It's human nature to poke our noses into other people's relationships. Whether it's the noisy couple from next door, our adulterous cousins or red carpet-bothering A-listers, we can't resist passing judgement at the love matches of others. Even the biggest celebrity gossip refusenik would have been aware of one supposedly defunct couple still making the headlines despite separating over three years ago - singers Rihanna and Chris Brown.
Thanks to every publication from supermarket checkout pulp to highbrow broadsheet, you know the drill: on their way to a pre-Grammys party in LA, the two started to argue and Brown unleashed an assault on his girlfriend, punching her and attacking her with his car keys. Rihanna was left cut and badly bruised; Brown was sentenced to community service and domestic violence counselling, along with five years' probation. Brown made a muted public apology, but in subsequent interviews has in turns claimed not to remember the incident or merely thrown tantrums to avoid talking about it.
Rihanna's immediate response was to channel her energies into creating her Rated R album with a spikier, more mature sound. Revenge was a dish best served from the top of the charts.
And so the world continued, safe and secure in the straightforward world where bad guy = Brown and good guy = Rihanna.
Lately, however, there has been a distinct change in temperature toward the two. Despite a series of Twitter tirades decrying his 'haters' - without whom he probably wouldn't achieve even a third of the column inches he's enjoyed - Brown is selling records again, his controversial appearance and subsequent haul of awards at the Grammys in early 2012 cementing his comeback. His fanbase acts like the brutal attack in the car never happened.
Rihanna has begun to attract criticism for resuming contact with pugnacious ex, inviting him to appear on a remix of one of her album tracks, Birthday Cake. The reaction of the media was one of horror. Like watching the heroine in a slasher movie check out that strange noise coming from upstairs, it watched, powerless, as Rihanna seemingly stumbled back into the R&B bad boy's affections. While she has not openly condemned him before, this act seemed like some kind of validation of his behaviour. Rihanna's previous silence on the subject made us feel better. Even if she wasn't explicitly saying it, her silence suggested she was angry, an emotion we could understand. We'd be angry too, and we wouldn't forgive - at least that's what we told ourselves. Yet we forgive people all the time. Who's to say we wouldn't forgive someone who beat us up? The idea may seem shocking, but it isn't at all unusual - plenty of victims of domestic violence 'forgive' their aggressor, and many of those go on to reunite and give things another go, whether friends or family like it or not.
And so the next phase of the aftermath of the attack finally began, just as it had been threatening to do ever since the very early rumours that the pair had met up in secret: it was time to blame the victim.
Commentators rounded on Rihanna, labelling her an idiot and warning her if she were to reconcile with Brown, he would only hit her again, despite there being no evidence the relationship was back on.
As if the duet wasn't hard enough to swallow, in a recent interview with the one-woman, pastel-trousered confessional booth Oprah Winfrey, the singer went one further. She acknowledged she'd been alarmed by the public's anger toward Brown, that she considered his actions were a cry for help and, tellingly, she admitted, "We love each other and probably always will".
Rihanna's refusal to play ball and remain hostile toward Brown has opened her up to criticism, some from fellow celebrities. Sure, they wanted an outpouring of emotion, to see her broken and resentful. But to admit she still loved him? Unthinkable! Her detractors conveniently forget the way love and emotion works. At the end of an affair, feelings and passion don't admit defeat, clear their desk and leave without fuss; they claw their way out, refusing to go, hanging on for dear life. They leave marks.
Rihanna was ready to move on, and the wider world simply couldn't understand it - for them the police pictures of the star's bruised, swollen face were still fresh, her life a series of captions in magazines, forgetting they had not lived the day-to-day recovery Rihanna herself had no choice but to go through. Her actions confused and disappointed her supporters; they felt let down.
Rihanna's wistful revelation poses a problem. She may be trying to put the issue to bed, but 'we' are still angry with Brown. He doesn't seem to care that much about what happened, is still shifting albums all over the place and no amount of pithy, no-star album reviews or character assassinations have dimmed his celebrity.
Does Rihanna have a responsibility to stay angry? She didn't ask to be attacked, and she certainly hasn't encouraged the public to be outraged on her behalf. She has become an unwilling poster girl for domestic violence, an obligation thrust upon her because of her fame.
Chris Brown, of course, appears unworthy of Rihanna's forgiveness; he didn't even have to beg for it. If he had shown more humility and maturity, Rihanna's nostalgic outpourings might be easier to stomach. Isn't her reaction and subsequent mournful account of the end of the relationship more honest? Is she supposed to play to the gallery, say she hates Brown, that she'll never forgive him and that she doesn't care what happens to him? We can condemn the violent act, but we can't expect Rihanna to continue being the victim, even if the thought of her being on friendly terms with Brown makes us bilious. The irony, of course, is that Rihanna is slated for her forgiveness, yet we cheer when Brown is injured in a nightclub fight, at first rumoured to be in retaliation for the attack on Rihanna, but later downplayed.
So while Chris Brown enjoys his place back at the banqueting table of R&B megastars, Rihanna is faced with a conundrum: stay angry, like the public want; or be more human, fallible. Fury may satisfy the public's bloodlust, but it wouldn't be of much use to her.
Rihanna and Brown still get asked about the fight in interviews, three years on, because the public aren't satisfied; it still feels unresolved to the casual observer. Rihanna isn't vengeful enough; Brown shows no remorse. Rumours circulated that the pair would appear together at the MTV Video Music Awards, but while this failed to materialise, the ex-lovers were caught on camera in a reconciliatory hug after Rihanna crossed the stage to greet Brown while an award was being presented.
Although it may leave a nasty taste in the mouth, perhaps it's time to let them get on with it. Continue to hold Brown to account, yes. Highlight the importance of remorse and rehabilitation, of course. Be angry? That's up to us. But if Rihanna doesn't want any part of it, by prolonging the trauma she is so keen to leave behind, don't we become the bully?
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