Doubtless by now there's nary a soul living in the continental United States who isn't at least vaguely aware of what happened early Sunday morning between singer Rihanna and her boyfriend Chris Brown. And though the details may still be somewhat sketchy, what is known for certain is that, shortly after leaving Clive Davis' pre-Grammy party late Saturday night, Brown and Rihanna fought in Brown's rented Lamborghini in L.A.'s Hancock Park neighborhood, and police were called by a person in the area who heard Rihanna's screams. Comparing various reports about the altercation, it's clear that the injuries Rihanna sustained at Brown's hands were significant and serious -- contusions, bite wounds, black eyes and bruising have been mentioned in almost every noteworthy report -- and that Brown both threatened to kill Rihanna and choked her into an unconscious state. But as the days pass what's also becoming clear is that Rihanna may not be cooperating fully with authorities, and may also be reluctant to press charges against Brown. And, like many of you I'm sure, hearing that makes me profoundly, profoundly sad.
Let me state up front that I don't think any woman should ever be forced to press charges against her abuser, whether he's a boyfriend or husband or some other sort of relation. I am very much aware that domestic violence is a profoundly complex, highly charged, incredibly sensitive subject, and that each instance of abuse is unique and individual, and probably only completely understood by the woman going through it. Why women stay in abusive relationships, why women protect and refuse to prosecute men who would hurt them... honestly, I do get it. Beyond emotional attachment, there are often other financial, legal, and child-custody matters that lead women to feel they have to or should stay with their abuser, that lead them to feel they are trapped, alone, helpless, without support or options. I feel deeply for these women, and have an enormous amount of empathy for their plight. I also understand that abused and disempowered women may feel having to stand up publicly and testify against their abuser -- particularly if they don't have the personal support or resources to carry them through such an emotionally wrenching experience -- would simply prolong the trauma for them, and would prefer to simply put all of it behind them, to quietly move on and past the horrors they've endured. Again, these women have my deepest, most sincere sympathy.
However, these women are not Rihanna.
And though I don't pretend to know intimate details about who Rihanna is as a personality -- what constitutes her persona or identity or her sense of self -- there are many things I do know about her that set her apart from most all other women on planet earth, and would -- were I in the position to do so as a friend, confidant, or advisor -- compel me to urge her to not suffer the violence she's endured silently or without pursuing legal action. In brief:
1. RESOURCES. Rihanna has a staggering array of financial and legal resources at her disposal that most women could and would never have access to. Her position in the music industry as a multi-platinum, Grammy-winning, number-one-single hitmaker puts her in an incredibly privileged position even among the elite of that industry, and there is little question that she would have access to the best legal counsel available and receive additional support from her label and the greater music community.
2. SUPPORT. Rihanna has a literal army of supporters, and is already being inundated with emotional encouragement and offers of help. Fans have been filling her MySpace page with words of support. Radio stations have been pulling Brown's music from their on-air rotation and even staging protests against him in support of her. Former Def-Jam President, mentor, and close friend Jay-Z is said to be enraged over the incident: "'He hit the roof,' a source close to [Jay-Z] told Us Weekly. 'Chris is a walking dead man. He messed with the wrong crew.'" (For the record, I'm not suggesting Chris Brown deserves to be murdered (or threatened, for that matter), but rather mean to demonstrate the powerful feelings of loyalty and protectiveness friends feel for the singer.) Even professional wackadoo Kanye West has publicly professed his allegiance to Rihanna, saying on Ryan Seacrest's radio show Tuesday: "I feel like that's my baby sis and I would do any and everything to help her in any situation."
3. INDEPENDENCE. Rihanna is free of any legal, financial, or custodial ties to Brown that might serve as an impediment to pursuing legal action. The pair are not married or engaged, they do not live together or own property jointly, their finances are wholly separate and disentangled, and they do not have children together.
4. BEING A ROLE MODEL. While I would never suggest Rihanna has a responsibility as a public figure to do anything for the sake of being a role model for others, the reality is that she is in a unique position to shed light on the issue of domestic violence in a massive and globally-influencing way, and as a public figure admired by girls and other young women could set a powerful example regarding women's rights, self-respect, and self-empowerment. It's clear from Rihanna's charitable work -- including her Believe Foundation, whose goal is to "inspire and protect children in need all over the world" -- that she has a social conscience and sees her celebrity as providing her with the means and ability to help others. Perhaps her current unfortunate situation could provide her with her greatest opportunity to be a force for positive change in the world. I'm sure it isn't a situation she ever thought she'd be in, but with the eyes of the media upon her now, she could conceivably fashion something good from the awfulness that's befallen her.
Of course I realize that the wildcard in all of this is the state of Rihanna's feelings for Brown, which only she can know. Love can be a consuming, reality-altering thing, a thing that can blind someone to reason. But whether she decides to pursue legal action against Chris Brown or not, I hope Rihanna's friends and family give her the strength she'll need to not return to that relationship. There is no amount of apologizing that can compensate for the marks and bruises he inflicted on her, no proclamations of love that make violence something that she -- or any woman -- should ever accept.
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