editor’s note: additions in italics
“Do YOU like Chris Brown?” my then 10-year-old niece asked two years ago as she and her mom were driving somewhere. I should have noticed the inflection in her tone, but I was being hip and cool aunt Sandhya, so I said, “Yeah,” forgetting who he was and what a political answer I had just given. The glare I got from Tami at the same time her daughter whined “See?” plaintively at her reminded me of my mistake. Tami did a great job of saying, “do you really listen to him, when you care so much about how women are treated?”
“Ah, right. I meant to say, yes I like Chris Brown, but how people behave matters more than how good their music sounds.”
(I made a similar mistake once when my friend Chris called me and put me on speaker phone while he asked if I thought it was a good idea to take his daughter to the zoo. I said, “sure,” realizing too late as the four-year-old shouted “YAY!” from the backseat of the car that he was expecting me to say I believed animals should be allowed to live in their natural habitat and not in the constraints of cages.)
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and coincidentally is the month that Key and Peele is back on the air for season three. I just watched season 2 and saw their genius skit about the brief reuniting of Chris Brown and Rihanna last fall. (If you haven’t seen it, watch it in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month; it’s disturbingly satisfying). It’s got me thinking about what subtle messages we get about women’s worth from celebrity news and pop culture.
Tami was trying to let her daughter know that no one who hits women deserves our support, and I’m with her, even if I was slow on the uptake. For generations we have seen modeled in very public places that women should expect a certain amount of harm from their men and that it’s part of the way we relate to each other. Obviously it’s not new: I think of Billie Holiday’s song “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” which precedes Rihanna’s “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” by at least 60 years. Billie croons, “I’d rather my man would hit me than cause him to jump up and quit me.” Chris Brown did in fact assault Rihanna violently four years ago after failing to throw her out of a moving car because she found a text from another woman. Stay classy, Chris. And way to follow in the footsteps of Bobby Brown, whom my generation watched destroy the diva of our generation, Whitney Houston, who stood by her man and was consumed by him.
Rape and domestic violence have basically the same root: power over someone. I know too many women who have been beaten by men and told by family and friends and even clergy (sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly) that they need to stand by their man, telling them their safety mattered less than their fidelity to a bad man. I also know men who have been beaten or abused by men, women by women, and men by women. And I know a lot of women (and have to some extent at one point been one of those women) and men whose partners have managed to have unhealthy power over us without ever raising a finger—through manipulation or verbal abuse or through their subtle but effective insinuations that they are as good as we’ll ever get, and that without them we will be sad and alone. It worked on Billie and it still works on a lot of us. I mention this because last week, Chris Brown (whose relationship with Rihanna ended again in March) dissed his ex in a recent song by DJ Khaled, basically saying Rihanna sleeps around. Again, stay classy. But this time, Rihanna basically said (and I’m paraphrasing only slightly), “Grow the f*** up.”
That’s the story I want to make sure my niece hears. When a partner doesn’t treat you well, you are powerful enough to walk away. And when s/he keeps saying awful things to you to try to tear you down, that means s/he actually has no power over you. It means you’ve won. You’re whole and s/he’s broken, no matter who s/he’s with.
I know our lives aren’t run by celebrities. But so often we won’t talk about the pain we’ve endured. So often we won’t share our stories of survival and overcoming because we are ashamed we let anyone treat us that way in the first place. And as a result, the only stories our girls (and boys) hear are the celebrity stories. So I’m kinda proud of Rihanna today, and I’m glad we might get a narrative for girls (and boys) that says, “if s/he cheats, if s/he belittles, if s/he hits with words or fists, s/he does not deserve the glorious wo/man you are.” Domestic violence affects everyone, but it hits particularly hard among immigrants, refugees and African Americans, where people feel so powerless in the broader world that they create power over the only people they believe can’t fight back; in a very real sense, our silence is killing people.
Because like the woman says, once a good girl goes bad, “we’re gone forever.” I hope that’s more and more true as this generation of women and men recognizes their self-worth and their safety matter far more than some man’s need to make them think they need him.