Editor’s note: Today (May 5th) is Chris Brown’s birthday. This piece was one of the most popular in our history and we want to memorialize his birthday by reinforcing a message we believe in.
I’m sick and tired of people acting like it’s no big deal that Chris Brown will be performing at the Grammys.
I’m frustrated that the mainstream media is covering this story like it’s any comeback story, like an exiled prince’s return to a former glory, like this is another political timeline — as though some rich and powerful old white men in the music business have not just issued an enormous ‘f**k you’ to every woman who has been, is or will be on the receiving end of domestic violence.
We should be furious.
Why aren’t we?
A Long, Long Time Ago, or Three Years Ago, But Who’s Counting?
For those of you who are currently listening to ‘Look at Me Now’ and wondering what the big deal is, a quick recap: The night before the Grammys in 2009, Chris Brown got angry at his girlfriend, Rihanna, and he took it out on her face. She went to the hospital and then to the LAPD, where this photo was taken and promptly leaked to TMZ. (The LAPD issued a stern statement on the leak, threatening penalties “up to and including termination”. TMZ reportedly paid $62,500 for the photo.)
Both Rihanna and Brown had been scheduled to perform at the Grammys the following evening. Neither did.
Instead, Chris Brown turned himself into the LAPD at 7 pm, was booked on suspicion of criminal threats and was released on $50,000 bail.
Then the Internet exploded.
I was a full-time entertainment writer at the time, so I had a front-row seat to the action. This is what I expected: I expected a string of celebrities to comment on how horrific this situation was, how sad and angry they were for Rihanna, how domestic violence is unacceptable in any context, how as a nation we need to condemn this and condemn it loudly.
Instead, Hollywood went silent and, when they did speak, they teetered on the brink of defending Chris Brown.
Carrie Underwood: “I don’t think anybody actually knows what happened. I have no advice.”
Lindsay Lohan: “I have no comment on that. That’s not my relationship. I think they’re both great people.”
Nia Long: “I know both of them well. They’re young, and all we can do is pray for them at this point.”
Mary J. Blige: “They’re both young and beautiful people, and that’s it.”
Jay-Z, one of Rihanna’s mentors, spoke up: “You have to have compassion for others. Just imagine it being your sister or mom and then think about how we should talk about that. I just think we should all support her.”
In a sane world, Jay-Z’s statement would sound insane. Why would he have to remind his fans to support Rihanna after what happened is that she got hit in the face?
Jay-Z issued that statement because the Internet was, in early February 2009, engaged in a very serious conversation about whether or not all of this was Rihanna’s fault. In fact, large segments of the Internet had devoted themselves to making Rihanna the scapegoat for any woman who ever had the gall to do something worth getting hit, and then the cloying self-esteem to go to the cops about it. Bloggers and their commentators flocked to Chris Brown’s defense in droves. It was a full-blown tearing-down of female self-worth, an assault on any progress women have made in this country in the past 200 years, and the mainstream media ignored it.
It horrified me. It still does.
Later in February, a photo of Brown riding a jet ski in Miami hit the Internet, and singer Usher was caught on video commenting on it: “I’m a little disappointed in this photo,” Usher says in the video. “After the other photo [of Rihanna’s bruised face]? C’mon, Chris. Have a little bit of remorse, man. The man’s on jet skis? Like, just relaxing in Miami?”
The backlash was so severe that Usher was later forced to publicly apologize.
“I apologize on behalf of myself and my friends if anyone was offended,” he said. “The intentions were not to pass judgment and we meant no harm. I respect and wish the best for all parties involved.”
The message we sent to young women was unmistakable: You are powerless. You are worthless. You will be a victim, and that will be okay with us.
The Fall-out, and the Lack Thereof
In August 2009, Brown was sentenced to five years probation and 180 hours of community service after pleading guilty to felony assault.
In December 2009, he released his third studio album. It sold over 100,000 copies in its first week and debuted at #7 on the Billboard charts.
