John Hockenberry: Singer Chris Brown pled guilty yesterday to felony assault charges. Brown was arrested in February, you may remember, for beating his then girlfriend 20 year old popstar Rihanna Fenty. A judge put Brown on probation for five years, ordered him to complete 180 hours of community service. What happens to his career is up to his fans. Brown’s plea means Rihanna does not have to take the stand, so the details of what happened on the night of the assault will remain secret. The story of Chris Brown and Rihanna sparked conversations about gender abuse, race, celebrity and youth throughout the media and really among the people all over America. In studio with us to continue that discussion is journalist Elizabeth Mendez Berry, she drew our attention to partner abuse in the hip hop world with a 2005 article on the hip hop artist Big Pun. Good morning Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Mendez Berry: Good morning.
John Hockenberry: And also joining us is Latoya Peterson. She’s with us from Washington DC. She’s editor of the blog Racialicious. Good morning to you Latoya.
Latoya Peterson: Good morning.
John Hockenberry: What do we learn from these people and what do we fail to learn now that the details are going to be secret and the guilty plea means that the court drama is over?
Latoya Peterson: Well, I think one of the things that we learn is domestic violence really does strike and impact every community and it was interesting to watch how the language that we use to describe and discuss domestic violence really hasn’t changed. The fact that these two kids were celebrities and were so famous drew additional scrutiny on this case, but it seems we have so much further to go when it comes to having a productive conversation about what domestic violence looks like and how to prevent it.
John Hockenberry: Elizabeth, has this been a moment where people can be educated on teen violence or do teens get more of an idea of if something like this happened to me here’s how I would save my career. And they’re looking at that more than the issue of the violence itself.
Elizabeth Mendez Berry: I think that it’s been a combination. I think that there have been some really, really productive conversations that have happened, but I think there’s also been a lot of polarized sort of side-taking, team Rihanna, team Breezy, as if someone wins at the end. I don’t really know how constructive that has been.
John Hockenberry: What do you make of the narrative that happened really shortly after the attack, Elizabeth and I want a comment from you Latoya, that Rihanna appeared to reject her, I guess at that point, former boyfriend, and then appeared to allow for the possibility that they might get back together again. And this was of course taken up by the media as an example of exactly what you should not do if you’re a victim of violence at any age. Elizabeth?
Elizabeth Mendez Berry: Well, I think most women who are victims of domestic abuse wind up going back to their partners at least a few times before they make a definitive cut and I think one of the things that people fail to understand is that when it gets to the point that he’s choking her, which is what we learned from the affidavit that was leaked by the LAPD, there’s scaffolding, there’s emotional abuse that has facilitated that, and that’s something we don’t talk about as much but that’s why I think she was willing to go back. And that’s where we really need to have a conversation. It’s not as easy and it’s not as obvious but it needs to happen.
John Hockenberry: Latoya, do you think the punishment, and comment on anything Elizabeth has said, but do you think the punishment fits the crime here for Chris Brown?
Latoya Peterson: Um, first I want to go back to something Elizabeth said in her first, in her quick segment here. And I completely agree that one of the things that people seem to underestimate, in this case, is one - their ages, that they’re both just out of adolescence and that they’re both struggling with their image and who they are. So when you combine that with a relationship that’s in any form abusive, emotional or physical, that it’s going to be a lot more difficult for a person at that age, or at any age rather, to want to try to pull themselves out of that situation and makes it more difficult. In terms of does the punishment fit the crime, I can understand why each one of them probably would benefit from not having any more details leaked. It seems like they’ve both been trying to distance themselves as much as possible from this incident and it feels like there’s definitely a narrative emerging that Rihanna needs to be an advocate for women’s rights, but she may or may not be ready for that. I mean, Elizabeth, what do you think?
Elizabeth Mendez Berry: I agree. I think one of the crazy things about the situation is that Rihanna hasn’t actually done anything in this whole process. She did not call 911. She did not release her name, it was the LA Times that did that. And the devastating photograph of her was released by the LAPD, it was leaked. And, at this point, she was subpoenaed to appear yesterday. So it wasn’t a situation where she was coming forward and saying “I want to be advocate for victims everywhere”. I mean, she’s very young. She’s just sort of coming out of this, it seems like. And part of me wants her to be a heroine, but part of me just wants her to be a regular human being and heal.
