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Media, Chris Brown and the Real “Teachable Moment”

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March 25th, 2009

By Guest Bloggers Jamii Claiborne and Susanne Gubanc

Oprah advises Rihanna, “If a man hits you once, he will hit you again.”

CNN brings on legal expert Linda Fairstein to tell Rihanna, “Get serious counseling about this.”

NPR’s Tom Ashbrook wonders, “Everyone’s bent over backwards and really succeeded in raising a generation of quite strong young women. Why still this particular and very old fashioned vulnerability?”

MSNBC gets a domestic violence survivor, whose abuser eventually came at her with a gun, to urge Rihanna to “not let it come to this” and to “GET OUT NOW!”

Gossip blogger Perez Hilton has accused Rihanna of “setting a bad example,” and visually mocked the singer by Photoshopping cartoon tears over her picture, along with the caption, “Sad princess.”

Most of these mass media voices had good intentions (Perez Hilton aside). And most seemed genuine in their desire to make the alleged February domestic violence incident between the seemingly perfect young celebrity couple, singers Rihanna and Chris Brown, into a “teachable moment.” Many media outlets, both journalistic and talk-oriented, have devoted large segments to a topic often overlooked, youth relationship violence (teen dating violence), which has reached an all-time high in this country.

It’s a noble effort, but we, as media educators who believe wholeheartedly in the “teachable moment,” are not applauding. For embedded in their good intentions are implications and oversights that do more to ignore at the least – and further at the most – the social problem of violence against women.

By focusing the majority of attention on what Rihanna could have done differently before the alleged attack or should definitely do now after the violence has come to light, this loud, mass media echo chamber has engaged in classic victim-blaming. Coverage that emphasizes primarily the victim’s role and responsibility – and takes the onus off the perpetrator – is likely do more harm than good to young women who live through dating violence outside the celebrity bubble. Violence against women is exacted by men with a bemused tolerance; it’s time the media and men took on the responsibility to stop the violence.

In our personal lives, blaming the victim often comes from the need to deny that we ourselves could be next. In order to avoid confronting our own fear of powerlessness, we, with media reinforcement, assume the victim had the power to prevent what happened. Since Rihanna did not prevent it, we reason we are more intelligent, aware and stronger than she is, and so what happened to her could never happen to us. Media coverage thus allows viewers to indulge in the patronizing and arrogant assumption that we are immune to violence. Regardless of how subtle or unintentional, this sort of reporting and commentary reinforces the notion that “we” – those of us who are not currently in abusive relationships – are superior to the victim.

Media play a central role in our lives, especially in the lives of young people. This generation of teens is the most media-saturated and most linked in to media and technology in history, yet critical media literacy is still not taught in most schools. When it comes to representations of romance, the messages in popular media are clear. From reality TV to music videos, we learn that relationships are dramatic and disposable. Modern media tell men that they are both idiotic and invincible, both irresponsible and in control, both liberated and superior. Meanwhile, women learn that they have to be strong but submissive, sexy but innocent, responsible but carefree. Next, layer in a fairly large helping of messages to both genders about the power of love to conquer all (even violence) and finally an ample dose of age-old “blame the (female) victim” rhetoric, and you’ve got what seems shocking to many older media makers and academics: a large number of young people who, through posts in blogs, comments at media websites and quotes in news stories, say they really believe Rihanna might be at fault. Certainly not all young people are taking this incident in stride, but more teens than we are comfortable with have responded with restraint at best, and active victim-blaming at worst, rather than outrage. Too many young people seem to be more comfortable seeing Rihanna as an instigator than Chris Brown as an abuser.

A survey of Boston teens showed that 46% consider Rihanna to blame and 44% believe fighting is a normal part of a relationship; stories about these stats ran with headlines such as the Boston Globe’s Many Boston teens surveyed say Rihanna is at fault for assault.” Several teens on Oprah’s March 12 special on domestic violence felt little to no sympathy for Rihanna, and at least one thought she likely deserved what happened. A March 13 NPR segment spoke with teens who were more concerned about the order of events the night of the alleged incident (who started it and how) than they were about the violent outcome. That same segment reported that Rihanna and Brown are rumored to be in the studio together recording a duet about “love’s challenges.” In a March 18 New York Times article, the reporter interviews and quotes Bronx teens, one of whom says, “She [Rihanna] probably feels bad that it was her fault, so she took him back,” and quotes a Facebook discussion in which “one girl wrote, ‘she probly ran into a door and was too embarrassed so blamed it on Chris.’”

