It’s a throwaway moment in a lighthearted interview about a lighthearted movie: Chatting with Time about their animated alien-invasion movie Home, Jim Parsons, Rihanna, and Steve Martin (how’s that for a random combination of celebrity names that also happens to be a real-life cast?) are asked about their favorite animated films growing up. Steve Martin, being the oldest and also great, picks Peter Pan. And then Rihanna says she “fell in love with the Beast… That’s pretty much my dating record so far” — dropping an apparent reference to her relationship with Chris Brown before laughing it off.
It’s been more than six years since Brown was charged with assault, and two years since the couple reunited, much to the public’s horror. (They split later in the year; the rumors that the singer is now dating Leonardo DiCaprio may or may not be true, but they do give the world the portmanteau RihCaprio.) Rihanna’s relationship with Brown may be over, but for a generation more familiar with the infamous TMZ photos of her than the sagas of Ike and Tina Turner or Madonna and Sean Penn, she remains the most prominent celebrity survivor of intimate partner violence.
Which is why, casual as Rihanna’s reference to that violence was, it still acts as a corrective to one of the most irritating, pernicious narratives surrounding domestic abuse: that the survivor is unaware of what’s happened to them, both as an individual and as part of a problem that’s far, far more widespread than it should be. It’s a myth that’s affected Rihanna’s image in particular, perhaps because the public has watched her go through the stages of her relationship with Brown in real time — including leaving and then reuniting with her abuser, an extremely common occurrence that happens an average of seven times over the course of a violent relationship.
Being part of a pattern, however, doesn’t mean that domestic abuse survivors aren’t aware of that pattern, or that awareness would put an end to the violence; were that the case, it’s doubtful that over a third of women and a quarter of men in the US would continue to experience IPV each year. That’s what makes domestic violence, like any number of social ills, a systemic problem. It traps individuals in a system of factors beyond their control, and holding individuals responsible for those factors is a tactic doomed from the start.
In the case of domestic violence, Michelle Bernard wrote for the Washington Post in January 2013 on the occasion of Rihanna and Brown’s reunion, those factors include, but are not limited to, “Stigma, not wanting to be associated with domestic violence, fear of losing social stature, cultural beliefs that physical abuse is a normal part of being in a relationship, and romanticizing what your relationship used to be versus what it actually is and whatever is actually going on internally with the individual who has been victimized that leads them to stay (or go back to an abuser)…”
Like most deeply ingrained cultural beliefs, the social mores and thought patterns that lead to, then enable domestic violence aren’t easily changed. The misconception that abuse can be stopped simply by the realization that one is being or has been abused, however, remains. And that misconception inevitably leads to a view of survivors that robs them of their agency: that staying with or returning to an abuser is simply a matter of ignorance, and therefore at least partly on the victim’s shoulders.
Except it’s not. Rihanna, and millions like her, is perfectly aware that Chris Brown is bad news. She said as much in her 2009 20/20 interview immediately following the photos’ release, and just as her words weren’t invalidated by her decision to resume the relationship two years ago, they deserve to be part of her image now. Rihanna is not in denial about her past. Neither is any survivor. And she deserves not to be patronized as if she is.