“Bang, zoom, straight to the moon!” Ralph Kramden, Jackie Gleason’s character on The Honeymooners liked to use this threat when he grew frustrated with his wife to remind her that the force of his punches could propel her into outer space. I, like most of us, want to believe that Americans’ attitudes toward domestic violence have come a long way since audiences laughed at this oft-repeated line from the popular 1950s sitcom. After all, domestic abuse would never be accepted as comedic fodder on today’s network television programs. Just because we no longer laugh openly at the idea of a man hitting his wife however, doesn’t mean the way we think of domestic abuse in 2009 is necessarily healthy. If the weeks since last month’s alleged domestic dispute between pop stars Chris Brown and Rihanna have proved anything to me, it’s that attitudes toward domestic abuse are not as evolved as I’d once hoped, particularly among youth.
As the official LAPD affidavit shows, what transpired between Brown and Rihanna in the early hours of February 8 was violent, gruesome and extremely disturbing. No less disturbing were the subsequent reactions to this dispute, especially the reactions of teenagers. In a recent survey of youth ages 12 to 19 conducted by the Boston Public Health Commission, 46% said Rihanna was the one responsible for the incident, despite having been beaten badly enough to require hospital treatment. In the article “Teenage Girls Stand by Their Man,” a New York Times reporter spoke with teenagers whose views reflected the Health Commission’s survey results. “She probably made him mad for him to react like that,” a ninth grade girl is quoted as saying, referring to Rihanna and Brown. “You know, like, bring it on?”
While it’s understandable that young teenagers–especially fans–are shocked at Brown’s behavior along with the rest of the public, their quickness to defend his actions is alarming. Such reactions are precisely what make the Brown incident a “teachable moment,” as Oprah is calling it. Prompted by what transpired between Brown and Rihanna, Oprah devoted an episode of her show to domestic violence earlier this month and invited Tyra Banks to co-host with her. Banks hit the nail on the head: “There’s no excuse for a man to put his hands on a woman, ever, ever, ever.” (Or someone of any gender to put their hands on their partner, for that matter.) This is exactly the message that should be , but is apparently not, explained and repeated to all children from a very young age.
Though abusive relationships are complicated and unfortunately common (1 in 3 teenagers report knowing a friend or peer who has been hurt by their partner), violence in a relationship should never be mistaken as acceptable. Though this may seem blindingly obvious to the vast majority of people, especially students at hyper politically correct campuses like Wesleyan, it’s clear that it’s not so obvious to everyone. What the teens surveyed in Boston, the ones quoted in the Times piece and those still debating the incident on blogs and social networking sites have failed to recognize is this: What Chris Brown did to Rihanna is not okay and not her fault, period.
To be sure, there is no value in demonizing Brown. Abusers need help and support every bit as much as their victims do. Brown is not evil or a lost cause; he’s a talented 19-year-old kid who messed up big time and is now having his mistakes broadcast to millions. I’m just hoping that when Brown arrives at court for his April 6 arraignment, he won’t be the only one who has learned an important lesson about the realities of domestic abuse.