In late January, Rihanna publicly confirmed what many fans had suspected for months -- that she and Chris Brown, who is currently on probation for assaulting her in 2009, had reconciled and were officially an item again.
The five-time Grammy winner is among the hardest-working and most successful pop stars of the new century. She has recorded six chart-topping studio albums in as many years, and is worth tens of millions of dollars from record sales and numerous endorsement deals.
But even when estranged from Brown in the years immediately following the assault, Rihanna was not able to put any meaningful distance between her overall public image and the image of her battered face that was splashed all over the Internet, via a leaked LAPD file photo, in the days after the beating. And more recently, rather than working to live down the incident, Rihanna and Brown both appear to be complicit in extending the dark narrative of their romance. In a peculiar and deeply unsettling way, the violence and the images associated with it have become elements of some kind of dysfunctional, provocative artistic expression.
Last September, well after the singers had reunited as friends and were rumored to be getting romantically involved again, Brown showed off a new tattoo on his neck – an image that looked uncomfortably similar to Rihanna’s battered face in the leaked police file photo. Brown’s publicist denied the tattoo had anything to do with Rihanna, and the tattoo artist produced a design associated with the Mexican Day of the Dead that he said Brown had instructed him to use as a guide for creating that tattoo. Still, many were unconvinced.
Then in November, Rihanna’s battered face appeared on posters promoting Brown’s concert in Stockholm. It was unclear who was behind the poster's creation, but the concert promoters released a statement asking critics to "distinguish between the artist and the private person that is Chris Brown.”
In the months before their reunion was officially confirmed, the troubled pair dropped hints -- dripping with attitude -- that they had rekindled their romance: with photos and thinly veiled references shared on Twitter and Instagram, or more directly, a November 2012 collaboration on the single “Nobody’s Business,” which includes clear references to their relationship and the public’s obsession with it. The song lyrics lift a line from Michael Jackson's “The Way You Make Me Feel” – “ain't nobody's business but mine and my baby” – but some concerned fans and media outlets worried the single was instead an homage to “Ain't Nobody's Business,” a classic blues song written in the 1920s and famously recorded by Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, among others. In some versions, including Washington's, there are clear and unapologetic references to accepting domestic violence from a lover.
Since making it official in the Rolling Stone article, Rihanna has been doubling down on public displays of commitment to Brown, even accompanying him to a probation hearing as part of his sentence for assaulting her. Despite the lyrical insistence that their relationship is nobody's business, Rihanna and Brown – aka “Breezy” – seem to be intent on rubbing our faces in it. On Sunday, they will reportedly attend the Grammy awards together, a public appearance that is sure to recall the 2009 Grammy Award ceremony that Rihanna did not attend, compliments of the beating she took the night before.
The 2013 Grammy Awards also inevitably brings to mind the late Whitney Houston, who was found dead last year in the bathtub of her Beverly Hilton hotel room the day of Clive Davis' pre-Grammy party at the same location. It's easy to draw parallels between Rihanna and Houston, who was a formidable influence on the young pop star's career. Rihanna has also reportedly compared her love story to that of Houston and Bobby Brown, who the late singer admitted in interviews was prone to violence. Of course, Houston's marriage to Brown was not subject to the same no-holds-barred media invasion of the TMZ era in which Rihanna has come of age: Houston and Brown, for better or worse, were somewhat better able to control the narrative of their troubled romance.
And perhaps that is exactly what Rihanna is attempting to do. Indeed, there is something about her defiant embrace of a potentially explosive love affair that has an element of media savvy to it. The public fascination – horror, in some cases – with the rekindled romance means that she and Brown are guaranteed nonstop media attention. But this time, Rihanna can tell herself, and us, that the exposure is on her terms.
“That's the whole thing about the packaging of being a celebrity,” Robert Thompson, a media studies scholar who runs the Bleir Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, told the International Business Times. “You just don't know: What is a sincere decision? How much of it is packaging of a 'brand'?” he continued. “Is this part of playing the media, who are so incredibly eager to be played?”
