Cover Girl or Bad Girl: How the Media Blew the Rihanna Story
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When news broke that 19-year-old R&B artist Chris Brown had been arrested by Los Angeles police Feb. 8 for allegedly attacking a woman in his car, the saga that unfolded was as predictable as a track on Billboard's Top 10.
As speculated, the woman was revealed to be his pop-star girlfriend, Rihanna. On Feb. 19, a photograph of the star's face covered in bruises was leaked and posted on gossip site TMZ.com and then reproduced across the Web. And the media frenzy that followed was predictably crass.
When Jane Velez-Mitchell writes on CNN.com, "Unfortunately, despite her incredible looks and talent, I think she is now the poster child for battered woman's syndrome," she neatly sums up one of the most maddening angles that much of the coverage adopted: Who would expect the poster child of battered women's syndrome to have such "incredible looks?" Domestic abuse, Velez-Mitchell intimates, is one of those hardships visited upon the less shiny.
Not surprisingly, the fact that Rihanna is the pitchwoman for Cover Girl cosmetics has not escaped attention. A segment on NBC's Today Show was introduced thusly: "Young, talented and beautiful pop star Rihanna is at the top of the music charts. The 21-year-old is the face of Cover Girl cosmetics, but this bruised and battered picture of Rihanna has replaced her glamour girl image ..."
The leaked photo presented a perfect contrast to the airbrushed perfection of the star's manufactured image, and the claustrophobic conventions of both Hollywood and mainstream media demanded she be one or the other -- glamour girl or victim -- with no room in between. The difference being, of course, that in order to become a Cover Girl, Rihanna electively signed a contract and received a paycheck.
Tracey Ford, the editor of AOL Music's hip-hop/R&B site, TheBoombox.com, stated in an Associated Press article parsing the effects the incident may have on Brown and Rihanna's careers, "It might actually help Rihanna, to a certain extent. … She's definitely being viewed as the victim at this point."
Unfortunately for Rihanna, there are only a few acceptable ways to be a victim in the public spotlight. When she reconciled with Brown and was confirmed to be vacationing with him in Miami, the media quickly began to wonder if she even deserved the role of Poster Child for Battered Women's Syndrome. So much for the "help."
Interviewed for a USA Today article, Entertainment Weekly music writer Margeaux Watson mused, "She's supposed to be a role model, and that isn't role-model behavior. It goes counter to everything young girls are raised to do and believe. If I'm an executive, I would have to reconsider whether she's the proper spokesperson for my brand."
Washington Post blogger Liz Kelly expressed disappointment that Rihanna had failed to travel the trajectory that she predicted:
Rihanna, the bigger star of the two anyway, was the victim, and conventional wisdom plotted her next moves as: Get help and recover, do the big interview with Oprah or Barbara Walters and, ultimately, become a powerful voice for domestic-abuse awareness. Instead, Rihanna defied logic over the weekend by reuniting with Brown. And no matter how confusing that is for me, I cringe to think of the mixed message it could be sending to other young people in similar circumstances.
It would be a comfort to live in a world where something like "become a powerful voice for domestic-abuse awareness" had a place on bulleted to-do list.
Rihanna's reunion with Brown did not simply mean she had lost sympathy; it opened her up for blame.