This is only a small sampling of the corporate media response to Chris Brown’s alleged abuse of his girlfriend. So, how are these purveyors of mass media culture responding, and what are they telling their audiences? Are they digging in and examining a cultural system full of dangerous and damaging messages about youth, relationships, gender and violence? Are they advocating an interruption of that system with different rhetoric, new messages, a boycott of offending images? No, instead, they are once again coaching girls on how to make better choices, how to take better care of themselves, and how to be survivors if, heaven forbid, they are ever violence victims of those boys who, after all, will be boys.

(Editor’s Note: Discussing women’s options and encouraging self-esteem, self-defense and empowerment –these can certainly be responsible, ethical and useful journalistic paths to follow when covering issues of domestic violence. But doing so without placing an equal if not greater emphasis on the responsibility of men not to batter – there’s nothing journalistically sound about that. Some media outlets and personalities have decided that this is a “teaching moment” for men, rather than an excuse to reinforce boys-will-be-boys ideology. For example, men like advocate Kevin Powell, featured on Oprah’s “teachable moment” episode, propose a change in the national dialog about this issue among men; his 2007 essay, “Ending Violence Against Women And Girls,” is reprinted at Oprah.com. And while many Respected Newsmen have preferred to hand-wring over Rihanna’s actions, CBS’s late night talk-show host, Craig Ferguson, has used his comedy stage to place the blame for the abuse where it belongs. Discussing horror movies, Ferguson quipped, “Friday The 13th, a scary movie about someone who goes around terrorizing vulnerable women…the clinical name for someone like that is Chris Brown.” He followed by looking squarely at the camera and yelling, “Don’t hit women. Don’t. You know what I mean? Don’t. Don’t hit women - ever, ever, ever. You miserable little ****.”)

Tragically with statistics that predict one in three teenagers knows a friend or peer who has experienced relationship violence (Teen Research Unlimited survey, 2005) and one women in the U.S. is abused every 15 seconds (United Nations Study on the Status of Women, 2000), the chances are high that they will face abuse in their lifetime. Given that women aged 16-24 are the most frequently abused (U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics), they are likely to face it early. Also notable is the fact that much of the corporate media discussion has done very little talking to or about Chris Brown other than reporting statements of fact (he’s facing two felonies; he’ll enter a plea next month); we aren’t hearing a national dialog about what Brown could have or should have done differently, questions about why and how he makes the choices he makes, or equivalent questions that are being asked about Rihanna’s motivations. Most of all, what’s missing from the major media conversation is an in-depth exploration of the social and cultural systems producing record numbers of young men who abuse women.

There are a few exceptions, mostly in feminist blogs, but only rarely in the corporate media consumed by millions. One bright spot was a March 9 article in Newsweek by Raina Kelley, titled, “Domestic Abuse Myths: Five mistakes we make when we talk about Rihanna and Chris Brown’s relationship.” Commenting on the coverage, Kelley writes, “When you tune into to all the talk about Rihanna and Chris Brown, it’s scary how the same persistent domestic-violence myths continue to be perpetuated.” Even more recently, Andy Wilson at AlterNet http://www.alternet.org/reproductivejustice/133016/cover_girl_or_bad_girl%3A_how_the_media_blew_the_rihanna_story/?page=2 expertly analyzed the media framing of Rihanna wisely noting that:

“Rihanna’s treatment at the hands of the press will be far more damaging to domestic-abuse victims than her behavior ever could be. Casting Rihanna as the willing victim and summarily revoking sympathy as a means of punishing her for a perceived complacency sends a clear message that women who are victims of abuse deserve compassion on a conditional basis only.”

Wilson points out an even more chilling consequence of this coverage:

“If victims of domestic violence are taking any message away from this fracas, it’s that once other people become aware of your situation, you open yourself up to criticism and contempt.”

The problem is that most of these reporters’ corporate media counterparts are the perpetuators of stereotypes and contempt; their countervailing voices have been in the minority outside of the blogosphere.

Please, for once, can we all challenge the systems of privilege that woo us into thinking lectures to young women about how they should change will actually make this social problem go away? Can we think more critically, see more clearly, create media more honestly? Can we examine a culture that devalues, objectifies and ultimately sacrifices its young women? Perhaps most importantly, can we all stop judging Rihanna long enough to take a good look at ourselves and the things we do that allow the system that is hurting her to thrive? Of course, these questions are ones many feminists have been wrangling with for years, and that are being discussed online. But isn’t it time for these questions could make their way into the corporate media debate?

Then, and only then, will we stop trying to teach others lessons we likely haven’t even learned ourselves. Many males in this country treat women in dehumanizing ways because they were told it was okay to do so, whether at home, in school, or through the thousands of times these actions were reinforced as acceptable, even positive, in music, video games, television programs and films. When our media change, so will our values.

Guest Blogger Jamii Claiborne is Asst. Professor of Media Studies at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. Susanne Gubanc is Asst. Professor of Rhetoric at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

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