Essay first published in Newsday.
Within minutes of singer Chris Brown’s appearance on the 2012 Grammy Awards – as he moved liquidly to his new single, “Turn Up the Music” – the phrases #womanbeater and #chrisbrownbeatswomen began trending worldwide on Twitter.
What that means is that people with Twitter accounts sent those phrases to their followers, in enough numbers that they showed up on every Twitter user’s home page.
To achieve “trending” was a victory for those who wanted to protest Brown’s appearance on stage. They said his brutality three years earlier should have disqualified him from a Grammy platform; he performed twice during the show – clearly a favorite of the show’s producers.
On the eve of the 2009 Grammys, news broke about Brown beating his then-girlfriend and fellow pop star, Rihanna. The images of her beautiful, badly bruised face were heart-rending. The incident would later lead to felony assault charges for Brown, to which he pleaded guilty and accepted a sentence of community service, probation and counseling – a light-seeming sentence.
At the 2012 awards show, Brown won his first Grammy, for best R&B album. Afterward, the 22-year-old took to Twitter to tell off his critics: “Hate all u want becuz I got a Grammy now! That’s the ultimate — off!”
But Brown’s was not the most disturbing reaction of the night. That came from at least 25 women on Twitter: “chris brown can punch me whenever he wants.” And, “chris brown can beat me all he wants … I’d do anything to have him, oh my.”
This is really disturbing. Could these women really understand what they are saying? Could they have been in abusive relationships before and are volunteering for more? That seems unlikely. More probably, they are making the age-old mistake of confusing emotional intensity with love, and passion.
But the problem with that, of course, is that it seldom ends with one blow. U.S. government statistics from 1976-2005 state that 30 percent of all the murders of women are the result of “intimate partner violence.” And what doesn’t kill women – or men – in abusive relationships, can cripple them for life. Think of Whitney Houston, recently dead of an assumed drug overdose, who became hooked on drugs during an allegedly abusive 15-year marriage. Abuse, drugs, self-loathing – they can be a toxic mix.
Before the tweets from these young women, we could fool ourselves into believing that they had more self-respect. At one time, women were believed to stay in abusive relationships for financial reasons, or out of fear. The women’s movement – with its push for access to paychecks – and the greater availability of women’s shelters, were supposed to have won our freedom.
Now, the Grammys, and the Chris Brown twitterati, are glorifying a man who put his then-girlfriend in the hospital.
More disturbing still are the rumors that Rihanna herself is seeing him again. Gossip columns report that they spent Valentine’s night together. This is a woman who found the strength to leave him once.
Surely, Brown could be a changed man. He was only 19 in 2009, and the court ordered him into counseling. But if his anger and narcissism have eased, there is no public sign of it. He seems unrepentant.
The only public message is that the Grammys organization rewards batterers – and so do their fans, and perhaps, their ex-girlfriends. These are horrific lessons for our daughters and sons.