Cover Girl or Bad Girl: How the Media Blew the Rihanna Story
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.
"He allegedly bruised and battered her, and yet she took him back," crowed an article on People's Web site. "And now, could she get him off the hook?"
An LA Times entertainment blog sneered, "Rihanna is in Mexico working on … her tan? Wait, how come she's not cooperating with law officials in the recent alleged assault?"
On the CNN show, Showbiz Tonight, host A.J. Hammers reported on a "Rihanna backlash" that entailed fans "clearing their iPods of Rihanna's music, kids ripping her posters off their walls." He wondered incredulously if it was possible she just wasn't aware of her fans' reactions, as if her decision to return to Brown rested solely on a faulty assessment of her public image.
Hammers' guest, Lisa Bloom, a lawyer and television personality, intoned that "She's chosen to be a megastar, so she enjoys all the fame and fortune that comes along with it. Unfortunately, she has not chosen to be a role model for young girls. So she has to accept this backlash," and went on to say that the backlash was proof "… that the women's movement has arrived."
As a young, famous woman celebrated as much for her looks as her singing career, Rihanna occupied a specific place in the public's eye. She carefully straddled a line between being sexy but not too sexy. Her boyfriend, Brown, has been described as "squeaky-clean." They were both nominated for Nickelodeon Kid's Choice awards this year.
The allegations of abuse shattered a comfortable fantasy the public enjoyed about Rihanna's life. Once the perfect image had been sullied, the public hoped she would slip easily into another fantasy: the one where she left Brown and never looked back, spoke out openly against domestic violence and assumed the role of a wounded but prideful figurehead.
When she failed to leap from one pedestal to the other, there was no room in the media to tell a story about domestic abuse that acknowledged the inherent messiness of such a relationship. Rihanna was stupid for taking him back. Rihanna was vacationing in Mexico, when she should have been making tearful appearances on daytime TV shows.
Almost as much as the public likes to be reassured that issues like domestic violence can be solved in hourlong specials, they love to watch a pretty girl fall. Lindsay and Brittney are ample proof of that.
Although Rihanna can't be labeled a substance abuser, or a substance abuser and a bad mother, she committed the same crime: she was a Good Girl, and now she's a Bad Girl. (And certainly not a Cover Girl.) Conveniently, this allows the media to heap any blame for failing to further the dialogue about domestic violence on the victim. She's sending the wrong idea to young girls. She's condoning the behavior of abusive partners.
But 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.
Victims should speak out, but only if they are ready to leave their partner and, better still, engage in legal retaliation. This of course, ignores the fact that many women suffer the same kind of revictimization in court that Rihanna is currently suffering at the hands of the press.
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.
An editorial in the New York Daily News boasts the headline: "The Beat Goes On: Rihanna can teach valuable lessons to domestic abuse victims." It's right on both counts.