The Media on Rihanna: Love Doesn’t Hurt, But Abuse Is Complicated

a man hits you once, he will hit you again. Love doesn’t hurt.” That’s
been Oprah Winfrey’s mantra on domestic violence, and she used it again
last Thursday, when she and guest Tyra Banks devoted an episode of
to “all the Rihannas of the world, and all the Chris Browns.”
They spent the hour giving viewers the lowdown on the teen dating
violence epidemic that now, according to stats used on the show,
affects 1 in 3 young women.

This weekend, the New York Times
also ran an article
(in the Styles section, the perennial ghetto for
female-related features) about why teenage girls are, in shocking
numbers, sympathetic to Brown, an article that delved into silent
social rules about “protecting boys.”

These two examples lie on
the sane end of the media frenzy. But mainstream coverage of domestic
violence needs a stronger emphasis on the way women’s secondary status
in society contributes to this epidemic and our often-misguided
reaction to it.

She can’t just leave

Winfrey and Banks
debunked the idea that abuse victims can up and walk away (as some
high-profile outlets
have done, though not as well as our own Amanda
and Pamela). The “Oprah” episode anatomized several abusive
relationships and the long process of extrication. Stories told by
several guests and by Banks herself, who was in an emotionally abusive
relationship, made it clear that such relationships are complex,
cyclical, and immensely difficult to exit—and that help from family and
friends can only go so far when a victim is thoroughly enmeshed with
her abuser.

They also reminded their viewers not to judge
Rihanna differently because she is a “role model.” They pointed out
that her fame arose from singing, and that, “She is no better or
different than any other girl. She is just as easily pulled into the
cycle of abuse," as Banks said.

There’s No Excuse

in the show, Tyra Banks stated that Chris Brown was a “victim of
circumstance” having grown up in a household with domestic abuse, and
she played a heartrending old tape of Brown on “Tyra” talking about the
violence he witnessed against his mom. But, she said, these revelatory
facts should not in anyway excuse abuse from Brown or other men. She
and Winfrey both told viewers that the only surefire way for men
exposed to violence to break the cycle was through professional help.

high school student, apparently speaking for many, said that she felt
an attack on Rihanna was justified due to a rumor that Rihanna struck
Brown first. Appalled, the two hosts explained the difference between
excessive force and self-defense—and pointed out that not only was that
sort of retaliatory attack wrong, it was illegal.

A feeling of vulnerability

high school girl’s protectiveness towards Brown was no anomaly. Times
writer Jan Hoffman explained the sense of vulnerability that many young
girls feel when the object of their desire is revealed to have another

After all, sweet Chris Breezy — his nickname — even
appeared in a music video with Elmo of “Sesame Street.” Acknowledging
his attack would make them feel vulnerable: How could they have a crush
on someone who could do that? It was less terrifying to blame Rihanna.

revelations turn social conceptions of ideal relationships on their
head.  More than the fact that the cute celebrity may not be so cute,
this incident indicates a problem with our idealization of “perfect”
guys, the kind of guy women are supposed to “catch.” This is the kind
of world-view shattering moment that is often too disruptive to our
norms to comprehend, and that can lead to denial, or to re-focusing on

“Why does he do it?” instead of “Why does she stay?”

endless spotlight on women (both Oprah and the Times’ Style section are
aimed at women) and on Rihanna intertwines with an outcry sparked as
much by her remaining in the relationship than it is by his alleged
abuse. We seem fixated on asking, “Why does she stay?” when we should
ask, “Why does he do it?”

Banks and Winfrey might have
followed up on the idea that abusers need professional help by pointing
out that Brown says he’s been receiving counsel from his family and
. There has been no public pressure for Brown to receive
counseling beyond the standard celebrity “anger management” routine.

that leads into social enabling of abusers. One of the answers to “why
does he do it?” appears easy to find: because he can. Many in the
celebrity/media communities have rallied around Brown as though he is a
high school quarterback in trouble.

Hoffman’s piece explains this phenomenon through a quote from Harvard Professor Marcyliena Morgan:

girls’ willingness to minimize Mr. Brown’s alleged behavior also
reflects a learned social signal… They’ve been taught, she said,
“What really matters is that we don’t destroy boys.” Teenage girls
think that if they speak out against an abuser, the boy’s future will
be shattered, she said.

