also won't post or link to it" and posed the question, "Is posting such a photo exploitative or educational? (Is it both?)," while Jezebel contributor Tracie Egan did include the photo in an entry on her own blog, "One D at a Time," because, she wrote, it elicited in her a visceral reaction and she "immediately recognized the value in that." Even Rihanna's father, Ronald Fenty, has expressed the degree to which the release of the photos has left him torn; he has criticized the leak, calling the LAPD "sloppy" for allowing it to happen, but told Us Weekly, "It's good and it's bad to see the picture, because there's other people who were thinking differently, that [her injuries] may not be that bad."

Personally, I don't think there is any right answer here, but in the struggle to find one, everyone may be thinking a lot more about these issues, which I honestly believe is a good thing. Rihanna's injuries, like those inflicted in millions of other cases of intimate partner-related assaults and rapes every year (the CDC reports about 4.8 million a year for women, 2.9 million a year for men), are chilling, painful and terrible to look at, and I agree wholeheartedly with Valenti that to use images of them as traffic bait is reprehensible. But those injuries are more painful to experience; women across the country and around the world receive wounds like them every day. And just as troubling is another figure, that according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, less than 20 percent of battered women seek medical treatment following their injuries.

It may be tragic and unjust, as my colleague Tracy noted, that Rihanna was not given the opportunity "to decide whether she becomes the literal poster child for the cause," but the fact remains that people are talking about this case as they have not talked about any other in recent memory, and the attitudes that are being revealed are instructive, if nearly as heartbreaking as the reports of the incident itself. Though this will not come as a surprise to those who work every day to prevent domestic violence and help those women (and men) who have suffered it, apparently there are still many deeply wrongheaded attitudes about partner assault that not only remain embedded in the American psyche but that are being passed down to the next generation. They need to be shaken loose, quickly.

A conversation that has already drawn a good deal of critical attention took place on CNN on Friday, when anchor Kiran Chetry said: "I mean, does she want, you know, the stigma moving forward as a one-time victim of abuse, if this indeed turns out to be proven?" A distressing piece in the Chicago Tribune this weekend reported that teenagers interviewed about the Rihanna-Brown case expressed their belief that she must have done something to provoke an attack. Arrestingly, that's not very different from an attitude expressed by Jezebel contributor Egan in her post on the subject, in which she writes that she hates "the idea of jumping to the automatic conclusion that women are either victims or potential victims. It implies that we're weak, unable to take care of ourselves ... I didn't want to assume that Chris Brown was evil and that Rihanna was completely innocent, which I'm sure that some people did, based solely on gender." Egan went on to describe her own behavior while fighting with her fiancé (which recently included peeing on his electric guitar) as some sort of comparative measure.

All these make a useful primer for some of the attitudes that must still be corrected when it comes to domestic violence, chief among them that there is any kind of shame or weakness involved in having experienced abuse. Chetry's question about a "stigma" is one that should have been asked about Chris Brown, not about Rihanna, unless it had been she who was reported to have been the aggressor. The idea that Rihanna would carry any kind of stigma suggests an attitude that she either provoked her own attack or was somehow questionably weak in having allowed herself to sustain injuries or in reporting it to police, or perhaps most distressing, that there is something dirty or embarrassing about having had a partner angry enough to hit you. It perpetuates the myth -- one that has clearly been absorbed both by writers like Egan and by high school students -- that physical violence in the context of a domestic dispute should or could get boiled down to questions of fault and blame, that the question of "who started it" or what the fight was about could possibly quell or justify the use of physical force. Egan's resistance to victimhood is nothing new in the history of feminist discourse, but her comparison of her own experience to the reports about Rihanna and Chris Brown reflect an all-too-common misunderstanding of the grave physical and psychological realities of physical violence and how they differ from (admittedly crazy-pants) fighting with your boyfriend.

Then of course there are the Chicago teens, and the vital lessons we must teach our children about abuse of power, and the abuse of physical power, especially when, as the Tribune reports, "1 in 10 teenagers has suffered such abuse and females ages 16 to 24 experience the highest rates of any age group." Interestingly, the Tribune's story ends with reports that some teachers are using the Rihanna story as an opportunity to talk to students about issues of domestic violence, butwhen students brought it up in an economics class at Lane Tech High School, their teacher "said the celebrities were getting too much attention and didn't want us to talk about it."

It's a real-life example of the debate that is going on in the media and in the feminist blogosphere. While there may indeed be sad and exploitative aspects to the fact that celebrities are getting us to have this conversation -- and while I do agree that leaking and posting the photo of Rihanna's injuries feels extremely skeezy -- at least we're pay attention. It is vitally important that we take advantage of this heartbreaking opportunity to air out some of our long-held assumptions and do some actual teaching.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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