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Chris Brown in Film Adaptation of Steve Harvey’s 'Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.' Say What?

Brown and Harvey's collaboration suggests a subtle, if indirect, relationship between the dating advice industry and intimate partner violence.
 
 
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“This can’t be real life,” a friend of mine wrote on Facebook when posting the news announced last week that Chris Brown would be co-starring in the upcoming relationship advice book-turned-romantic comedy penned by Steve Harvey, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man. Think Like a Man, the movie, is set to be released in the spring of 2012 and will trace the lives of four women whose dating lives are transformed after reading the “straight no chaser” advice in Harvey’s book.

It is hard to believe. Chris Brown is the pop singer who in 2009 beat and strangled his then-girlfriend, mega pop star Rihanna, within an inch of her life. When asked about the incident on "Good Morning America" in March of this year he had a meltdown and has since shown us no real sign of rehabilitation from his history of anger issues. Is he really the most responsible choice for a movie about what women don’t understand about men?

You can probably already guess the answer. Brown co-starring in Steve Harvey’s book-turned-film is worse than the makings of a potentially painful to watch rom-com—it suggests a subtle, if indirect, relationship between seemingly well-intentioned dating advice and the epidemic of intimate partner violence.

Most popular dating advice books, such as Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man or Greg Berhendt’s He’s Just Not That Into You (another advice book gone rom-com) are tragically outdated. They obviously do not condone violence against women, but they do rely on antiquated ideas of gender and unrealistic expectations of behavior. Often the advice is just downright mean, lacking the compassion or nuance needed to address common romantic miscommunications. And most deceptively, the advice often disguises itself as the path to liberation for women in their romantic lives and as a result this type of dating advice is a multi-billion-dollar cottage industry.

Harvey went from being a lifelong comedian and radio personality to a "relationship expert." In 2009 he penned his manhood manifesto, marketed as a groundbreaking no-bull testimonial about what women don’t understand about having romantic relationships with men. His message is as simple as his characterization of men—men are simple creatures and they all think the same, so stop trying to understand them and change your behavior.

If Harvey were asked directly if he thought what Brown did was OK, I’m sure he would most likely say, “absolutely not.” But, it is not much of a surprise that he is an ardent supporter of the unofficial “forgive Chris Brown” campaign, stating on Twitter how proud he is of Brown’s newfound maturity. Harvey himself is no stranger to relationship drama. He has divorced three times, with a rather troublesome third divorce that included pending emotional abuse charges. He is now on his fourth marriage—the one he claims reformed him. Although he tells us that men are simple, his self-disclosed evolution from immature, neglectful husband to caring and supportive spouse sounds profoundly complex to any objective onlooker.

The supposed simplicity of Harvey’s proposal made it an instant bestseller. His thesis plays effectively off of the war between the sexes; it reconsolidates popular ideas about male and female desire and reduces the cultural forces that make us who we are to the individual choices we make—a very effective strategy in the self-help industry. The film purports a similar message. Yet the unintentional message being sent to women by casting the unreformed, un-rehabilitated and frankly unrepentant Brown is that men should be forgiven for their gravest transgressions -- after all, they are just being men. 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t forgive people, I’m just saying we should think more about the cultural forces that want us to forgive Chris Brown so quickly.

The reality of intimate partner violence doesn’t exactly make good fodder for the fluffy idealism of romantic comedies. Intimate partner violence is an epidemic. Although overall rates of IPV have gone down in the last 20 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control, each year women suffer about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes, while men are the victims of about 2.9 million incidences of violence. It is well established in psychology that violence is a cycle, a much deeper problem than a "mistake” or a “bad apple.” Intimate partner violence is scaffolded by a culture that believes men and women have innate and distinct characteristics that lead them to behave in certain ways. Unfortunately, the most popular books on dating perpetuate these same ideas about gender and romance.

This suggests a strong relationship between dating advice that relies on old adages about “men being from Mars and women being from Venus” and really problematic behavior from men toward women because ladies, “that’s just the way he is.” Dating advice like Harvey’s sets up a paradigm in which women are blamed for their relationship problems because they don’t understand the men they are trying to love. It may not be directly causing the violence, but it sets up a cultural framework that allows for it to happen.

If Harvey’s message is to help women, then there should have been great pause in choosing Chris Brown to co-star in his film. Someone who has not demonstrated an effective ability to manage his own behavior when it comes to his intimate partnerships should not be the best choice to star in a movie that is supposed to help women make better choices when it comes to men. Unless Brown is going to play the male character you should never ever date or take back, choosing him to co-star in the movie is not just insensitive, it is downright irresponsible.

It may sound as though I am being too severe. After all, dating advice is trying to help women, right? And some of the advice is not completely terrible. For example, telling a woman to move on when she is getting the runaround and wants something more is good advice. But that advice is much less effective when operating within a culture embedded with narrow assumptions about gender. Suggesting men always have to act like “men,” furthers ideas that men should be tough, unemotional and insensitive when it comes to dating. If the burden is put on women to act better, then it is a slippery slope to allowing unacceptable behaviors from men because they are just "being men."

I can see how it is easier to believe what Steve Harvey is saying is true about men and women. The alternatives to the “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” story are destabilizing and call into question the very way we understand sexuality and gender. It pushes us into the unknown murky terrain where women are independent and don’t always want to get married and men (gasp) have feelings, needs and room for improvement. It appears that our lore around romance doesn’t add up to the realty of romance today.

Perhaps Harvey thinks that women should be more forgiving. He has said in multiple different outlets that he thinks women (specifically educated black women) have gotten too picky when it comes to dating. I would argue that given the statistics of unhappy relationships, emotional and physical abuse, and divorce rates, it seems we, as people, aren’t picky enough about our romantic partners. Dating, like people, is much more complicated than black and white assumptions about a range of experiences.

But as much as we may know these things to be true, what is portrayed in the mainstream media impacts how we perceive our own realities. What Chris Brown did was not just wrong on an interpersonal level, but demonstrative of a culture of violence against women. Casting him in Harvey’s film sends an indirect message that it is OK to engage in severe acts of violence against a woman, and if anything, you will continue to be rewarded for it.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay is the executive editor of Feministing.com and the author of the forthcoming book Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life.
 
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