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.

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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