On Birthday Cake and Giving Back

By bradleyhcwc

Intimate partner violence is a feminist issue, but is the social responsibility of celebrities one, too?  Recently bloggers have been up in arms about the newest musical collaboration from Rihanna and Chris Brown in the form of their remix of the song “Birthday Cake.”  It boggles the minds of many (myself included) that just three years ago Chris Brown physically assaulted Rihanna, and now they’re teaming up for a song that includes him singing the lyrics “Girl, I wanna [expletive] you right now / Been a long time, I’ve been missing your body.”

Now, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.  Just because the two are singing about sex does not mean that they currently are or want to be sexually involved with each other.  That we cannot know for certain, unless they were to tell us.  Being an entertainer, after all, has a lot to do with creating a persona.  It would also be useful to remember that there are a lot of different opinions about the most ideal outcome of a domestic violence situation.  Some would argue that survivors of domestic violence should never resume a relationship with the perpetrator, while others think that two people involve in an abusive relationship can achieve reconciliation.

The truth of the matter is that it’s a hard call to make, and it’s not a discussion that I’ve heard many people engage in before.  I have learned that domestic violence is unequivocally wrong and, as a phenomenon, reflects and reinforces the most destructive aspects of gendered power.  I have heard about how to identify abusive behaviors, tap into appropriate resources, and help others remove themselves from abusive situations.  However, I don’t think that I’ve encountered much frank discussion about what a survivor’s relationship with the perpetrator should be after the fact.  I think that there is an implicit assumption that the survivor would never again want to be involved with the perpetrator, which is not always the case. 

That said, Rihanna and Chris Brown are also public figures.  Does this mean that we should hold them to a higher standard of behavior because they are role models?  Personally, I don’t think that we necessarily should.  They are people like us, but unlike us, they have been granted the opportunity share their talent and passion with the world.  That comes with its own set of burdens, something that has become painfully aware with the recent passing of Whitney Houston.   So, what exactly should we expect from entertainers other than….entertainment?

Rapper Too $hort was recently called out after a video of him telling middle school boys “how to turn girls out,” advice that comes across more like a how-to guide for sexual assault.  Too $hort issued an apology in which he claimed that he has “worked over the years to somewhat balance the content of [his] music with giving back to the community.”  He later stated in an interview, “Even with my music filled with misogyny, I still have morals.”

What he did strikes me as… not ok.  Obviously, statements such as the ones made by Too $hort should not be made in front of children.  But is it ok that adults (and probably children, too) still listen to songs where he echoes the same sort of degrading sentiment towards women?  I can believe that Too $hort probably has some morals, feminist ones probably not among them, but I don’t buy the idea that “giving back to the community” somehow makes up for that.

However, this leads me to the issue of living with congruence, which I think is definitely a feminist concern.  Living with congruence simply means acting in accordance with certain values, principles, and convictions.  I think that part of the work of being a feminist is learning how to consistently enact intolerance for sexist, heterosexist, and patriarchal oppression.  The incidents I have chosen to reflect upon in this post show us that we have yet to develop and share among ourselves the necessary tools to do this successfully.  We can’t hold celebrities accountable for their actions, but we can hold ourselves accountable for speaking out against injustice when we see it and trying to live more congruently.  Indeed, I believe that we must because life is simply too short.

However, this leads me to the issue of living with congruence, which I think is definitely a feminist concern.  Living with congruence simply means acting in accordance with certain values, principles, and convictions.  I think that part of the work of being a feminist is learning how to consistently enact intolerance for sexist, heterosexist, and patriarchal oppression.  The incidents I have chosen to reflect upon in this post show us that we have yet to develop and share among ourselves the necessary tools to do this successfully.  We can’t hold celebrities accountable for their actions, but we can hold ourselves accountable for speaking out against injustice when we see it and trying to live more congruently.  Indeed, I believe that we must because life is simply too short.

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3 thoughts on “On Birthday Cake and Giving Back

  1. I first heard about Rihanna’s and Chris Brown’s recent, uh, musical collaboration while listening to NPR on my morning run. My reaction was then, and remains, one of sad surprise and disgust. I am sad and surprised that Rihanna has worked with Brown, after the domestic assault; I am disgusted that an audience exists for this vulgar, violently sexual and misogynistic content. While I agree with Bradley that both Rihanna and Brown are adults and entitled to make their own decisions about reconciliation and intimate involvement, I do not like the picture their collaboration presents to their consumers. It, as well as recent statements concerning Brown and the Grammy Awards, seems to imply that reconciliation should occur, and means that all is forgiven. To me, it sends the message that domestic violence is not that serious, is not a violent crime that erases a woman’s (in this case) humanity and dignity as a result of a man’s (in this case) idea that women are property or somehow not similarly-human. If these two have put it all behind them, and are still passionate for each other, then other domestic violence survivors probably should, too, right? I am troubled, indeed, about the remixes and their implications for the continuing societal silence on domestic violence.

  2. Liliclare, I think you touched on the source of all of this insanity: “consumers”!
    Money is king (they are pop-stars after all, so sales are everything) and I think that when told that Rihanna and Breezy dropped a collabo single they would rush to their computers (r.i.p record stores) and download it immediately to see what these two highly dramatic figures have created.
    Rihanna’s and Brown’s agents are probably all too aware that drama makes noise, noise leads to intrigue, intrigue leads to media coverage, and that to sales. Consumers are simple and rarely will they deprive themselves consumption in the name of upstanding morals. Sad? Indeed. Understandable? Absolutely. I think that, sadly, those that are “disgusted” or just generally upset by the pairs collaboration will flip this negatively on Rihanna, the initial victim. I find myself asking, “Rihanna, you do realize the message you are sending?” It is so unfortunate because she was such a perfect role model for young women being abused encouraging them to take action and not allow their torture to continue…
    While I think her image (not his) will take a few shots, both of their wallets will get significantly fatter! Darn you American consumer, darn you!

  3. Nur Ibrahim

    Lindiwe, I think you hit the mark with you comment, “Darn you American consumer, darn you!” We live in a sensationalist and drama obsessed culture and the media empire has capitalized on that. Unconsciously we all are fascinated with drama and scandal. That’s why we click on the article that talks about the latest celebrity split and why a lot of people follow reality TV, knowing that there is nothing of substance or even quality on “Jersey Shore.”
    In such a culture, is it a surprise that after such a terrible incident and the subsequent collaboration, those same people are going to rush to download the song just to see what those two have come up with? Then they’re going to talk about it in detail or laugh about it, or express shock or whatever their reactions are.
    Given this situation and the media industry’s knowledge about how easily consumers lap up dramatic and controversial situations, its irresponsible to capitalize off the same thing with something as serious as domestic violence. Fine, Rihanna and Chris Brown can make peace with it on a personal level- if she finds it in herself to forgive him, she has a right to. But she is essentially a businesswoman in a tough industry where appearance matters. Even if they want to express individuality, CB and Rihanna are making money off of this incident. This does send a bad message to the consumers and perpetuates that fascination with scandal and controversy. If Rihanna or someone influential in the industry took a strong stand and stuck to it, maybe consumers would think differently.

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