Brown’s transgression has been downplayed by older fans as well, compared to the pot-smoking Michael Phelps and the pregnant Jamie-Lynn Spears. Furthermore, Brown’s fellow celebrities (and gullible media bystanders) have practically been tripping over each other in their rush to “not judge” Brown—seriously, count the number of big shots who have used that phrase or a similar one. But there has been little such reservation when it comes to judging Rihanna.

Women’s social position beyond “self-esteem”

Rihanna is assaulted on all ends: commanded to leave Brown and simultaneously blamed for provoking his outburst on the other. But she has done nothing of note since the story broke. We can’t be really sure if the couple is back together, as all the tabloid stories have come from his camp or publicity-seekers. If a brouhaha of blame is the reaction to her laying low, how would she be treated for speaking out out?  In a celebrity culture where being a labeled victim on one side (Jennifer Aniston), “outspoken” on another (Angelina Jolie, Susan Sarandon) or the third rail of “troubled” (Whitney Houston, Britney Spears) can stigmatize a woman for her life, Rihanna is in a lose-lose situation.

Banks and Winfrey discussed the personal reasons that abuse persists: the wearing away of self-esteem and the manipulation experienced by victims. But the phrase “self-esteem” ignores the social consequences for women and the light penalties that perpetrators often incur.

Media figures don’t have to use the word “patriarchy” to demonstrate this state of affairs. But it is responsible to point out that women’s view of themselves—and men’s view of women—are a reflection of wider norms rather than some sort of organic self-hate problem that women have.

Despite a lot of abysmal coverage, we can be impressed by the growing number of people in the media who seek to dissolve the false mythology around women’s culpability. The next step is exposing the way gendered double-standards, enabling of male celebrities, and the trivialization of a serious crime as a “scandal” all contribute to the continued tolerance of abuse in our midst.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

Follow Sarah Seltzer on twitter: @sarahmseltzer

  • invalid-0

    Too bad you didn’t continue to expound on the idea of sexism and women’s secondary role in a sexist/racist culture. Not only do we live in a country with a long history of sexism/racism but we live in a world where women’s free labor (71%) of unpaid labor in the global economy with no return for work done. This would have been an ideal way to discuss this historical dilemma, progress made and to change the paradigm of the discussion.

  • invalid-0

    As someone who has worked with young women for a very long time, I was not at all surprised to see young women defend Chris Brown. Oprah may tell us that if he hits you once, he’ll hit you again, but Oprah “forgets” the second part of that mantra. From the standpoint of many young women, guys only hit you when you “deserve it”. That is, if you question their authority, if you wear the wrong dress, if you make them angry for any reason. Through the years, I have seen an increase in acceptance of being not just slapped, but beaten with the explanation of “I asked for it because I did not do what he told me to do”. This attitude is much more pervasive than most adults realize; young women often will not mention it bc adults “just won’t understand”. Besides, young women want to be loved and this kind of attention is “proof” to them that they are loved. I often feel like a lone preacher in the desert trying to explain that this kind of treatment is not healthy and that they need not put up with it. The response is that it’s just how guys are so you have to learn to not piss them off! And btw, this attitude cuts through socio-economic levels. Schools seem to have their hands full and so ignore both this kind of abuse and also bullying until there is a lawsuit. The problem is much larger than most people realize.

  • invalid-0

    I was abused by every boyfriend I had “once.” I knew it was wrong so I dumped them. I believe abuse begins in the home from childhood. This is what I was told by the womens crisis center in my state.( Excellent by the way)
    If a boy or girl grows up in and around violence-verbal or physical, and does not learn how to control and deal with anger, this problem grows larger and carries on into adulthood.
    The main difference with female vs. male physical abuse is 1. men are generally much stronger and can inflict serious injury. 2. Women are capable of abuse to men- but generally do not hurt them physically as much, because men have stronger, larger bones and more muscle to protect the bones.
    Abuse is horrible rgardless of gender but with women having a second class status in society and through the bible,media etc. it seems to have become an acceptable thing. This really has to change because unless one has the strength to break out of the vicious cycle by seeking help, the cycle continues. This has been the case since the beggining of time.