The reconciliation also begs the question of whether Rihanna is being played on a more intimate level, by Brown himself. Thompson is inclined to allow for the possibility that Rihanna may know what she is doing, and that she certainly knows her relationship better than those of us observing from the sidelines. But guests on a recent NPR segment devoted to Rihanna and Brown's reconciliation were more convinced that it can only end badly, for Rihanna and possibly for her young fans who see her as a role model.
Leslie Morgan Steiner, a domestic abuse survivor who chronicled the ordeal in her memoir, “Crazy Love,” said she saw troubling parallels between her own experience as a victim of her husband's abuse and Rihanna's willingness to take her abuser back.
“I didn't recognize that I was a battered woman and I didn't recognize how very troubled my husband was,” Steiner said in the segment. “What I thought was that I was a strong, smart woman. I saw myself so much the way Rihanna sees herself. ... I didn't understand that I was in a complex and incredibly dangerous psychological trap.”
Fellow NPR guest Oliver Williams, director of the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African-American Community at the University of Minnesota, pointed out that while Rihanna and Brown's reunion may seem remarkable because of their celebrity status, it mirrors a common pattern in the cycle of domestic abuse.
“We act surprised at what's going on with Chris Brown and Rihanna,” Williams said. “[But] the reality is ... it happens regularly," he said. According to much of the literature on domestic violence, he said, women will leave and go back to their abuser up to six times before it's all over. "They think that they may be able to change him and that they've done something wrong, when in fact he's got to take responsibility for what he has done," Williams said. "And he will be a carrier of violence until he accepts responsibility for it.”
While Brown may have said he accepted responsibility for assaulting Rihanna (in a 2009 apology video he uploaded to YouTube), he has since shown that he may well be a “carrier of violence”: In June 2012, Brown was involved in a New York club brawl with Drake and the rappers' respective entourages; earlier this year, he clashed with Frank Ocean, who announced last week he would not be pressing any charges. In 2011, Brown smashed a chair through a window of his dressing room on the set of “Good Morning America,” after host Robin Roberts pressed him on his violent history with Rihanna during an appearance to promote his album.
Author and relationship expert Dr. Gilda Carle said that it is all too easy for men with a violent past to slip into old habits, despite assurances of being reformed. “When you are in a relationship you feel a modicum of safety,” she said. “You feel like letting down your hair, and that can mean putting up your fists.” Rihanna's decision to let Brown back into her life in spite of his violent tendencies is particularly dangerous, Carle said, because “so many young women are looking at her as a role model.”
In the last few years, Rihanna has dramatically changed her tune about her responsibility as this role model, in what could be the strongest indicator that the pop star is not looking at her relationship, and herself, with both eyes open. In November 2009, in her first television interview after the assault, Rihanna told Diane Sawyer that she left Brown in large part because she knew that staying with him would send the wrong message to young women who look up to her.
“When I realized that my selfish decision for love could result into some young girl getting killed, I could not be easy with that part,” Rihanna said. “I couldn't be held responsible for telling them, 'Go back.' Even if Chris never hit me again, who's to say their boyfriend won't? Who's to say they won't kill these girls?
“I just didn't realize how much of an impact I had on these young girls' lives until that happened,” she added.
A little over three years later, Rihanna insists that she should not be held up as a role model for anyone. “I could never tell a 10-year-old to look at me,” Rihanna told Rolling Stone. “Because I know I'm not perfect. That's not what I signed up for.”
For his part, Thompson says the real problem is not what Rihanna does with her influence over America's impressionable youth, but that she has such influence in the first place.
“We can't expect every celebrity to be a role model,” Thompson insisted. “So many of them are unable to articulate what is in their own best interests, never mind anyone else's.
“If we are depending on Rihanna and Chris Brown to be the touchpoints for our education of an upcoming generation ... that's a big problem,” he said. “But I don't know if it's Rihanna's problem."
Follow @EllenKilloran on Twitter