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

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

The bright-eyed girl, like half of the students in the room, knows someone who has been battered: in this case, her mother. The girl, who was supposed to be sleeping, was awakened by a noise and found her mother and a then-boyfriend throwing punches all the way to the front door. Eventually, her mom kicked him out. "I think it's a woman's responsibility," the girl says now. "If she has to, she can fight back." Perhaps taking her cue from the grown-ups around her, this kind of backlash may be contributing to why countless other teens and women are suffering in silence.

"It's easier to blame the victim because it gives us a sense of control over our own lives," writes Pamela Shifman, Director of Initiatives for Women and Girls at the NoVo Foundation, in an e-mail. "Otherwise, we'd have to confront the fact that we, too, could be victims (which, of course, is true)." Or worse, we can find ourselves—or mothers, daughters, and friends—reduced to a sensational headline on the evening news. But on the flipside, adds Shifman, "It's also important to note that there are some men . . . like A Call to Men (acalltomen.org), for example, who are using this as an opportunity to reach young people to say that violence against girls and women is unacceptable, and that men need to take responsibility to end this violence."

Another question: So, how many of you ladies and gentlemen still listen to Chris Brown and Rihanna? The boys squirm in their seats—they don't care. But on the other side of the room, every girl save two raised their hands when asked about Brown, and waived their option to vote when asked about Rihanna. "You can't judge a person's personality, because we don't really know Chris Brown—he's just a singer," says the eighth-grader who had earlier blamed Rihanna for provoking the attack. "Chris Brown could have done this one thing and could be a really nice person." Another seventh-grader, who listened throughout without saying a word but often shook her head disapprovingly, breaks her silence: "I think a lot of girls that liked Rihanna before—all of a sudden after this happened to them, they don't like her anymore, because they say she provoked him. It doesn't matter what happened. It shouldn't change how you feel about him or her."

Author and cultural critic Joan Morgan, who coined the term "hip-hop feminism," remembers a pivotal moment in 1991, when women in the entertainment industry—led by the pre-eminent fashion model, agent, and activist Bethann Hardison—came together to support one of their own, rallying around rapper and Pump It Up host Denise "Dee" Barnes, who was very publicly and viciously assaulted by super-producer and then-N.W.A. member Dr. Dre at a record-release party while a bodyguard reportedly held off the crowd. (Dre eventually settled out of court.) "It was really a rallying cry for many people," Morgan says now. "And it really started to plant what became a very directly feminist commitment to analyzing hip-hop."

Since, we've moved into a viral world without boundaries, where more voices are heard, raw and uncensored, because of the anonymity the Web offers. And now, nearly two decades later, the conversation about misogyny among young people, hip-hop culture, and society in general needs to address another very real facet: the hatred of women by women. "By definition, misogyny is about the hatred of women. It's not gender-specific," says Morgan, who saw gender-trumping violence when covering the Mike Tyson rape trial for the Voice in '91. "So there are men who hate women, and other women who hate women." The teenage girls' unconditional, sometimes puzzling support of Chris Brown isn't necessarily misogynistic; their acrimonious contempt for Rihanna—their hatred—is.

One thing is clear: Educators must incorporate the issue of gender violence into the curriculum on a national scale, because many families are finding it difficult to talk about it at home. "Only two states, Texas and Rhode Island, have mandated educational programs around relationship abuse," says Mendez Berry. "But I think it's clear that young people really need to learn how to have healthy relationships and how to resolve conflict in a constructive way."

Not all the kids before me today think Brown was justified. "I disagree with the fact that she provoked him, because when you say 'provoke,' to me, that means he had a reason to hit her," says an eighth-grade Latina. "I don't think that's fair." That this opinion puts her in the minority is a major crisis. For everybody.

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