On June 8, 2010, Brown was forced to cancel his tour dates in the UK when the British Home Office refused to grant him a work visa on the grounds of “being guilty of a serious criminal offence”. Less than three weeks later, he performed ‘Man in the Mirror’ at the BET Awards’ tribute to Michael Jackson.
His fourth studio album, released in March of last year, debuted at #1.
In December 2011, Billboard crowned him their artist of the year.
And, this week, Grammy producers confirmed that Chris Brown will be performing on Sunday’s show.
“We’re glad to have him back,” said executive producer Ken Ehrlich. “I think people deserve a second chance, you know. If you’ll note, he has not been on the Grammys for the past few years and it may have taken us a while to kind of get over the fact that we were the victim of what happened.”
Read that quote again. Think hard about what is being said. Here is what this quote says to any woman who’s ever been abused:
- By blacklisting Chris Brown from the Grammys for a “few” years (actually, a grand total of TWO Grammy Awards), the Grammys have gone above and beyond expectations for the social exile of an adult man who hit his girlfriend so hard she went to the hospital, and honestly it was really, really hard for them to show even that much support for victims of domestic violence worldwide.
- It was rather thoughtless of Rihanna to go and get herself hit in the face by her boyfriend, because it’s put such a burden on the Grammys. Maybe if she hadn’t made such a big fuss out of it, things could have been easier for everyone.
- The Grammys think that they were the victim of Chris Brown hitting Rihanna in the face.
- The Grammys. Think. That they. Were the victim. Of Chris Brown. Hitting. Rihanna. In the face.
Hitting People Is Wrong, Y’All
I agree that people deserve a second chance. It’s great that we live in a country with a justice system that allows offenders to reclaim themselves and their lives after their sentence. I’m happy about that, and I hope Brown is a changed man at the end of his sentence. (The US justice system has Chris Brown on probation through 2014. It was nice of the Grammys to let him off a couple years early for
high record sales good behavior.)
And my suspicion is that Rihanna has no interest in being a poster child for victims of domestic violence. She probably wishes this would all disappear, and I don’t blame her for a minute. She didn’t ask for this – for any of it – and she’s under no obligation to speak out about it.
But someone has to. Because what is happening here is unmistakable. It is, in my eyes, so unmistakable that I wonder if I’m wrong, if I’m missing something huge, because I cannot believe more voices aren’t railing against this.
We – the grown-up influencers in this country, the people with platforms and with educations and with power — are allowing a clear message to be sent to women: We will easily forgive a person who victimizes you. We are able to look beyond the fact that you were treated as less than human, that a bigger, stronger person decided to resolve a conflict with you through violence. We know it happened, but it’s just not that big of a deal to us.
We were so mad when the Komen Foundation pulled its funding for breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood. “This is not fair,” we shouted. “This is not fair to women, and this is not fair to the women who don’t have a voice, and we will not allow it.” We shouted it so loudly that Komen reversed its decision in three days. We forced the resignation of one of their top executives.
Planned Parenthood, no doubt, has a well-funded and fine-tuned PR machine, adept at galvanizing a population against a perceived injustice. They outmaneuvered Komen easily.
Does domestic violence have a less sophisticated PR machine than Chris Brown does?
Because to me, this situation isn’t all that different. Accepting that Chris Brown gets to perform at the Grammys because some people bought his album is no different from accepting that women without health insurance don’t get to be screened for breast cancer because some VP at Komen is anti-abortion. It may happen, but that doesn’t mean we should tacitly accept it. What if Chris Brown had hit your sister that night? Or your daughter? (What if Chris Brown had hit Taylor Swift that night?)
We’re accepting the message that women just aren’t that important, that their health and their safety and their self-respect is only important until it stops being convenient for everyone. We should be angry about this, and we should be angry publicly about this.
So I want to say this to anyone who is listening: This is not okay with me. A man hitting a woman in anger is unacceptable and is not easily forgotten or forgiven. A man who hits a woman in anger deserves to be reported to the authorities and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, regardless of who might be inconvenienced in the process. A man who hits a woman in anger may eventually be permitted to go on with his own life, but he is not permitted back in my life, even if it’s been three whole years.