When Chris Brown, who in 2009 beat his then-girlfriend Rihanna on the way to a Grammys pre-party, got two performing slots at this year’s awards show, objecting to his presence there was relatively uncomplicated. His crime was relatively recent, and Brown seemed to have little sense that he’d done something wrong, throwing temper tantrums when asked about his assault in interviews and acting as if his Grammy win was a rebuke to the people who were unfairly judging him. And suggesting that he shouldn’t be given a high-profile spot, much less two, at the Grammys was a way of rooting for, or siding with, Rihanna. But in the time since, events have guaranteed that the state of their relationship will be a continued story—and suggested how complicated it’s going to be to find a way to talk about it productively.
First, the news broke that Rihanna had asked Brown to her birthday party. Then, she released a remix of her latest song, “Birthday Cake,” featuring Brown. If the pair aren’t dating again, it’s clear that Brown is back in Rihanna’s life. Which puts those of us who would rather not see folks in his industry bestowing their most advantageous opportunities on Brown rather than someone who didn’t beat a fellow artist so badly she couldn’t perform when she was allotted one of those slots, in a position of not being on the same page as the woman we’d really like to be supporting.
This is not an uncommon dynamic, of course. As Jaclyn Friedman points out, women who are trying to leave their abusers tend to go back, a lot, before they finally decide to either stay or leave for good. The dilemma between wanting to respect a woman as an independent agent while also being worried for her is not one that’s unique to celebrities. And it’s not a problem that anyone’s come up with a fool-proof solution for, or we’d be a lot better at helping women leave the men who abuse them, be they famous or simply our friends.
One sure way not to move the conversation in anything like a productive direction, though, is to challenge Chris Brown to a fight. Which is what C.M. Punk, a professional wrestler, decided it would be a productive thing to do. There’s really no circumstance in which a white man talking about curb stomping a black man is an elevating threat. And whatever Chris Brown needs, it’s emphatically not a beating. Punk could take a note from retired pro wrestler Mick Foley, who’s become an amazing advocate for victims of sexual assault. This isn’t about completing a cycle of retribution. And it’s not about teaching people about who it is or isn’t honorable to fight.