It starts with a link. “Ray Rice Elevator Knockout: Fiancée Takes Crushing Punch,” “Rihanna Bloodied, Beaten, Bitten by Chris Brown,” “Christy Mack Severely Beaten By War Machine.” A celebrity has been brutally assaulted by her famous partner? Of course we have to look. Of course we have to share. Of course we have to comment.
The worldwide statistics for intimate partner violence are one in four. That adds up to an unfathomable number of police reports, graphic images, and horrific surveillance videos—the kind that never find their way on to TMZ. And then there’s the silence of those who, for various reasons such as health and safety concerns, will never report their partner’s abusive behavior. These victims are your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers. The NFL is not the only organization that employs and protects abusers. Janay Rice is not the only woman to have stayed.
It’s not hard to explain why instances of celebrity abuse dominate the news cycle for weeks, while the underlying trends of domestic abuse are largely under-discussed and tacitly accepted as the norm. Stars belong to us. Their bodies are sites for conversation, dissection, and condemnation: she’s had plastic surgery, she hasn’t lost the baby weight, she looks like a prude, she looks like a slut.
As perverse as our societal urge to watch a video of Ray Rice beating up his girlfriend is, our celebrity-obsessed culture encourages this sort of un-examined voyeurism. More interesting than why we watch is how we watch: critical, prejudiced, with an eye towards acquitting abusers and re-victimizing survivors.
From Janay Rice to Christy Mack to Rihanna, our obsession with celebrity victims has reached an all-time high. In analyzing these women’s stories, eagerly sniffing for traces of dishonesty or guilt, we often end up concluding that the survivor was asking for it. A wealthy, powerful woman who was assaulted by her partner ultimately becomes suspect—how did she not know this was going to happen? What did she do to trigger the attack? Why didn’t she leave that man? Obviously, the majority of victims of intimate partner violence aren’t celebrities—but these cases still offer a powerful window into the criticism we level against survivors, as well as the shocking lack of blame we squarely place on their abusers.
For a man who has been accused of sexual assault, celebrity affords certain privileges. A famous football player like Ray Rice has a legion of supporters who desperately want to believe he is a good man who made a mistake—these are the fans who decried Rice’s NFL suspension as well as the Baltimore Ravens itself as an organization, which tweeted back in May that “Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.”
These are men and women who want to retain faith in an idol, who just want to forgive and forget. A quick scroll through TMZ reveals a plethora of enablers, speaking out in postings like “Baltimore Ravens Players—We Won’t Abandon Ray Rice,” “Dean Cain—I’m rooting for Ray Rice…He’s Not A Terrible Person,” and “MTV Star Big Black Defends Ray Rice…His Wife Forgave Him, We Should Too.”
Even if we take the huge leap of faith of assuming that TMZ’s motive behind releasing the video of Ray Rice beating his then fiancée unconscious in a casino elevator was justice, not page views, this veneer of good intentions is easily rendered transparent by their insistence on publishing these flimsy defenses alongside footage of the brutal attack.
This immensely private, not to mention criminal, case of assault shouldn’t have been offered up in its entirety to the court of public opinion in the first place. No casual clicker should have access to this footage, let alone feel entitled to render some sort of verdict. That being said, as we are clearly passed the point of this private matter being made public, it’s obvious that this video is already enough of a conviction. By offering up apologists without any sort of editorializing, websites like TMZ are reinforcing the myth that there are two sides to every story of domestic abuse—that Ray Rice’s life has somehow been unfairly ruined by his own hideously abusive crime.
This persistent trend of bemoaning the “life ruining” consequences of intimate partner violence accusations, no matter how blatant the crime, is as entrenched as it is unsubstantiated. If the future careers and good reputations of poor (but clearly not innocent) male celebrities is truly a concern, then why did the NFL initially choose to only suspend Ray Rice for two games, despite recent allegations by law enforcement officials that the organization had access to the entirety of the video footage at the time of their ruling? Why did they only punish Rice indefinitely when the full weight of public opinion forced them to increase their sanctions—proving that this major American institution does not deem intimate partner violence in and of itself to be a grave or fire-able offense?
The common narrative is not one of abusers losing their livelihoods—rather, at least in these high-profile celebrity cases, the exact opposite seems to be the case. Charlie Sheen, Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Nicolas Cage, Eminem, and Sean Connery are just a handful of an elite group of mega-famous abusers—men who by all accounts are hardly living paycheck by paycheck, or facing any substantive, daily consequences for their crimes.
