Teenage Girls React to Chris Brown Abuse

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Article Courtesy of The New York Times

By Jan Hoffman

In the hallway of Hostos-Lincoln Academy in the Bronx this week, two ninth-grade girls discussed the pop singer Chris Brown, 19, who faces two felony charges for allegedly beating his girlfriend, the pop singer Rihanna, 21. At first, neither girl had believed Mr. Brown, an endearing crooner, could have done such a thing.

“I thought she was lying, or that the tabloids were making it up,” one girl said.

Even after they saw a photo of Rihanna’s bloodied, bruised face, which had raced across the Internet, they still defended Mr. Brown. “She probably made him mad for him to react like that,” the other ninth grader said. “You know, like, bring it on?”

The girls agreed that Mr. Brown overreacted. According to court documents, the fight last month erupted after Rihanna read a text message to Mr. Brown from another woman. Mr. Brown, the affidavit said, then punched, bit and choked her.

Should he be punished? No, said the girls, whose names were withheld at the request of the school. After all, they said, Rihanna seemed to have reconciled with Mr. Brown.

“So he shouldn’t get into trouble if she doesn’t feel that way,” one girl said. “She probably feels bad that it was her fault, so she took him back.”

Her friend nodded. “I don’t think he’ll hit her like that again,” she said.

On blogs and social networking sites, teenagers are having an e-shouting match about this highly publicized episode — perhaps the first time their generation has been compelled to think aloud about dating violence.

And what may be surprising is the level of support for Mr. Brown. While thousands of teenagers have certainly turned on Mr. Brown, many others — regardless of race or gender — defend him, often at Rihanna’s expense.


In a recent survey of 200 teenagers by the Boston Public Health Commission, 46 percent said Rihanna was responsible for what happened; 52 percent said both bore responsibility, despite knowing that Rihanna’s injuries required hospital treatment. On a Facebook discussion, one girl wrote, “she probly ran into a door and was too embarrassed so blamed it on chris.”

This reaction has alarmed parents and professionals who work with teenagers, and Oprah Winfrey was prompted to address violence in teenage relationships on her show. Boys who condone Mr. Brown’s behavior disappoint, but don’t shock Marcyliena Morgan, executive director of Harvard’s hip-hop archive. “But it’s the girls!” she said. “Where have we gone wrong here?”

Underneath harsh, judgmental bravado, teenage girls themselves seem perplexed by the unfolding story, whipsawed by allegiance to their celebrities, fantasies about romantic relationships, and the terrifying mysteries of intimate violence — the savagery of the beating as well as the speed with which Rihanna apparently agreed to see him again.

Mimi Valdés Ryan, former editor in chief of Vibe magazine and the one who put Chris Brown on the cover in 2006, said the defense of him by so many young girls can be understood in part because they are adoring fans.

Even before this incident, Mr. Brown’s core fans didn’t like Rihanna, said Ms. Valdés Ryan, now editor in chief of Latina, a magazine for young women. “His posters are on the bedroom wall, the last face they see before they sleep,” she said. “They’re feeling, ‘Why is he with her, not with me?’  ”


As word of the incident spread, girls could not believe he could wreak such violence, she said. After all, sweet Chris Breezy — his nickname — even appeared in a music video with Elmo of “Sesame Street.” Acknowledging his attack would make them feel vulnerable: How could they have a crush on someone who could do that? It was less terrifying to blame Rihanna.

Many girls interpreted every new detail through a lens of forgiveness, Ms. Valdés Ryan said. When video emerged of Mr. Brown describing abuse suffered by his mother, many commented that Mr. Brown, of all people, should have restrained himself. But his fans, Ms. Valdés Ryan said, turned the information around: “They feel bad for him,” she said. “It’s not his fault, he doesn’t know better. We need not judge him.”

Many observers familiar with adolescent impulsivity say the rush-to-judgment also reflects a developmental stage. “What they feel in the morning can be different from what they feel in the evening,” said Esta Soler of the Family Violence Prevention Fund in San Francisco. “It’s very fluid.”

The girls’ willingness to minimize Mr. Brown’s alleged behavior also reflects a learned social signal, said Professor Morgan, who teaches African-American studies at Harvard. They’ve been taught, she said, “What really matters is that we don’t destroy boys.” Teenage girls think that if they speak out against an abuser, the boy’s future will be shattered, she said. “We have to appreciate that this is not simple for them.”


Certainly from the outset, thousands of girls and boys howled online at Chris Brown, expressing sympathy for their pop princess, RiRi. But when the young singer apparently reunited with Mr. Brown, her supporters turned on her.

“SHAME ON YOU RIHANNA!!!” one girl wrote.

Brian O’Connor, of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, said because adolescents see absolutes, they struggle to understand the complexities of why a woman would return to her abuser. “There’s love and loyalty there,” he said. “It’s not that she wants the relationship to end. She wants the violence to stop.”

Even getting this generation of teenage girls to see violence as abuse has its own challenges. Tricia Rose, who teaches African-American culture at Brown, said that the singers and their young fans are a generation steeped in commercial hip-hop, which has influenced the smack-down tone of so many recent comments. The qualified support of Mr. Brown by a few male artists also gave cover to his fans’ fidelity.

“This is the air that hip-hop breathes,” said Ms. Rose, author of “The Hip Hop Wars.” “The celebration of a stereotype of an aggressive, physical, often misogynistic masculinity that often justifies resolving conflict through violence. It can’t be held responsible for this, but it can’t be ignored.”

Moreover, teenage girls can’t be expected to support Rihanna just because of her gender, youth culture experts say. They see themselves as sharing equal responsibility with boys. Parity, not sisterhood, is the name of the game.

During a presentation about dating violence to ninth graders at Hostos-Lincoln Academy this week, one girl said, “If they hit you, smack them back. Both my parents say that to me.”


When Danielle Shores, 17, a high school junior in Austin, Tex., heard about the fight, she thought: “Yeah, men hit women, and women hit men. It was blown out of proportion because they’re celebrities.”

She sounded miffed. “My best friend got hit by her boyfriend, and I don’t see people making a big deal about it,” Ms. Shores said.

There is a lot of violence among young partners. Although the study of abuse in adolescent relationships is scarcely a decade old, the incidence is startling. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 10 percent of teenagers report being hit or slapped by a boyfriend of girlfriend.

Some studies suggest that girls are more likely than boys to report being aggressive within a dating relationship.

But Dr. Elizabeth Miller, an adolescent pediatrician at the School of Medicine at the University of California, Davis, pointed out: “The numbers of girls who sustain serious injuries, and the sexual violence sustained against girls, is much higher than boys.”

In the last few years, efforts to educate teenagers about abusive relationships have begun. Ms. Shores recently interviewed peers about abuse through Austin’s SafePlace, one of 11 programs nationwide, to receive funding for Start Strong, a teenage intervention initiative.

At Hostos-Lincoln Academy last week, Yalitza Garcia, who works with Day One, an education and counseling group for New York adolescents, led a peppery talk with ninth graders.

“Everyone blames Rihanna for this, right?” she said. “She deserves it for being so jealous?” Some students nodded.

After Ms. Garcia’s session, the students’ English teacher gave them homework. They were studying “Othello,” Shakespeare’s tragedy about jealousy, in which Othello smothers his wife, Desdemona.

Their assignment?

“Rewrite the ending of ‘Othello,’ ” they were told, “where there’s an intervention before Othello comes in with the pillow.”


In a recent survey, 46 percent said Rihanna was responsible for what happened.

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