Bruises and Birthday Cake: What We Talk About When We Talk About Rihanna and Chris Brown

by: Elise Nagy

In wake of the news that Rihanna’s collaborator on the remix of her song “Birthday Cake” is none other than Chris Brown, her abuser and ex-boyfriend, newsstands and the internet have exploded with shock and criticism. Everyone—from ABC News to MTV to The Daily What and The Hairpin, even In Our Words—has given their take. ABC called the lyrics  “highly suggestive,“ commenting that they might lead to (more) speculation about a possibly romantic reunion in addition to this professional one.

The Daily What literally quoted the police report at Rihanna, suggesting it’s time for her to re-read it — because that’s not potentially traumatic at all — asking “any of this ringing a bell?” as if she’d somehow forgotten she was abused. The piece ends with: “I’ll never forgive you for forgiving him,” which seems to be the overwhelming consensus from supposed Rihanna supporters. Commenters are calling her “truly pathetic” and “misguided.” Twitter and Facebook have been ambivalently abuzz, a week ago with horrifying post-Grammys tweets from girls claiming they’d love to get a beating from Chris Brown and now with upset and indignant Rihanna fans who feel betrayed by her decision to work with him again. 

When we write Facebook statuses or tweets or make comments about how we’re disappointed in Rihanna, about how she’s thoughtless or weak or somehow personally sabotaging The Feminist Cause by reuniting with Chris Brown, even professionally, we’re letting all the people in our life know that if they’re victims or survivors of abuse we’ll judge them for their choices. We will think them weak for staying in an abusive relationship or for reuniting with a once-abusive partner. We are letting them know that once they are abused, that’s all they are in our eyes. They are no longer a complex person with many feelings, motivations, desires, fears and considerations; now, they are just a poster child for How To Be an Abuse Survivor.  And if they don’t live up to that prescriptive paragon of performative womanly strength — particularly compulsory for women of color — they’ve somehow failed. They’ve not only failed themselves, but us, their friends and family and the rest of the world and any young people who look up to them.

I can’t support that message, especially if it’s being put forth in the name of feminism.

Women stay in abusive relationships for myriad and varied reasons. Sometimes it’s an issue of physical or financial survival. Sometimes it’s for the relative safety of children. Sometimes it’s because they don’t know about any resources available to them or because they do know about those resources and how unavailable they are.

Sometimes women stay in abusive relationships because they need the help and support of friends and family, but they’ve spent their whole lives soaking in a culture that has a tendency to blame victims, to say that they must be weak to find themselves in a situation like that, that they must have made poor decisions or provoked their abuser somehow. They’ve learned that it’s not only possible but likely that some people they might turn to for support would respond with victim blaming instead. They’ve learned that if they tell family and friends about their abuse in an effort to get help or to get out of the relationship, those family and friends are likely to no longer see them as having any agency or autonomy. Asking for help opens the door to unsolicited opinions and judgments, a flood of people who think they know the details of an abused woman’s life better that she does. This is what we’re learning from the general reaction to Rihanna’s decision to work with Chris Brown again.

Instead of berating Rihanna for teaching “impressionable young girls,” who are at the heart of many disappointed commenters’ dismay, we should be aware of what people (“impressionable young girls” and everyone else) are learning from the conversations that follow these kinds of celebrity news bursts. One of the handy side effects of the constant scrutiny we subject celebrities to is that they give us opportunities to talk about issues that affect our own communities.

The way news sources and blogs are reacting to the “Birthday Cake” remix teaches people that if you’re abused, you should never see your abuser again or reunite with your abuser in whatever form; it’s your fault and the judgment is on you, not on your abuser. It seems like a lose-lose for Rihanna: she gets bloodied and bruised, then there’s backlash against her. She does something that suggests she might be moving on from that or dealing with it and going through a healing process that works best for her, then there’s backlash against her.