John Hockenberry: Have they lost the ability to be regular human beings, these two? They’re such celebrities, they have these images, there’s actual serious dollar amounts they have to make. I mean Chris Brown had a squeaky clean image before this. That’s probably gone forever, but nevertheless there is an incentive always to cover this sort of thing up. Elizabeth? Latoya?
Latoya Peterson: Well, I agree with that. The issue that comes with fame is that you can’t make the same kind of mistakes that you would make and allow that to work out. So had this been, I would say, a normal teenage relationship, unfortunately, the probability is that she probably would have stayed with him a few more times. They would have broken up and got back together. That’s part of the process of separating the self from your abuser.
Elizabeth Mendez Berry: On the other hand he might have killed her, right?
Latoya Peterson: Or he might have killed her
Elizabeth Mendez Berry: Because what it said on the affidavit was that it was an incredibly devastating attack involving choking and threats. Sorry go on.
Latoya Peterson: That’s a very good point, Elizabeth, that a lot of these relationships do end in death, unfortunately. But because of the scrutiny involved, with the fact that this went all over the blogosphere, this sparked all kinds of tensions. And with the fact of the amounts of money exactly as you brought up, the amounts of money in play, there’s a lot of pressure on them to either reconcile, so that everything will be ok, so they both can salvage their careers, but they’re at an impasse.
John Hockenberry: Well the question really there is, what message does that implicitly deliver when you’re preserving your career, you’re also preserving your life? Can both of you stick around? Because I think we want to carry this discussion further. Are both of you available?
Latoya Peterson: Sure
Elizabeth Mendez Berry: Sure
John Hockenberry: Alright, so Latoya Peterson editor of the blog racialicious.com is in Washington DC. Elizabeth Mendez Berry, freelance journalist, author of Love Hurts 2005 article for Vibe Magazine exploring partner abuse in hip hop. We’re talking about the fact that Chris Brown pled guilty yesterday and was given a sentence in the case where he assaulted his then girlfriend Rihanna. What implications, what sort of teachable moments come from this event? We’re continuing that discussion, stay with us.
John Hockenberry: The pop voice of Rihanna continues on despite the headlines regarding her assault by Chris Brown who pled guilty yesterday to assault charges and was sentenced. Continuing our discussion is Elizabeth Mendez Barry, freelance journalist here in the studio. Thanks for joining us. And Latoya Peterson editor of the blog racialicious.com. Listen to these two quotes from Oprah Winfrey, who I’m sure that you witnessed give some advice to Rihanna as the whole assault scandal was reaching its peak. Listen to this one first:
Oprah Winfrey >/b>[on tape]: If you go back with a man who hits you, it is because you don’t think you’re worthy of being with a man who won’t. [applause]
John Hockenberry: Arguably one of the biggest celebrities in the world giving some advice to one of the lesser celebrities but still a huge celebrity, and here she continues:
Oprah Winfrey [on tape]: Love doesn’t hurt. I’ve been saying this to women for years. Love doesn’t hurt. And if a man hits you once he will hit you again. [applause]
John Hockenberry: Now, Latoya Peterson, here’s a celebrity advising another celebrity and of course the audience goes wild there on the Oprah show. Did that contribute in your view looking back now to a serious debate on teen violence and the lessons people need to take from this incident?
Latoya Peterson: Unfortunately, not really. Oprah’s comments were definitely common sense and definitely helpful but as we’ve seen in these kinds of relationships it’s not common sense that’s winning out when you refuse to go back to an abuser or when you’re trying to make a decision or having issues with that. One of the things that I noticed in conversations, particularly in the blogosphere, and that’s the primary place where I work, is that the tones of the conversation never really got discussed. So there were some definite themes that were emerging around the Chris Brown/Rihanna case. And those different biracial lines, there were different class lines, they were different by what people were expecting.
John Hockenberry: What was the racial issue?