    It takes training and time and the WILL to learn how to deal with anger.
    I wonder how many women and men have been seriously verbally abused. I call that a “silent inner death!”

  • invalid-0

    What needs to be addressed more definitively is this issue of “the cycle” of domestic violence. Currently, it seems we promote the idea that awareness of the cycle is enough to stop abuse and keep women away if they are attacked. It is a surface level approach that offers a “this happens, then that happens” explanation that is doing a disservice to abused women who aren’t being informed on anything more than what they already know.

    This “cycle” concept that we hang on to is supposed to develop an “a-ha” moment, an understanding of the dynamics of abuse, but it warrants a much deeper level approach than this. We need to look at what gives momentum to the cycle itself, the undercurrent that drives the cycle to begin in the first place, for each individual involved. This needs to go well beyond the expected response that abuse may have been in the perpetrator’s family or that the abused woman suffers from low self-esteem.

    Women must start developing a new awareness of what is really going on, and that includes being introspective. I say this in spite of the implication that I’ll appear to be blaming the victim. The truth is, that she is the only one who holds the key and we dis-empower her by treading so carefully around her in trying not to re-victimize her, that we help her stay trapped.

    It’s time we all started seeing abusers for what they really are, men who are incapable of sustaining positive change. They are limited by their personality and unable to make lasting changes because they are disconnected from the pain they cause others. Treatment programs, and certainly marriage counseling, cannot, will not, ever work and only lead women to be manipulated back into danger. It’s time to define a new psychological category for abusers, as this will switch us from reading about what happens in the cycle of domestic violence, to understanding the dynamics below the surface.

  • invalid-0

    in my case I was of the belief that I was not good enough for a “decent man” with me the problem was fear of intimacy. I kept picking men that I knew would be hard to ever be in a real loving committed relationship. I think many but certainly not all women hmay have this problem too. I know that many men have a problem with intimacy. it goes back to bonding with an early caregiver. In my case it was because I was adopted at six weeks of age.
    It really does pay to do soul searching for a fulfilling life. I am also aware that I have not solved my problem of trust and so have been a non-dater for over 9 years. Alone but happy and at peace.

  • invalid-0

    I forgot to mention above. It takes two WHOLE people to get a long lasting peaceful relationship to work. In other words a “half person” or someone who feels empty, or not right with themselves, is not going to get better by marrying or dating someone else who is a “half person.” If one is half and the other is whole the whole one will have an extra burden to carry, although if they are strong enough they may be able to handle it. It will be a strained relationship. Humans are so complicated. It takes years to cleanse the toxic self. It is so worth it.

  • sarah-seltzer

    Thanks for all your thoughtful comments! I really feel as though this conversation always happens after a tragic incident, which is unfortunate. It’s important to start thinking proactively about the language and ideas we use and how we can help guide the conversation on DV, and hopefully begin to see real change.

  • invalid-0

    “We live in a country with a long history of racism/sexism”. Well, I couldn’t argue with that but I would love to hear of a county that doesn’t have that same history. It’s past time to move beyond the past. It just doesn’t do anybody much solid good in the present.

  • invalid-0

    Ignoring issues as important as racism and sexism does not make them go away. Both racism and sexism is alive and well today. If we do not discuss this issues no one will learn anything. Ignorance is a big problem too!

  • invalid-0

    Laws do not protect women/girls–and it is even worse if they are married. My ex son -in- law beat my daughter numerous times– she was discouraged from filing charges–after they were divorced he beat his girlfriend and he went to prison (though since they found drugs/guns in his possession that may be why they actually pressed charges). Since he has been out of prison, he harasses my daughter regularly, took their son from her and NO ONE will help her. Everyone tells her to get an attorney–she nor I have the several thousand dollars that any attorney wants to even start a case–Legal Aid will not take domestic cases. I am so afraid that my daughter and grand kids will be the next headlines when he goes crazy and kills them all. Everyone gets so upset when children are murdered and ask how this happened–but then ignore the fact that there is no help for many women and children.The state she is in considers fathers rights to be more important than children or womens safety.

  • invalid-0

    Law center? I don’t know for sure if they can help you but they may be able to find help. I really sympathize with what you are going through. They should make violence against women and children a Hate crime. Then it would carry much more weight. A stiffer sentence. I say lock them up and throw away the key.