Chris Brown's choices following the violent incident that took place in a car in February on the night of the Grammy Awards did not surprise me, and neither did Diane Sawyer in her recent 20/20 interview of Brown's girlfriend, the victim of his attack. They both pretty much did what I would have expected them to do. On the other hand, Rhianna blew me away in the Sawyer interview and MTV's Sway turned out to be the best role model of all. Trying to sort out what happened between these two very young, very big superstars is not an easy task. But anytime abuse and violence against women hits the news, usually by way of celebrities, it is a rare opportunity for awareness and education surrounding an issue that most people would prefer to ignore, that thrives in secrecy and silence. Brown reminded us of that, after Rhianna's appearance on 20/20, by releasing a statement saying that he feels "all details should remain a private matter between us".
While some have said that if it can happen to this wildly successful, power couple, it can happen to anyone, in this case it is more relevant to contemplate Rhianna's take on fame in the Sawyer interview. She describes the freedom that comes with fame, the absence of limits and boundaries or right and wrong, never being told "no", just doing exactly as you please. Chris Brown was 19 at the time of the incident, having become famous after he burst onto the music scene at just 16 years old. He has stated that some of the biggest stars of the rap and hip-hop music scene reached out to him after the story broke so it is safe to assume that he holds membership in one of the most macho clubs in the world, a musical club whose members feel entitled by fame, money and power. Rapper T.I., a fellow member, was criticized for his comments about Chris Brown stating that "I spoke to him today. He's cool, you know. He's a little concerned about the situation, but he's still the same Chris ... This too shall pass." T.I. later apologized saying he shouldn't have commented before understanding the situation, PR code for he shouldn't have expressed how he really feels because some people won't think it's cool, you know.
Predictably, Chris Brown obviously had a crash course on all the right things to say in the months following the February incident. Rhianna said that he looked as though he might be reading from a teleprompter when he posted an on-line video apology. It was no surprise to hear him say that he took responsibility, he had anger issues, this was not the person he wanted to be, and abuse of any kind is wrong. Who is to say whether he really means those things and can even process his part in all of this yet or whether he is desperately trying to save his public image and his astoundingly successful music career. It didn't help when he released photos of himself enjoying jet skiing, or when he wore a huge necklace allegedly valued at $30,000 that said "oops", or when he twittered a photo of himself performing community service with a tag saying "check out my outfit". He was also criticized for saying on Larry King Live that he didn't remember his violent outburst. You only have to review his performance at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, with a surprise appearance by Rhianna, to see that he is a monumental talent and I'm sure he meant it when he said that this experience has been very humbling.
Rhianna's powerful, focused, and tough 20/20 appearance was surprising. So often, media personalities who are famous in their own right are credited for a great interview, skillfully finding a way to elicit the tough answers from their guests. But Rhianna barely needed Diane, who dwelled on the police report, asking for repeated confirmation of injuries by simply adding a question mark (he bit you?, you had a mouth full of blood?, he hit you?). When Diane said that it takes an average of seven times for an abuse victim to return to her abuser before she finally leaves, Rhianna said it was more like eight or nine, "actually." If Rhianna had the same coaching that Chris Brown had, she is a far better student than he is. Watching her choose her words carefully, you didn't get the impression that it was for a selfish purpose. She seems to grasp that she has become the public face of domestic violence and a role model for young women who are in the same situation, going so far as to say she is glad it happened to her so that she can now help. Her advice was not to act out of love because love is blind. "F love," she said. She explained her initial return to Chris after the incident as natural, but a mistake, reporting that she quickly came to resent him and was annoyed by him. "I know how to make a decision for me." She proved that in the interview with her strength, powerful body language, and determination. The body heals, she said, but the scars inside are more painful and have a way of coming back. That's pretty good insight from a 21 year old woman who has had to bear humiliating photographs of herself posted all over the world, an experience most crime victims aren't required to face.
Admittedly, I am not a regular MTV viewer and may even have to own up to a somewhat unfair negative opinion of the channel based on stereotypical perceptions of raunchy videos and reality programming, neither of which I actually watch. But based on Sway's November 2 interview of Chris Brown, MTV deserves a lot of credit for the many things they did right. It started with a staggering statistic noting that this year, 1.3 million women will be victims of a violent assault by an intimate partner. Unlike Rhianna, Brown's body language was not empowered and he vacillated from being scared to confused to downright bewildered as to how he could find himself in this situation. Sway, described in his MTV bio as an icon of hip-hop culture and a pivotal part of the MTV News team, never let Brown off the hook but never appeared judgmental either. He asked the tough, appropriate questions and when Brown squirmed or gave an answer that didn't quite measure up, Sway just let it sit there and do its own damage.
One powerful moment came when Sway showed a video clip of an interview Brown did with MTV when he was 16, talking about how abusive his stepfather was to his mom and how he and his sister urged her to leave the relationship. Sway asked Brown what triggered his behavior, what kind of work he has done for himself since then, and what prompted some of his questionable public choices since the incident, stating that people don't believe he took it seriously enough. Sway's questions were more insightful than Brown's answers across the board. More statistics followed including that one in three teens will find themselves in an abusive relationship and 80 percent of teens know someone who has been a victim of abusive behavior. Sway then brought in a developmental psychologist who said not to be ashamed if you find yourself in such a situation, confide in someone you trust, get out of the relationship and remember that violence is never acceptable, and is always wrong. On two occasions, resources were put up on the screen where viewers could get help, including the MTV website which features videos about the warning signs of teen dating violence. Sway ended by saying "hold your head up, keep it righteous, and be safe."
Fan comments on this story have run the gamut including suspicion that Rhianna is speaking now due to the upcoming release of her album, wanting to get this out of the way so she can move on with her career. But who can criticize that? As she said, it happened to her, she didn't do anything. Some have even blamed her professional image, citing her revealing costumes as a contributing cause for the assault. Why didn't she speak sooner? Maybe a 21 year old girl who woke up to find 200 media at her home with helicopters circling above just needed some time to move through the experience before she tried to share it. It takes some victims years to do that in their own living rooms. She did it in a very responsible, public way and stepped into her survivor role with grace and strength. What more could you ask?