I Like The Way It Hurts
I like the way it hurts: domestic violence and popular music
When multi-platinum international superstar Rihanna was attacked by her then-boyfriend Chris Brown on the eve of the 2009 Grammys ceremony, she inadvertently became the poster-girl for domestic violence. As photos of her mottled face rapidly circulated the globe, a typically private issue was thrust into the public sphere, hammering home the message that domestic abuse really is an equaliser.
This is why Rihanna’s 2010 collaboration with Eminem drew such a vast amount of media attention. Love The Way You Lie was the UK’s biggest selling single of the year and details a violent relationship spiralling out of control, with Eminem’s narration the typical rhetoric of an abuser. ‘I laid hands on her/ Never stoop so low again/ Guess I don’t know my own strength’ whilst Rihanna’s eerie refrain is ‘Just gonna stand there and watch me burn/ But that’s alright because I like the way it hurts.’
The song itself is not far off from the unsettling 1962 single by The Crystals He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss) which contains the lyrics ‘He hit me and I was glad’ and ‘He hit me and I knew that I loved him.’ The difference being that He Hit Me received – and still does receive – very little air play. Although it was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King in response to revelations that original The Loco-motion singer Little Eva was being habitually abused by her boyfriend, it was perceived to be advocating domestic violence and so was rarely broadcast on commercial radio stations.
Criticism was also heaped on Love The Way You Lie and its accompanying video for glamourising domestic violence. Entertainment Weekly’s scathing headline was ‘Eminem’s Love the Way You Lie video: Domestic Violence is AWESOME.’ This hardly comes as a shock. The video features Hollywood A-listers Dominic Monaghan and absolute babe Megan Fox as a couple trapped in an abusive relationship who roll around their flat fighting, spitting, pushing. He punches a wall and smashes a mirror then glasses a stranger in a bar; all of this interspersed with shots of them furiously making out. It’s really hot. She’s really hot. He’s tattooed and brooding. And it must be alright because Rihanna is a domestic abuse survivor and she’s in there dancing in her underwear like the sexy victim that she is, singing about how much she loves being smacked about. Entertainment Weekly were right, domestic violence really is awesome.
Many have stated that the single doesn’t glorify domestic abuse but instead portrays a natural, passionate and nuanced relationship. Rihanna has even been quoted as saying that Love The Way You Lie ‘was something that needed to be done and the way he [Eminem] did it was so clever. He pretty much just broke down the cycle of domestic violence.' Eminem has had significant media attention himself for his turbulent and violent relationship with ex-wife Kimberley Mathers: in his charming 2000 song Kim he fantasises about dragging her off to the woods to hack her up (‘NOW BLEED! BITCH BLEED! BLEED! BITCH BLEED! BLEED!) Eminem then proceeded to act out the killing onstage with a blow-up doll whilst Kim was in the audience, prompting her attempted suicide. So it may be that Love The Way You Lie is a catharsis of sorts for both abuser and abused but it seems more likely that Rihanna was roped in to validate a song and video that are problematic at best and advocate violence at worst.
As the overwhelming majority of Eminem and Rihanna’s fans are teenagers and young people, the song is far too ambivalent on the topic of abuse. It is not enough to simply bring domestic violence to the public consciousness; a clear judgement needs to be made. The fact that Monaghan is not shown to be physically hurting Fox and that she initiated the violence means that there is far too much room for interpretative manoeuvre. If domestic abuse means being knocked around by Megan Fox in her pants then that obviously detracts from a message that could and should be effectively conveyed in this video: that abuse in any relationship is neither normal nor sexy.
Love the Way You Lie’s video didn’t need to be a tepid moral tale to be spoon-fed to teenagers but rightly or wrongly singers and other celebrities with over 15 million followers hanging on their every misspelt tweet have a responsibility to their young fan base as they are undeniably influential. Marjorie Gilbert, who is the executive director of Break the Cycle, an anti-violence group voiced her concerns about the hit single, stating that ‘The danger is that pop culture defines our social norms…We don’t want the message of this song to be that this kind of relationship is acceptable.’ Unfortunately that is certainly a message that can be gleaned from Love The Way You Lie, although it did at least spark a necessary dialogue about domestic violence whilst Megan Fox donated her considerable fee from the video to Sojourn, a Californian women’s refuge.
However, Rihanna’s latest antics are essentially two fingers up to her young, impressionable fans as well as to victims of domestic violence the world over. She recently selected her abuser Chris Brown to feature on her highly sexual but soulless single Birthday Cake, as ‘it’s music and it’s innocent’ and because ‘the hottest R&B artist out right now is Chris Brown.’ Still on probation for pleading guilty to her assault he invited Rihanna to remix his track Turn UpThe Music and she’s accepted. Rihanna’s decision to work with this piece of unrepentant lowlife normalises and enforces the cycle of violence – vulnerable young people will doubtless follow her example and assume that domestic violence just isn’t that big a deal.
