Another Love TKO: Teens Grapple with Rihanna vs. Chris Brown

An unsettling conversation, to oft-disturbing and potentially lasting effect

It's hard to tell, but maybe she's pursing her lips at me. Or, like any other eighth-grader, maybe she's just irritated about having to spend a whole period with a bunch of seventh-graders—and in an advisory class, no less. After all, what's left to talk about, especially after the fact? There are so many other things a 13-year-old would rather be doing with her time, like tomorrow's homework, or daydreaming, or whatever.

But this Monday morning, at the Talented and Gifted School for Young Scholars in Spanish Harlem, we're going to harp—like it or not—on a subject these kids are way, way over: gender violence against women and girls. And so the bell rings. The kids shuffle in from noisy hallways. And the eye-rolling begins.

Many of these students aren't grasping why we're still riding the Rihanna-and-Chris-Brown drama so hard, more than a month after the "alleged" assault. This isn't an isolated case, or even solely a celebrity drama about the 21-year-old pop princess and her 19-year-old American-idol boyfriend, whose Grammy-eve brawl in Los Angeles resulted in two felony charges against him: It's bigger than tabloid fodder or the countless myths and speculations surrounding the incident. (Brown will be arraigned April 6.) And it has everything to do with these roughly 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls who are about to enter a danger zone: According to DoSomething.org, a New York City–based nonprofit organization, one in three teens will become victims of relationship violence.

Seven boys have filed to one side of the room; 16 girls are huddled on the other. OK, I have a question as serious as cancer: Did Rihanna provoke Chris Brown? The boys are deadpan. And by the looks of it, the girl who was pursing her lips has something to vent, and she does: "All we see is, 'Oh, Chris Brown beat Rihanna up, so she must be so innocent,' " she snaps. "But she must have done something to make him mad." Some of the kids nod in agreement. "My mom told me that we really don't know what happened because we weren't there," she continues. "But as far as I know, she went back to him, so that's her problem."

The girl—whose identity, along with her classmates', is being withheld at the request of the school's principal—is hardly anomalous in her train of thought. Peruse almost any blog or major media outlet that's following the battery case, and chances are that you'll come across postings that zealously defend Brown while squarely placing the blame on Rihanna's shoulders. One such comment, from a teenager—her MTV user profile lists her as being from Washington, D.C.—insists that Rihanna "wasn't beaten to a pulp. The phrase means to beat someone until they are seriously injured and disfigured." The post-attack photo of the singer's battered face, plastered across the Internet by TMZ, evidently didn't suggest she was "seriously injured." The commenter continues, "Someone needs to sit her little tail down and tell her, 'Yes, it's a bad situation that you were abused, but you need to understand it's not OK for you to think you can control and abuse a male with no consequences.' "

An overwhelming majority of the kids here agree: In a class of 23 mostly Latino and African-American students, all but three girls think that Rihanna provoked the beatdown. And once it was rumored that she got back together with Brown after a jaunt at Sean Combs's Miami manse, the critical backlash against the Cover Girl was especially harsh, especially in the case of many of these children's parents. A seventh-grader of African-American and Latino descent slowly raises her hand. "My dad said she's a loser and retarded for going back to him," she says, almost hesitantly. Another bright-eyed seventh-grader chimes in, at lightning speed: "If they want to be, then they are on their own. They decided to go down there together to work it out because—and they did, so it's not Diddy's responsibility if Chris Brown were to beat her again because everybody has their instincts, and if hers is to go and work it out—and it did work out, so . . ."

"We live in a society that reinforces violence as the way to handle conflict, from the government to the schoolyard," says Elizabeth Mendez Berry, a New York City–based journalist who wrote "Love Hurts," an award-winning 2005 Vibe feature about domestic violence in the hip-hop industry. "You might disagree with [Rihanna's] choice, but that doesn't excuse his. I think women are often socialized to empathize more with men than with other women."

Furthermore, it's a pandemic every woman will have to grapple with at some point in her lifetime, regardless of race or class. However, the economy does intersect. According to the Department of Justice, females living in households with lower annual incomes experienced the highest average annual rates of intimate-partner violence in the U.S. If this statistic holds true in the forthcoming years, violence against women will only escalate as Americans (and the rest of the world) continue to be weighed down by economic hardship.

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