Surprisingly absent from these conversations, considering the vital role he plays in all of this, is Chris Brown. In the wake of the “Birthday Cake” controversy, no one is suggesting he re-reads the police report to remind himself that he could have killed his girlfriend, and more people should be writing about what his abuse teaches his young fans about what’s right and wrong. More people should be writing articles about how he should be aware that we—as a collective celebrity-obsessed culture—will be keeping an eye on him, will hold him accountable if history repeats itself. We should be telling him how fortunate he is that Rihanna chose to work with him again, to let him back into her life in whatever form. Otherwise, we’re acting like nothing in this dynamic is his responsibility, and I think that’s wrong and counterproductive.

We can’t and shouldn’t hold Rihanna accountable for being beaten up, because that is backwards and absurd. We can’t and shouldn’t act like Rihanna’s decision to work with Chris Brown again is her condoning abuse or that somehow by forgiving him or moving on in whatever way she is making it her responsibility to not get punched in the face again. We can’t and shouldn’t say that it’s Rihanna’s sole responsibility to send moral messages to her young fans about what the “right” way to react to abuse is, as if there is one right way and we’re absolved from the responsibility of teaching our children and friends and communities that abuse is wrong and that supporting survivors of abuse should be done fiercely and compassionately, whatever shape that support takes.

It is not ever anyone’s responsibility to not get punched in the face. It is our responsibility to not do the punching. It’s our responsibility to not be abusive, physically or verbally, and to teach other people to not be abusive. It’s imperative that we collectively learn that. There is no way to make yourself 100% safe or risk free, and the onus shouldn’t be on you to do so. Or on Rihanna. The best way to decrease instances of abuse is to not abuse people.

The best way to support a survivor of abuse is to see her as a whole person, as an authority on her own life, which means supporting her in whatever choices she makes about how to heal from and deal with her abuse.

That’s the thing: Rihanna chose to work with him again. We can’t and shouldn’t say that she is inherently weaker for making this personal choice — which, by the nature of celebrity, we can’t know the unfiltered details of or motivations for. We can’t say that she is being irresponsible to her fans or young girls everywhere by dealing with her abuser in the way she’s chosen to.

If we taught girls and women and people that we would support them in their choices and trust them to do what was best for them, maybe they would reach out more often when they are in abusive situations and need help. Maybe they would feel empowered to get out of those situations, or to transform those relationships into something positive and nourishing and healing. Maybe they would feel like they have the right and the ability to create for themselves the lives they want and deserve: ones where they are acknowledged as the authorities of their own experience, as complex emotional beings, as good decision makers. As people who don’t need to make choices based on an ill-informed consensus fueled by paparazzi and the self-serving speculation of news organizations looking for page views, but on their own self-knowledge.

I believe that women who trust themselves to make good decisions are women who can deal with abusive situations in ways that are healthier and harm reductive. I believe that women who know other people trust them are more likely to trust themselves. And I believe that we can use this national conversation based on two famous figures and one initially shocking musical collaboration to open the door to that discussion about abusive relationships in our own lives and communities.

Elise Nagy is a Women’s and Gender Studies student in Chicago working on the last year of her Bachelor’s degree and the first of her Master’s. She spends an inordinate amount of time watching television, reading, and getting emotional on the internet. She used to be a poet and a painter, and would like to learn to fly small planes and write a whole book. You can find her sporadically updated blog at Redhead Bouquet and she can be reached at She really loathes talking about herself in the third person.

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4 responses to “Bruises and Birthday Cake: What We Talk About When We Talk About Rihanna and Chris Brown

  1. Pingback: i wrote about rihanna and supporting abuse survivors over at “in our words” | redhead bouquet·

  2. a-freaking-men. So much of the outrage is just misogyny wrapped in the trappings of “but we CAAARE about her”.

  3. A resounding ‘YES’ to this. That DailyWhat post made me rage like whoa. “I’ll never forgive you for forgiving him?” As though Rihanna is in the wrong? So much urgh. Backwards and absurd, indeed.

    It’s so saddening and angry-making that we live in a society that continues to prefer criticizing survivors of abuse and the ways in which they choose to move on (or not move on) from said abuse over criticizing perpetrators of abuse and examining its own enabling of those perpetrators, as well as its own hostility to survivors (regardless of the decisions they make before, during or after their abuse).

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