Meanwhile, the celebrities who were the victims of these crimes, as opposed to the abusers, are paradoxically run through the ringer, constantly re-victimized through ignorant questions, victim-blaming comments, all-around privacy invasion and, last but certainly not least, an unavoidable and inextricable link to a crime they did not deserve and never asked for. While the simple fact of being a male celebrity seems to allow many abusers to receive comments of encouragement and sympathy, being a female celebrity and victim allows for no such privileges. Instead, these women are constantly policed, seemingly to ensure that they don’t receive an ounce of undeserved assistance or pity.
At first, it might seem like only anonymous trolls would be insensitive enough to insist that Janay’s loyalty to her husband means that all future abuse is warranted. However, even reputable news sources and well meaning celebrities are guilty of implying that she should have known better. Evelyn Lozada, former wife of the Miami Dolphins’ Chad Johnson, left her husband just weeks after they were married when his behavior turned abusive. Commenting on the Ray Rice incident, Lozada tweeted that, “I just want women to love themselves enough to leave.”
What’s so concerning is the way this opinion is framed through articles that praise Lozada as Janay Rice’s counterpart, noting that, “she is a great model for those who have been abused.” Time and time again, we see women being asked to ace some arbitrary test in order to be deemed model victims. While the public seems reticent to admit that celebrities can be abusers, they’re all too quick to deny stars the moniker of victim.
It seems that, in the eyes of the Internet, not all abuse is truly abuse; some of it is deserved, and we should reserve all of our sympathy for true survivors. But what makes a victim not a “real” victim? In the case of Janay Rice, it's her decision to stay with and marry her abuser. Instead of honing in on the question of why men hit, we find ourselves asking why women stay—as if this personal decision makes one’s abuse, and all subsequent abuse, somehow deserved or invalid. When public figures like Fox News host Brian Kilmeade criticize women like Janay Rice for not leaving their abusive husbands, saying they send a “terrible message,” they are actively feeding a system that funnels blame away from abusers and on to the victims themselves.
Rihanna is just another high-profile example of a woman who was denied her “true victim” status on account of reuniting with her abuser, Chris Brown; never mind the shocking statistic that leaving an abusive relationship increases a woman’s risk of being killed by her abuser by 75 percent, or that among African-American women killed by a partner, almost half were killed while in the process of cutting off that relationship.
But staying with your abuser isn’t the only way to undermine the legitimacy of your attack. Just ask Rihanna again, or Christy Mack, two celebrities who were deemed unsuitable victims due to their alleged sexual promiscuity. When the Rihanna incident first leaked in 2009, online trolls alleged that the abuse was “caused” by Rihanna giving Chris Brown an STI. One commenter wrote that this unsubstantiated rumor clearly meant that “Rihanna had what was coming to her.”
Similarly, in her piece on the August attack of adult entertainment star Christy Mack by her ex-boyfriend Jonathan Koppenhaver, Samantha Allen noted that, “The boundaries between pornography and reality are strategically dismantled in order to dismiss her real-life experiences of abuse by equating them with her staged performances on-camera.” In other words, people believe that Mack’s work as a porn star somehow leads to attack, or at least renders her an unsympathetic victim. According to one Twitter user featured in the article, “You could have easily prevented this—your lifestyle leaves you open to violence and other abuse.”
Of course, it’s easier to distance oneself from a victim by condemning her choices than to admit that intimate partner violence and sexual assault could happen to anyone, regardless of the decisions that they make. The fact that a woman could make all the “right” choices and still find herself victimized is part of the terrifying nature of these crimes—as is our shared societal culpability in creating a culture in which abusers are exonerated and victims are punished in their stead.
We live in a world in which we accuse celebrity victims of ruining their own lives, and then proceed to actually do so by limiting their freedom, privacy, autonomy, and voice. We live in a world where these highlighted cases, replete with victim blaming, abuser acquittal, and institutional ignorance, are an unfathomable fraction of the millions of abuses that men and women face worldwide.
The stories we hear, from the condemnation of Janay Rice for staying with her husband to the slut shaming of Christy Mack to the refusal to release Rihanna from her unwanted role as the celebrity face of domestic abuse, aren’t half as scary as the silence—the stories that are being repressed, the women who are being gagged, and the voices that will never be heard.