A Column About Chris Brown.

CJR Masthead


When only The Onion tells it like it is   Columbia Journalism Review

The parody newspaper The Onion isn’t a news organization, of course. But once in awhile, it tells a truth that our news organizations don’t.

Take, for example, their recent story on Chris Brown.

Brown is a double-platinum R&B singer known for his dance moves—and for beating his girlfriend, the singer Rihanna, so badly in 2009 that she went to the police. When asked about the incident by Robin Roberts at Good Morning America, he punched out a mirror in his dressing room, later tweeting, “I’m so over people bringing this past s- up.” In 2012, he got a tattoo on his neck that looked a lot like a battered woman (perhaps Rihanna specifically), though he said it was just a picture of a skull.

That’s some context for the Onion story, which is below (it’s only a paragraph, so I’ll quote it in its entirety):

After revealing yesterday that he had recently split up with longtime girlfriend Rihanna, a heartbroken Chris Brown tearfully told reporters that he always thought the 25-year-old singer was going to be the woman he’d beat to death one day. “Despite all the ups and downs, I was so sure Rihanna was the one I’d take by the throat one day and fatally assault, and even toward the end I continued to hold out hope that we’d be together until the day she died at my hands from blunt-force trauma,” Brown, 24, said in a radio interview this week, telling DJs he still has abusive feelings for his ex-flame and is hopeful that he might punch her again one day. “It’s hard knowing that there’s some other guy out there who gets to beat her senseless. In fact, for all I know, there might be someone out there assaulting her right now. And let me tell you, that guy is the luckiest guy in the world.” A saddened Brown added that, should the couple not reconcile, he remains confident that the special someone he was meant to beat to death is still out there for him, and when he finds her, he’ll waste no time in slapping her around.

Many women and feminist bloggers responded angrily on Twitter, saying that domestic violence isn’t an appropriate subject for satire and asking for an apology.

But Hanna Rosin, writing in Slate, says that she’s a feminist, found the joke funny, and wonders, “Is there anyone who can read this item and not think that the writer is disgusted by domestic abuse, and more specifically disgusted by Chris Brown’s casual attitude toward domestic abuse?”

I’m with Rosin. The Onion isn’t making fun of domestic violence. It is calling Chris Brown out in a way that very few media organizations have. It is saying that he abused Rihanna—he pleaded guilty in 2009 to one charge of felony assault—that this abuse would have likely led to her death had they continued in a relationship, and that, if he continues in the pattern of other domestic violence perpetrators, he will likely abuse the next woman he dates.

The Onion was only giving us the ugly truth in a palatable way—through humor. Without that publication, we’d just have strangely whitewashed stories in the entertainment media about the couple’s relationship, like the New York Post’s piece about how Brown went to a boxing match and then partied with 45 pals after he and Rihanna split; or the Us magazine story saying Brown was “putting himself out there in a big way” and that though he’d always love her, “people have differences and people have different wants and needs.” Both read like they could be the “boy loses girl” part of a rom com script. Neither story mentioned Brown’s abusive history.

On the other hand, instead of turning the Chris Brown-Rihanna story into a cute, on-again-off-again romance, the Onion points out, in its way, that the relationship followed documented patterns of domestic violence. According American Bar Association statistics, African American women ages 20 to 24 experience significantly more violence from intimate partners than do other racial groups. Rihanna is currently 25, but she was 22 in 2009. Forty percent of male batterers assault their partner again within 30 months. I’ve quoted this statistic before, but the CDC has said that black women ages 25 to 29 are 11 times more likely to be killed than white women. In fact, the top killer of African American women ages 15 to 34 is murder by a current or former intimate partner.

Why hasn’t the mainstream media written more about Brown and his troubling history? Or for that matter, his troubling present? In March, The Huffington Post posted a NSFW video in which he basically says that women need to be controlled.

Brown is not some marginal figure. He’s a cultural icon who continues to be nominated for things like the NAACP Image Awards and to win MTV Video Music Awards. He performs at the Grammys. He appears in movies. Some outlets, notably the Washington Post, have consistently contextualized positive stories about Brown with information about his abusive history. But the narrative about him seems to have become: Chris Brown went through some trouble, but now he’s staging a comeback, and good for him!

Women should be angry at Chris Brown. But they shouldn’t be angry at The Onion. That’s the one outlet that has really made a point of reminding us that unless abusers get help, they remain abusers. Instead of being glamorized, domestic abusers should be called out by more media outlets, instead of just one.

Original story at Columbia Journalism Review.