• Camille

Missing the Point on Chris Brown (Again)

september 29, 2012 by camille hayes leave a comment

God, Chris Brown is such an asshole, it really is exhausting to watch. I’ve sworn off talking about him at least twice now, but then he goes and does something so terrible, again, that I simply CANNOT refrain from saying one thing more. Because Chris Brown isn’t just a plain old bad guy, he’s a guy who is bad in ways that are very illustrative of what’s complicated about batterers, and what’s wrong with the way we respond to them. So let’s discuss Brown’s new neck tattoo, and how a lot of people who’ve been talking about it seem to be missing the point.

To recap: Chris now has a huge tattoo of what looks like a woman’s battered face on his neck, and the resemblance to how Rihanna looked in the police photos is more than passing. (No, I’m not going to link to them.) His handlers  sent forth the requisite spin, which pretty much no one’s buying; we all saw the Rihanna photos, and now we’ve seen the this, and we’re not going to let a PR flack who can’t get a better job than working for a walking fiasco like Brown make that judgment for us.

When the story first appeared online, the responses were about what you’d expect: the tattoo is horrifying, and Chris Brown is awful. On that much, we can all agree. But there was an element to some of the online responses that I found disconcerting, an eagerness to ascribe the worst possible motives to him, which in my view is unhelpful—at least if you’re interested in trying to get men like Chris Brown to stop beating up their girlfriends.

This discussion on Jezebel is an example; the blogger basically says that he got the tattoo because violent men want to “brag” about their aggression, and so they like to display evidence of their conquests. To me, this type of explanation is too imprecise to be useful. It paints Brown as such a cartoon villain that his actual human motives (which do exists, however twisted they are) are not comprehensible to us. Fine, you think Chris Brown is an unrepentant jerk; I’m quite sympathetic to that view. You can feel that way all you want, but the point is that we as a society can’t stop there, if we want to understand batterers and get them to change.

I’ve talked about this before, but I think it bears repeating. If we’re only willing to vilify batterers but aren’t willing to try to comprehend them, then all we’ll ever do is put them in jail—which on the one hand is totally fine with me, because they’re violent and they should go to jail. But on the other hand I think we have some evidence, in the form of the one in four women who will be battered in her lifetime, that incarceration alone is not the best-ever deterrent for this crime. So yes, Chris Brown is a violent, unrepentant jerk who deserved to be prosecuted, and who I think should have faced more severe legal consequences than he did. But what else is he? I don’t think we know, and that’s a very serious problem.  

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