Last month Chris Brown made an appearance at the Grammys for the first time since 2008; he was of course otherwise engaged in 2009 battering his girlfriend. Whilst he performed Twitter was flooded with comments from morons: ‘Chris Brown could beat me all he wants. He is flawless,’ ‘Chris Brown...please beat me’ and ‘I wish Chris Brown would punch me in the face’ were just a few of many. This base and blasé reaction comes as no surprise as it is identical to Rihanna’s, who tweeted last week that ‘no pain is forever.’ If this is an indication that Rihanna has moved on from the brutal assault then that’s fantastic – but she has to be held accountable for her actions in this very public performance of forgiveness. Taking an unequivocal stance by not working with that smirking thug would demonstrate solidarity with other abused women and set an appropriate example to her supporters, without being shrouded in perpetual victimhood.
Rihanna didn’t ask to be abused, but as one of the most famous women on the planet she has the influence to make a positive impact on the lives of so many others and it is clear that she is aware of her power. She went back to Chris Brown shortly after the notorious 2009 attack, which she later regretted: ‘I was so in love ... that I went back. That’s not what I want to teach people. I could not be easy with that part. I couldn't be responsible. I realised that my selfish decision for love could result in some young girl getting killed. I didn’t realise how much of an impact I had on young girls’ lives until that happened. It was a wake-up call for me, big time.’
It seems like she’s gone back to sleep.
COMMUNITY TV TRUST HAS BEEN COMMISSIONED TO PRODUCE A DVD ON VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND GIRLS. IT IS WORKING ON THIS WITH MCSAS-HEARTS OF LOVE.
HERE, YOUNG WRITER AND RESEARCHER WORKING AS A VOLUNTEER IN SUPPORT OF THIS PROJECT, LUCY LEE SETS OUT IN HER FIRST OF A SERIES OF ARTICLES TO ESTABLISH THE TERRITORY.
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Described by Amnesty International as today’s ‘most pervasive human rights challenge,’ gender based violence has been systematic and in some areas institutionalised for millennia. Named in 1996 as a public health issue for the devastating impact it has on women and children, violence against women and girls permeates all sectors of British society, with 3 million women across the UK experiencing violence of some form every year. Almost half of the female population in England and Wales will be victims of domestic violence, rape or stalking in their lives, with violence against women in the UK draining a yearly £40 billion from the economy.
Violence against women has been cited by the UN as both a cause and consequence of gender inequality, and serves to reinforce patriarchal structures which already subjugate females. It has vast implications for a victim’s mental, sexual and reproductive health, whilst long-term physical health issues such as backache, headaches and irritable bowel syndrome have been linked to violence and abuse.
The overwhelming majority of violence against women is perpetrated by men, and most of these incidents involve men known to the victims. Every week two women in the UK are killed by a partner or former partner, constituting a third of all female murders. Last month Home secretary Theresa May stated that ending violence against women and girls was a priority for her and the Coalition government and last month announced the proposal of a disclosure scheme known as Clare’s Law, legislation under which women could be notified if new partners have a history of violence. This comes after two years of campaigning from the father of Clare Wood, who was strangled to death by ex-boyfriend George Appleton, a man with three previous convictions for stalking who had abducted another girlfriend at knifepoint.
Although only 17% of victims of ‘stranger’ assaults are women, vulnerability instilled in females by the threat of stranger violence prevents women from participating fully in society: feminist commentator Elizabeth Stanko stated that ‘women’s lives rest upon a continuum of unsafety.’ This patriarchally constructed vulnerability facilitates a victim-blaming culture in which women must be perpetually aware of the potential for violence against them. This can be plainly seen in Eamonn Holmes’ recent and almighty gaffe on This Morning last month. He outraged viewers when he introduced 20-year-old rape survivor Hannah Cant with ‘She was on her way home from a night out with friends and was walking home; she didn’t take a taxi,’ a preposterous allusion that she enabled her own rape. He light-heartedly closed the interview with ‘I hope you take taxis now. Everywhere you go, coming home at night;’ which is a patronising and deeply offensive ‘I hope you’ve learnt your lesson now?’
A dialogue needs to be opened to explore the vast issue of gender based violence in contemporary society, if only to question some of the entrenched and misinformed beliefs mentioned above. In a collaborative project between Southwark Council, MCSAS-Hearts of Love and the Community TV Trust, a DVD is being made to investigate the consequences of violence against women and girls in Southwark, to be premiered at the Peckhamplex in Spring 2012. The DVD will invite female victims of violence to share their experiences and will be produced in a similar vein to those previously made by the Community TV Trust, which have covered topics as diverse as healthy eating, knife crime, Islam in Southwark and Travellers in Peckham. It will then be distributed to Southwark schools and other agencies supporting the work to raise awareness of gender based abuse. Over the next few weeks we will be further investigating the spectrum of violence against women and girls in South London; covering sexual assault and rape, violence within ethnic minority and LGBT communities and the devastating practice of female genital mutilation.
If you have a story to share or would like to participate in the project then please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us. Or, for those of you feeling social, join us on Twitter at @SouthwarkTV.
If you are experiencing violence or abuse you may wish to contact Women’s Aid, National Centre for Domestic Violence or National Domestic Violence Helpline, but if you or your family are in immediate danger, always call 999.
24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline
0808 2000 247