People need to stop calling for Rihanna to become a spokesperson against domestic violence. When Annie Lennox suggested in The Guardian a few months ago that Rihanna “could become a tremendous spokesperson for that issue but the choice is hers”, I felt this was wrong but I reasoned to myself that Lennox made the suggestion in a respectful way, conceding that it was Rihanna’s choice whether or not she spoke out.
But this week, another person has called for Rihanna to speak out against domestic violence, and this time it is far less respectful. In fact, it is verging on the abusive and accusatory. There is so much wrong with what Tracey Spicer has written that I feel so angry I can hardly write it down. The comments read as blatant victim blaming and place Rihanna in greater danger.
Spicer opines, “For as long as women like Rihanna refuse to speak out – and society supports men like Chris Brown – the cycle of violence will continue.” This puts the blame and the responsibility squarely on Rihanna, and only mentions Chris Brown – the perpetrator, after all – as an afterthought. It perpetuates the belief that women are responsible for ending domestic violence, not the men who perpetrate it.
Spicer says that Rihanna should get a tattoo to remind her of what Chris did. The arrogance and cruelty of this comment is astounding. First of all, as if Rihanna needs a tattoo to remind her of the assault. Besides the fact that the whole world knows about it and the photographic evidence is all over the Internet, it is quite likely that Rihanna is traumatised by the violence inflicted on her and the effects of this trauma will manifest in physical symptoms in her body, and possibly psychological difficulties. Secondly, what an awful thing to suggest that a woman should get tattooed on her body a reminder of a vicious and life-threatening assault that she survived. How paternalistic to suggest this is the only way she will remember it. How paternalistic to suggest that she has forgotten it in the first place. Where is the evidence that Rihanna has forgotten the assault?
It is wonderful that for Rachael Taylor a tattoo seems to work for her, but I would wager she has been through, and continues to go through, much trauma and grief before coming to the point she appears to be at where she feels safe enough to speak out about the violence she experienced. Let’s not forget that she is also assisted by a domestic violence court order that is still in place to protect her from Matthew Newton. I suspect that helps her to remember what happened as well. But how insulting and simplistic to suggest that a woman needs anything external to remind her she has been assaulted.
But the main reason I wish people would stop calling for Rihanna to become a spokesperson against domestic violence is that it doesn’t yet appear to be safe for her to do so. Reports in the media, however spurious and irresponsible, suggest that Rihanna may still be seeing Chris Brown. This idea is met with indignation and self-righteous disbelief by many, but it should come as no surprise. It is a well-known fact that a woman may try to leave a violent and abusive relationship many, many times before finally succeeding. In my case it took 8 years and countless attempts. Spicer herself notes that Tina Turner finally had the “courage to leave” Ike Turner after 16 years of abuse. The barriers to safety that women face are due to a variety of internal and external factors. Number one is the very nature of domestic violence, which is an abuse of power and a pattern of tactics used to control the victim and keep them in fear, including physical and non-physical violence. Key to this is the reliance on the strong bond with the victim, and the systematic and deliberate eroding of their self-esteem and sense of self. Common results of this are that the victim often doesn’t want the relationship to end, but just wants the violence to stop. External factors preventing women from leaving abusive relationships include a lack of options for where to go, poor response from support services, lack of finances and, for women with children in Australia, the atrocious state of affairs in the family law system.
Even if Rihanna is not still seeing Chris Brown in an intimate capacity, she appears to be still in contact with him and working with him, a situation many women who have experienced domestic violence find themselves in. What would it mean for her safety if she was to speak out about the attack and about domestic violence in general, and then have to face her attacker, either at work or in a personal situation, a man who is already known to respond violently when challenged about his behaviour (as shown in his behaviour on Good Morning America).
The only point of Spicer’s that I would agree with is that the stance of the Australian Music Industry in promoting and hosting Chris Brown in Australia for Supafest is disgraceful. But this only proves my point further. In this climate of rationalising of violence against women and failure to hold Chris Brown accountable, why should Rihanna of all people put her career on the line to speak out? At best she would be ostracised in the industry and probably labelled vindictive or unforgiving, at worst she would lose fans and income from future endorsements and recording opportunities. Domestic violence has a devastating effect on the income and financial situation of women who experience it, and though this is far more acute for poor women, I suspect it would also be the case for the very wealthy.
Why isn’t anyone calling for Chris Brown to become a spokesperson against domestic violence and talk about how he has “changed” since the crime he committed? And why not suggest that Chris Brown get a tattoo to remind him not to violently assault women? Why not demand that he get inked with a needle into his skin a permanent reminder of the crime he committed? People don’t call for male perpetrators to be held accountable because it is still seen as the woman’s issue. Because women are still blamed for any violence committed against them, the world wants to hear how Rihanna has “learnt from her experience” and “will no longer accept being treated in that way”. As long as women like Rihanna are blamed for violence against them – and society fails to ensure women’s safety and hold men accountable – the cycle of violence will continue.