03.03.09

Does Chris Brown Really Deserve a Break?

Yesterday, Chris Brown was charged with two felony counts related to the alleged assault against his girlfriend, Rihanna—but he's innocent until proven guilty. We've ousted celebrities for lesser offenses than beating their girlfriends, so why can't we walk away from him? Maybe for the same reasons Rihanna can't bear to.

You probably heard that singer Chris Brown, after turning himself in for beating his girlfriend, Rihanna, enrolled in anger-management classes in an effort to, as Rolling Stone reported, “repair his image.” Swell. Where can I sign up?

Because as images go, Brown’s seems to be doing remarkably, enragingly, well. True, he was promptly dropped from now-creepy ad campaigns for Got Milk?, Wrigley’s Gum, and the upcoming film, Bone Deep. And it’s not hard to find folks who have forever redacted “Forever” from their iPods. But otherwise, the whitewash seems to be flowing like Cristal at Clive Davis’ bash—and not just from the bonehead sector of the blogosphere (though yeah, there is that).

Some are latching onto their reconciliation with hope for a happy ending, despite the fact that, statistically, their reconciling will most likely lead to her getting beaten again.

Singer Ne-Yo told MTV that Brown is still his “homeboy at the end of the day.” Kanye West reportedly asked a crowd to “Give Chris a break.” The New York Daily News asked, “Could Rihanna use [anger management] too?” CNN’s Kiran Chetry wondered if Rihanna—yes, Rihanna—might, moving forward, suffer the “stigma” of abuse. The Chicago Tribune reported that many area teens figured Rihanna must have done something to provoke Brown’s alleged assault. “People said, 'I would have punched her around too,'" noted one sophomore. "And these were girls!"

Yes, Brown is technically innocent until proven guilty. And America believes in redemption and rehabilitation, often to its credit. But America also has a long and proud tradition of turning on celebrities quicker than you can say “Perez Hilton.” We put our stars through the wringer when they hurl cellphones at housekeepers or throw tantrums on movie sets, and in the end, rightly or wrongly, we tend to forgive them. But why is Brown, at least right now, seen as anything but Asshole of the Month? What makes it so easy for people to leap to his defense—at her expense?

Part of it is that, against all common sense, we long for the fairytale ending, especially when it comes to two wunderkinds like Rihanna and Brown. Last week, the two were reportedly reunited at chez Diddy, or at least held some sort of summit toward working it out. Some are latching onto this with hope for a happy ending, despite the fact that, statistically, their reconciling will most likely lead to her getting beaten again, or possibly worse.

There are also those who put it on her, saying there’s no hope for a girl who’d be fool enough to take Brown back. Why, indeed, do women take batterers back? People: This is part of the cycle of abuse. Women make the excuses and believe the lies and absorb the blows because they don’t want to believe they were so wrong, so grievously wrong, about Mr. Right. And I think that that, at least in part, is what’s going on in our relationship with Chris Brown, as well.

I mean, we loved him, you know? Such a nice guy. Before this happened, Brown was frequently billed by the media as the “good” one, the guy you’d want to take home to mom. He was like mint gum. He appeared on Sesame Street with Elmo, for God’s sake. He also, probably not coincidentally, had terrible violence in his own family. We understand. We don’t want to believe, a bazillion albums later, that we were wrong about him this whole time. We don’t want to believe we fell in love with a shithead. And so, like Rihanna, we want to give him just one more chance, defend him, blame her, make excuses, take him back. Makes sense to me. It’s human, and it’s American. During the election of 2004, many of us did exactly the same thing.

There’s some twisted faux-feminism at work here, too: the distorted idea that, now that we’re all go-girl and kick-ass and almost-president, women somehow can’t be victims anymore. And then there’s our hack-tastic media culture, in which “balanced” reporting means giving some sort of space to the “other side,” no matter how preposterous its claims, and then failing to call them out, because that would be “unfair,” or at least, it would alienate those who empathize with Brown.

We clearly have yet to forever trash certain grave misconceptions about partner violence and violence against women. “These two are this sweet, successful couple that people swooned over. News like this is so shocking that it’s hard for people to make sense of it. So they blame the victim,” says Dr. Jill A. Murray, author of several books about teen violence, whom I reached while she was on a break from a daylong dating-abuse education program at a San Diego school. “They think, ‘There must be something we didn’t know.’ And that something must be Rihanna.”

Lynn Harris is an award-winning journalist, author of the comic novel Death by Chick Lit , and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net.