I've started this blog post two or three times and haven't written it yet. Articulating my thoughts on this topic is often hard, because when you're writing about things you've experienced first hand, it's difficult to sound objective.
When the news of the Ray Rice domestic violence videotape hit the internet, I didn't pay much attention at first. I'm guilty of it as much as anyone – I often turn a blind eye to these type of stories, at least at first. Until I'm forced to confront it and bear witness to it. Not because I'm ambivalent, or devoid of compassion, but because these stories happen so often, so frequently, that they have become background noise for everyday life. Just one more domestic violence story, just one more story that will not have a happy ending. I grow tired of the victim blaming, the misogyny, the utter lack of sympathy and compassion that abounds after these things happen. I grow so tired of it that I pretend I don't see it sometimes.
It just feels never-ending, and it's disheartening.
But, you might say, the NFL has suspended Ray Rice! People are trading in their jerseys, people are looking at him for what he is, people have turned against him. That's justice, you might say.
It's too little too late, if you ask me.
I don't want to focus on Ray Rice, though. His story is one of thousands, just one blurb in an endless anthology of of men who are coddled and forgiven, and women who are silenced, manipulated, and hidden.
Yesterday I read that Rihanna – one of the most recognizable and subversive former victims of domestic violence – had been pulled from a scheduled performance at a Ravens game. The decision was made to cancel her performance because promoters thought that her presence, as someone so closely tied into the issue of partner violence/abuse, would be inappropriate.
Well, you guys failed. You majorly fucking failed. You took a teachable moment, an empowering moment, and you put the kibosh on it. Way to go. You just validated every abuser out there, by once again silencing and hiding a former victim.
Guess what the perfect title is for this Rihanna album?
I'm sure the guys at the NFL weren't thinking about it this way – they probably thought they were avoiding a difficult, awkward situation and saving Rihanna and all victims of domestic violence the pain associated with it. But here's the thing: having Rihanna there to sing and perform would have been the perfect balm for the festering, raw would so many of us are feeling. Why? Because Rihanna, and others like her (Madonna also comes to mind) is the type of former victim we should be looking toward. She is unapologetic, fierce, and absolutely in control of her art and her image.
When Rihanna was abused by Chris Brown a few years ago, the internet reached mass hysteria, making public the pictures of her private pain, sharing the details of the beating she took with an almost fervent glee, mothering her, fetishizing her. We speculated about how weak she must be when she was seen with Brown soon after. We were disappointed when she didn't want to talk about it, to get her feelings out. We felt sorry for her, we pitied her, and when she didn't act the way we wanted her to – instead of hiding away to cry and drown her sorrows, she appeared like a butterfly from a cocoon, refreshed, getting tattoos, a new hair do, releasing new songs, being unapologetic and fearless – we started to hate her.
Rihanna told us herself that she was not a role model for victims. She did not want to be that. She was beaten by someone she loved, but that did not automatically sign her up as a spokesperson. But! But! But! We cried. We felt shocked, scandalized. Here was a woman who had been beaten by someone she loved, the pictures shared with the world, the story known to everyone – and she wasn't in hiding? She wasn't even sorry? She didn't want to dedicate herself to her victimhood, become the voice for those like her? How dare she?
A part of me can't help but wonder, knowing this, if the NFL removed Rihanna from that performance because she's not the face of domestic violence that they (and we) want her to be. She's defiant, she's a little selfish, she's uninterested in our pity or sympathy. She doesn't fit the mold, and she won't play the game.
Most women who are victims or former victims of domestic violence are ignored, belittled, invalidated and misunderstood. Society has a very specific checklist of things a victim must do or say to win the token sympathy – if they fail on even one or two, well then, “they deserve what they get and I don't feel sorry for her.”
Our victims must be beautiful, frail, quietly reserved (reflecting on that inner pain), never angry, always forgiving and understanding of their abuser (after all, deep inside him is a little boy who suffered once) all the while distancing yourself from him, appreciative of the nuggets of sympathy and pity they receive, thrown to them like scraps to a dog, always submissive, always a little bit off-guard, gun shy, damaged. Beautiful. Frail. Beautiful. Frail. Redeemable. Forgiving. Frail.
We love to take care of pretty, damaged women. If you rob us of that, well, we can't really help you.
But the thing is, you have to do all of the above and do it on your own.
Nobody likes a drain on society. Don't ask us for our sympathy, our money, or our support. If you go back to him, (once, twice or seven times) it's your own damn fault and you deserve what happens to you. But if you can't leave on your own, and you ask for help, well, sorry. He's blocking the door with a baseball bat? Climb out the window. He's threatening to kill your pets? It's just a cat. He froze your bank account? Ask a friend for some cash. He siphoned the gas out of your car? Take the bus. He's threatening to kill himself? Call the cops. The cops don't take you seriously? Sounds like a load of feminist bullshit to me. For every excuse you have, we've got a reason to ignore it. Just leave him. It's that easy. It's that easy. It's that easy.
But be beautiful and frail, yet full of resolve, while you do it. We want that quiet pride, the surging of violins behind your beautiful eyes as they raise upward to the sky to show that you made it! You pulled up your bootstraps and you left him! You have to give us something to love, after all. We need a feel-good story.
God forbid you be angry. Never use your experience, your voice, to educate others or speak out against injustice. Nobody likes a nag. Nobody likes to be reminded of unpleasant things. We want your pretty tears, not your unbridled rage.
Here's the problem. I'm in the latter group, the Rihanna group. Yes, I'm a former victim of domestic violence. Emphasis on FORMER. I am not a victim forever; I am not defined by my victimhood. I am not forever marred, I'm not weak, I'm not fragile or frail. I don't need protecting. I don't want sympathy from the masses.
If I had to ask for anything I'd ask for a little basic compassion, support when I need it, but most importantly, understanding. I'd ask for anyone to thinks to raise their voice in judgment against someone who has been battered, to just take a moment and read some resources about domestic violence. Take the time to educate yourself about violence against partners and children. Read about the cycle, about how someone makes the transition from a one-time victim to a battered person. Read about the average number of times it takes for a woman to successfully leave her abuser. Read about the financial, spiritual, physical, sexual and moral repercussions involved with leaving an abusive partner. Read the statistics, the percentages, the utterly staggering numbers relating to the abuse, rape and murder of women in this country. Read, and read some more. Educate yourself. Before you spout off the victim-blaming, with the navel gazing excuses you spew out every time, just stop. Stop and think.
Not every victim of violence is like Rihanna. Many of us suffer silently, never telling about our abuse. Some of us require therapy, counseling, medication. Some of us never leave, some of us are killed. Some forever bear the scars. Every experience is valid.
But maybe, just once, we should have let Rihanna sing. She doesn't want to be the voice of domestic violence, and that's fair. But she could have been the voice of female empowerment, a living testament that you don't have to be reduced by your circumstances, that you can come out on the other side loving yourself, loving your life, in control and happily defiant. We are strong and we are here. No matter what mistakes we've made, we're never deserving of abuse. We don't have to fit the mold. It is never our fault. We're not going to sit down or stay hidden. We are unapologetic. That's a message I can get behind.
For that, I am happy. For that, I smile.