The Soapbox: On Chris Brown & Why We Must Take Domestic Violence More Seriously

A recent segment on NPR about the rehabilitation of Chris Brown’s career is cause for alarm.  No, not because we should care about Chris Brown’s career as a pop singer — but because his young (mostly female) fans, as fervent as ever, continue to support him not only as an artist but as a person. 

After his brutal beating of his then girlfriend Rihanna in 2009, one would hope that young people would place responsibility for the violence squarely on Chris Brown. But that’s not the case. Brown’s young, female fans, who continue to support him, blamed Rihanna then and still blame her now for the violence he inflicted upon her. One young fan interviewed by NPR outside of one of Brown’s recent concerts said of the incident, “Obviously she played a part in getting beat, or whatever … However you want to put it.”

Chris Brown’s career longevity in spite of this crime is related to two factors. One is that Chris Brown is a very talented entertainer (if his style of music/dancing is your thing) and his fans never stopped being Chris Brown fans.  But more importantly, his young teenage fans have internalized much of the wrong lessons represented in what we feminists like to call “rape culture,” in which women are blamed for the violence perpetuated against them. (I like to call this “the victim blaming machine.”) We see victim-blaming culture in action in how so many fans never actually blamed Chris for what he did and did not stop supporting him.

In order to understand why young people can remain supportive of celebrities who do such god-awful things, one has to understand the greater victim-blaming rape culture we all live in.  When a woman or a man is victimized, instead of the public looking at the person responsible, and analyzing their behavior, the victim’s actions are instead the focus of harsh scrutiny: “What did she say to make him so angry?” “Did she hit him first?” “Did she deserve to be victimized?”  “Rihanna should have avoided doing whatever it is she did to make him do that.”  Why do people think this way? Because we think, If I avoid doing the things Rihanna did then I can make certain to never become a victim.

These are all the wrong questions. What the victim did is irrelevant when considerations are being made about whether the perpetrator of violence should be blamed and take responsibility for their actions.  When someone is beaten up by their significant other, there is no one to blame but the person who did the beating. And no, it is still not OK for a man to hit a woman who hit him first. 

Unless that woman punches like Mike Tyson (who, I should add, is himself a reformed domestic abuser) a man who responds to violence with violence is making an independent choice to do so. Can he defend himself from real danger? Of course.  But he cannot beat a woman to a bloody pulp and choke her until she is unconscious, as Rihanna was, because he gets smacked.  A woman who hits a man and who is beat up as a result is only responsible for hitting the man — not the beating that followed.  The man is responsible for the ensuing beating. In sum, everyone is responsible for their own acts of violence and therefore everyone should keep their hands to themselves.

What’s most disturbing about the lessons which I’ve outlined above is that they are not being properly communicated to our young people.  According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, nearly one in five American women and one in 10 men will be victims of domestic violence in their lifetimes.   It’s not difficult to see how these unnerving statistics exist when you consider how young men and young women (like the one quoted in the NPR piece) believe that a woman who is assaulted by her significant other must have done something to cause the attack.  

That wrongheaded messaging must end. When young people are taught unhealthy lessons about love, passion, and romance or feel that when a boyfriend gets so angry he’s beating you up and that must mean he cares, we are in real trouble.

And Chris Brown topping the charts is only a reminder that we have a lot of work to do.

Zerlina Maxwell is a contributer to