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Rihanna is still doing Chris Brown’s emotional housework

rihanna and oprah winfrey 1345469729 view 1 300x240 Rihanna is still doing Chris Brown’s emotional houseworkRihanna’s protectiveness towards Chris Brown, whose fists styled her for the most disturbing celebrity headshot in recent years, places her in the company of countless beaten wives and girlfriends. A new study on domestic abuse argues that women who act as caregivers to their abusers are engaged in “emotional housework,” an understandable but futile attempt to clean up the squalid minds and behavior of their attackers.

“I’m not at peace if he’s a little unhappy or still lonely. I care. It actually matters that he finds peace,” Rihanna said in a tearful interview aired on Oprah Winfrey’s Network this week. In the aftermath of the assault, she said, she was more concerned for him than for herself. The interview drew speculation about Rihanna’s mental health, weary cautions from advocates against domestic abuse, mixed verdicts from PR mavens on what it all means for “Rihanna’s brand,” and a well-intentioned if uncharacteristically prosaic defense at Jezebel, the feminist news site.

“Emotional housework” refers to the task of “trying hard to counsel, manage and ‘fix’ the abuser” in the study ‘Everyday Terrorism: how fear works in domestic abuse’, to be published by Durham University on 31 August.  Attempting to scrub and polish the abuser’s psyche is a common initial reaction to abuse in women and sometimes endures long-term. Survivors of abuse who were interviewed for the study said they initially felt compassion for their abuser, in addition to shock and fear, and many believed at first that if they tried hard enough they could help him resolve his anger and emotional pain.

“I just felt like he made that mistake because he needed help,” Rihanna said of Brown, who punched, bit and choked her in February 2009, hours before they were due to appear at the Grammys. In the aftermath of the attack, she was afraid of what the exposure and criticism would mean for him: “It became a circus and I felt protective. Who’s gonna help him? Nobody’s gonna say he needs help. Everybody’s gonna say he’s a monster without looking at the source.”

Her words were eerily similar to those of a survivor, “Jennifer,” interviewed for the study: “My reaction was to feel sorry for him because I thought, wow, you know something must have really upset him for him to react like that… I was basically his carer in those situations right, [when] he was attacking me.” (The survivors featured in the study had all left their abusive relationships. Most were living in Edinburgh or Fife at the time of the interviews, which took place between January and June this year.)

Emotional housework closely parallels the household labour and management that are also largely women’s responsibility, according to the report. “The unequal division of emotional labour in almost all relationships, whether or not they are abusive, means that when abuse starts a women is primed to try to help the guy with his feelings,” said Rachel Pain, lead investigator, this week. Commonly, abusers promote the idea that it is the victim, not them, who bears responsibility for the abuse, and also for trying to fix it.

Gender norms can also shape abusive situations in which men are targeted.  “We know less about the emotional dynamics of domestic abuse where men are the victims, but there is evidence that caregiving roles and men’s sense of familial duty may be distorted and played on by the abuser in similar ways,” said Pain.

The light-bulb moment occurs for victims when they realize their efforts have no effect on the abuser’s behavior and are part of the cycle of abuse. Victims whose family and friends recognize that reality tend to leave abusive relationships sooner. “What people around you are saying about the abuse is critical. Because society minimizes it, individuals do too when it happens to them,” said Pain, who is Professor of Geography at Durham University and conducted the study in collaboration with Scottish Women’s Aid. The neutral response by some celebrities to Chris Brown’s attack on Rihanna has parallels with the lack of support described by survivors featured in the report.

“Violent partners need intervention too,” says Pain, “but that role should not fall to their victims. One of the problems with taking on all the emotional housework is that you can spend your life trying to clean up after someone else, but it never stops them making the mess.”

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  • http://twitter.com/LouMcCudden Louise McCudden

    I remember reading Ally Fogg’s article about this. The subtext is irrelevant, being annoying/wimpy/fat/ugly/whiny/etc doesn’t make domestic violence anything other than horrific.

    Or is it only wrong to beat up people you personally happen to like?

  • stonedwolf

    I think it’s the other way round, the overt message is being subverted by the way the show’s creators have decided to spin the characters. It’s not that it’s not a serious subject, it’s that I think the show’s writers aren’t treating it seriously.

    Setting does matter even if it shouldn’t. If you were told you need to lose a little weight – half a stone or so – by a physically fit doctor, you might accept that advice and talk through it without ever feeling surprised or resentful. You *should* feel *exactly* the same way about that advice if you were given it by a 33 stone nurse, but you’d be a god among mammals if you did.

    That’s what the show’s creators are doing, I think. Using the public pretext of public interest with relationship violence and being “brave” showing the woman as aggressor, the ethnic African as aggressor, but the way they’re actually writing it the sympathy is with the aggressor, or at least against the victim.

    Tyrone should live with his mum and let the sexboxing beauty find a true equal.

  • FoundInSpace

    Louise, I myself have more experience in this than I would wish on anyone. A bad marriage to an abusive wife ended with her attacking me then reporting me to the police as the perpetrator. She used the subsequent chaos and my utter bewilderment to remove my child from my life. This shattering experience exposed to me much of the grotesque inequities, poor reasoning and downright prejudice of so many of the people who purport to be working in defense of victims. They can often be simultaneously some of the most gullible, vindictive and vengeful people. It is routinely exposed in their language. They believe what they want to believe. Thus if the press tells them what they want to hear, their blood is instantly up and they’re on the warpath (which is exactly what the press wants). What they want to hear is that they are right, all of the time, and the bad guys (note “guys”) are obvious to all and should be reduced to pulp in the shortest possible order. This is so close to any reasonable definition of abuse that I, for one, after over ten years of suffering it, know that is exactly what it is.

    Louise, I was left to deal with my “victimhood” (I hate that word) on my own, I had literally no support outside of my close family and I was far away from them. Worse, I was under attack by the very people who should have been there to help. Years later, I am still trying to rebuild myself but I will not tolerate any more of the reflexively judgmental, vengeful crap which merely exacerbates so many problems. I am left with a sense of pure disgust at it.

    In short, whatever your experience, you do not know what is really going on amongst these celebrities, you only know what the press is telling you. Direct experience tells me that this is very unlikely to be a fair picture at all. Nevertheless, you feel justified in declaring that what we see here is excuse, not forgiveness, and then peddle the “cycle of abuse” BS which, as I say, is just another jingoistic shortcut behind which hides a great deal more complexity than is convenient to admit.


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