Reading and writing about Chris Brown, the undeniably talented singer who in 2009 become notorious for battering his then-girlfriend, Rihanna, has been, for the last four years, a depressing experience. Whether Brown’s been tossing chairs out of television studio windows, screaming at parking lot attendants, getting a tattoo of either a battered woman or a Dia De Los Muertos figure — who at the end of the day, is still a dead woman — on his neck, or reuniting with Rihanna, he’s been a figure of profound discomfort. Whether his behavior is the response to living through the domestic abuse his mother experienced when he was a teenager, a symptom of more wide-spread issues with anger and self-control, or a result of enormous entitlement, it’s awful to watch anyone behave so self-destructively, and do so much damage to other people in public. And whether Brown has been more of a target, or whether he’s been afforded more or fewer excuses for his behavior and chances to continue working than a white celebrity with a record of violence against women like Charlie Sheen, there’s no denying that his continued presence on Emmy stages and morning talk shows is a vertiginous exercise in trying to parse how much a liability the industry thinks domestic violence and a record of fights are, and how much the market believes that Brown is repentant or that his reunion with Rihanna has absolved him.
The latest intersection of Brown’s character rehabilitation and his need to keep selling records came yesterday morning when he appeared on the Today show to promote his latest single, “Fine China.” In response to questioning from Matt Lauer, about how he’s changed, Brown said that “Most importantly, you know, knowing that what I did was totally wrong, and having to kind of deal with myself and forgive myself in the same breath, and being able to apologize to Rihanna, and being able to be that man that can be a man, you know?” I don’t really know what that means, or what it means for an overall view of gender relations for someone to believe that battering an intimate partner is wrong, but that, as Brown recently said at a comedy club “You gotta say that one thing to her… don’t make me have to tell you again, that’s my p — y, baby! so you better not give it away!…So every person in this motherf–king building, if you got a bad b — h you better say that s–t to her, or she might f–k another n — a.”
But this juxtaposition, and the strange spectacle of people going on talk shows to tout their self-improvement in service of record sales, got me thinking about what it is that we want from celebrities who do terrible things but to continue to want our dollars as consumers. Do we want them to apologize to the people they’ve harmed directly, and to promise to do it never again? Brown seems to have that box checked with Rihanna, but the reaction to their reunion has illustrated how little most people know about how frequently survivors of domestic violence return to the people who abused them. And the fact that he’s reconciled with Rihanna doesn’t seem to have stopped Brown to getting into confrontations that sometimes turn violent with everyone from fellow singers like Frank Ocean to service workers like a parking attendant he unloaded on recently. That disjunct raises interesting questions about why we treat some forms of violence by wealthy and famous men as inexcusable and as a sign that they’re deeply troubled, while others get treated like they’re routine, even when they seem like contributing evidence that someone has a pattern of behavior that’s broadly troubling. Maybe it’s condescending, but I’d like to see Chris Brown stop getting into situations that get violent for his sake, for the sake of the people he gets angry at, and for what he could contribute to the larger conversation if he got religion on a deeper level than the need to retain the ability to sell records.Because I actually think it would be an extraordinary thing to see Chris Brown become an anti-violence advocate. He’s got access to a base of intensely devoted female fans, some of whom talk publicly about the fact that they’d be willing to be abused by him in exchange for a relationship with or sexual access to him. Talking to them about what he’s learned about himself — particularly in the context of his own experiences with domestic violence as a child — what makes for a functional, healthy relationships, and what those young women should expect for themselves would be a rather remarkable act. Given the way that our mass culture fetishizes anger and aggression among men, if Brown talked publicly about what he has and hasn’t gotten out of approaching relatively minor problems and rivalries with dustups, he’d be doing a genuine public service.
It’s probably wrong to say that, in the case of celebrities, great power comes with great responsibility. But with great cultural influence comes great potential to change any number of debates. Chris Brown’s disastrous public presentation over the past four years has, paradoxically, created a situation where if he’s genuinely changed his perspectives and behavior, he could have enormous influence in a positive direction if he wanted to. And perhaps the test of whether he actually wants to inspire “people that have been in my situation,” and to seek out help in building a program that would do that in a meaningful way, is the test of whether he’s really a different person.