Being a Horrible Warning: Our Need to See Rihanna as a Role Model

There has been a lot of talk recently about Rihanna and Chris Brown from every conceivable news source. With rumors circulating that they have buried the hatchet, the new catch phrase seems to be “role model”. Usually, responses to celebrity heartbreak range from the compassionate to the condescending, which makes the current “think of the children who look up to her” moralizing seem out of place. I was particularly struck by the recent comment by Sam Sanders on NPR’s Morning Edition, deploring “the message a reconciliation might send about domestic abuse”. The truth is that the message such a reconciliation would send would be a very accurate one.

Regardless of the message Rihanna may be sending, these are the facts about domestic abuse: domestic violence is discouragingly common, it often goes unreported and victims frequently forgive their partners – after all, they are selected in part because of their great capacity for forgiveness.

Abusers are skilled at selecting partners who will invest deeply in the relationship. Then, as fight after fight is “your fault”, self-esteem gradually erodes until taking the blame and apologizing becomes a way of life.

With that groundwork laid, the only thing stopping the victim from forgiving their abuser is support from family and friends. Sadly, victims usually don’t get much support from anyone else. When you are a victim of domestic violence, you learn very quickly that no one likes you.

Some people will fault you for giving up on your relationship; others will fault you for staying and “allowing someone to treat you that way” for as long as you did. Either way, the message is clear: if you were abused, it was your fault for being there- which, ironically, reinforces the abuser’s message.

Maybe that’s why, of all the comments I’ve heard about Rihanna, this one stings so much: because it takes the blame off of the abuser and puts the public focus on the victim’s behavior instead. No one is nearly as concerned about the message Chris Brown’s continued popularity is sending as they are about the idea that a reconciliation will teach an entire generation that domestic abuse is normal. In reality, that generation should be learning these lessons from their families and the very media circles that are perpetuating the debate.

Now, we don’t expect famous people to have their lives perfectly ordered – quite the opposite! We are never happier than when we have juicy gossip about a heartbreak, an arrest or an addiction. So why is the “role model” argument suddenly being thrown around? Are we really concerned about Rihanna’s status as a role model? Or are we focusing on her moral responsibilities to take the emphasis off of our own? Is it possible that as we’re sitting on the sidelines, seeing something ugly looming in the distance and feeling powerless to stop it, we’re all just blaming the victim?

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