Latoya Peterson: So the racial issue with Chris Brown and Rihanna, it was very interesting to watch the discussion and the debate happen. Because on mainstream blogs like TMZ and Perez Hilton, they had already come to their conclusion: he’s trash, it’s done, Rihannna can’t go back to him, if she goes back to him she’s an idiot. There was a very marked shift. Most of the mainstream blogs completely and unequivocally support Rihanna. Whereas in the black gossip blogosphere, and I’m saying black gossip specifically so in places like Bossip and a blog called Nicole Bitchy and places like that, there was a lot more of a division between people who felt we should automatically support Rihanna because she was the victim and she was the one being unfortunately persecute and people going “Wait a minute. This doesn’t sound right. We need to start supporting Chris Brown. We don’t know what happened so we don’t know what we should do.” So as a result of those conversations we started seeing another interesting pattern emerge where people started going “well, you know Rihanna isn’t really black, she’s Caribbean.” So there was a distancing even from that within the black community, where she’s been generally accepted as a black artist and then all of a sudden when this happens it’s “Well she’s not really black, she’s Caribbean, and you know how those women are.” So there became some intraracial tensions along with the racial tensions and discussions.
John Hockenberry: That is really fascinating. I’m not trying to interrupt but we got, I could talk about this all hour long, but I’m wondering, someone might say, Elizabeth, that that’s a sign of: ok here’s a robust debate on subjects that people wouldn’t talk about otherwise. Or is it a case of people finding their own constituency? Finding their own form of denial in this, avoiding the real issue?
Elizabeth Mendez Berry: I would say it’s mostly the latter, unfortunately, because I think when that polarizing happens, like I mentioned before, it’s team Rihanna, it’s team Breezy and ultimately there’s no real conversation about what the fundamental issues are and why we’re so emotional about this, which is, I believe, are that we don’t really know how to figure out how to have healthy relationships at a young age. And the reason that we’re so attached to this specific case is because it mirrors issues that a lot of young people are experiencing in their own relationships.
John Hockenberry: Does celebrity culture, Latoya, support this kind of thing since they’re happy to market to the people that are pro-Chris and the people that are pro-Rihanna, and have a magazine for both and a blog for both and maybe a set of songs for both and you make money every side?
Latoya Peterson: Unfortunately, what happens, or what we were seeing when the case was at its peak and at the height of speculation, it was kind of drowning out the idea or the need for an actual conversation because people had already come to their own conclusions. And one of the things that first disturbed me on my blog was that when we first started the open thread about it when it first broke, I’m watching the weight of the conversation and it’s a standard conversation about domestic violence whether some people were instantly denying it “oh he couldn’t’ve done that, he’s such a nice boy, this wouldn’t’ve happened” and then there’s people who shifted it to blaming, “Well we know Rihanna probably did something she must have quote provoked it,” which is something that I don’t believe you can do but that’s another story, and one of the important things is that we have teenagers that read our site and we have teenagers that are listening to the tones of our conversations around this and using that to indicate what their personal relationships ought to be, and so that shifted how we covered it from then on out knowing that there are people who are observing and who are trying to make up their minds about their relationships based on what they’re listening to adults say.
John Hockenberry: So who has the most powerful voice at this point, we’re under a minute here, is it Chris Brown’s next move to say something that would be important here, or Rihanna’s next move to say something important here? Elizabeth and then Latoya you can take us out.
Elizabeth Mendez Berry: I think we all want Rihanna to be a heroine, and I think everybody wants her to come forward and have a transformative moment, which is exactly what Oprah would love on her show. But I think that the reality is that chances are she’s going to need to do some healing before she can get close to that. I wish that she would turn around and start looking at the hundreds of young women in this country who are actually in dating abusive relationships
John Hockenberry: Latoya, you’ve got the last word. Twenty seconds.
Latoya Peterson: Definitely. I feel like though it’s important to think about what celebrities’ impact is, the people who have the greatest impact on this are parents and people who work with youth because you can really use this to start the conversation.
John Hockenberry: Latoya Peterson, editor of the blog racioliscious.com and Elizabeth Mendez Berry, freelance journalist, thanks to both of you.