"It's the story that brought dating violence back into the headlines in a big way," began the promo for Oprah's much-touted Thursday episode. After weeks of rumors and tabloid speculation about 21-year-old Rihanna, who suffered injuries at the hands of her boyfriend, 19-year-old Chris Brown, mama O seized this "teachable moment" with a full hour devoted to talking about teen dating violence. In case you missed it, below are some of the highlights:
The show begins with a chilling statistic: 1 in 3 high school students have been involved in dating violence. "If a man hits you once, he will hit you again," Oprah admonishes her young viewers.
After greeting her audience, Oprah introduces fellow talk-show host (and avowed Oprah wanna-be) Tyra Banks. Later in the show, Tyra talks about a possessive, emotionally abusive boyfriend from her 20s. It took several attempts before she could break up with him, and Tyra emphasizes that she could only do it because she had a plan.
Oprah turns the floor over to Kevin Frazier from "Entertainment Tonight," who reviews the Rihanna-Chris Brown saga for anyone who might be renting space under a rock. He confirms that the couple is recording a song "about the trials and tribulations of love" and reports that they're also planning to co-author a book on domestic violence. Oprah and Tyra seem (understandably) skeptical.
Next, Tyra talks about an interview she conducted with Rihanna in which the singer recalled the migraine-inducing arguments her parents had when she was a child. Oprah shows a clip of Brown talking about the domestic violence his mother experienced on an episode of Tyra's show that aired long before the incident. "I don't want to put women through the same thing my mother went through," he said, emphasizing how well he treats girlfriends. For those who grew up in abusive households, says Oprah,"You really almost cannot help yourself until somebody helps you." Although she acknowledges that Brown is also a victim, Tyra insists, "It does not give him or anyone the excuse to put his hands on a woman, ever."
Later in the show, teenagers give their opinions on Rihanna and Chris Brown. "He lost my respect," says one young woman. Another disagrees: "I kind of think she deserved it. If a girl has enough nerves to hit a boy, she should get hit back." And Monique, live from Boise, Idaho and surrounded by a group of high-school classmates, tells the story of her own emotional and physical abuse: "I want Rihanna to know that things like this happen to everyone," she says.
Perhaps the saddest moment on the show comes when visibly shaken friends of Charney Watt, a high-school cheerleader in Charlotte, North Carolina who died Sunday after allegedly being gunned down by her ex-boyfriend, speak to Oprah and Tyra via satellite. Asked about Rihanna, one girl refers to the singer's reunion with Brown. "It was kind of a slap in the face," she says. "Everybody expected Rihanna to step up and be a role model." But, Tyra reminds us, we can't force Rihanna to behave as we wish she would: "She is no better or different than any other girl. She is just as easily pulled into the cycle of abuse."
I'm not a fan of Oprah or Tyra, but they both managed to dial down the narcissism to produce a sensitive, intelligent show about teens and abuse. The episode did fail to thoroughly address one topic, however, that has been preoccupying me (and, I know, many Broadsheet readers): the rumor that Rihanna hit Brown first. When one high schooler mentioned it during the show, Tyra quickly pointed out that, if it's true, Brown should have been allowed to defend himself without using excessive force. It is, of course, inexcusable to slap your boyfriend. But choking your girlfriend, threatening to kill her and sending her to the hospital with a face full of blood and bruises elevates the situation to a dangerous extreme. Rihanna may have her own anger issues to work out, but a woman doesn't have to be a saint to be a victim of domestic violence.