No more free passes to famous men who abuse women

February 12, 2013

Rihanna and Brown, pictured above in 2008, have collaborated on two recordings since the 2009 assault.

Mumford and Sons may have taken home the top award at the Grammys, but that’s not what Twitter was buzzing about Sunday night.

The camera zeroed in on megastar Rihanna, smiling, intertwined with and resting her head on Chris Brown’s shoulder. The snuggle fest began trending on Twitter with comments about how “in love” and “phenomenal” the couple looked together.

How perfect after Rihanna’s interview about their reunion for Rolling Stone’s Valentine’s Day issue.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Forgive me for bringing this up, but have we already forgotten what happened four years ago?

Allow me to jog your memory. The night before the 2009 Grammy Awards, Rihanna and Brown were taking a drive. They began to argue. Brown then proceeded to bang Rihanna’s head against the car window, bite and punch her repeatedly and even threatened to kill her.

As I watched Brown on Sunday slide his arm around Rihanna and grin into the camera, I couldn’t help but think of what he tweeted after storming out of his infamous 2011 interview on “Good Morning America”: “I’m so over people bringing this past s**t up!!! Yet we praise Charlie sheen and other celebs for their bulls**t.”

Well, he’s partially right.

The entertainment industry isn’t exactly known for weeding out or even punishing male celebrities with histories of violence against women.

Let’s start with Sheen, a habitual abuser. In 1990, he shot his fiancee Kelly Preston in the arm. While the incident was dismissed as an accident, she promptly broke off the engagement. Six years later, Sheen was arrested for reportedly beating his girlfriend Brittany Ashland. He pleaded no-contest to the charges and was sentenced to a one-year suspended prison sentence and two years of probation. In 2006, his wife Denise Richards got a restraining order against Sheen for his “continued threats of violence.”

After allegedly assaulting and threatening his wife Brooke Mueller with a knife in 2009, Sheen was charged with felony menacing, third degree assault and criminal mischief. But a plea bargain reduced the charges to misdemeanor assault and a jail sentence of 30 days in rehab, 30 days of probation and 36 hours of anger management.

Actor Sean Penn.

Gossip outlets in recent months have speculated about the possibility of another celebrity reunion—Sean Penn and Madonna. Most of the coverage, interestingly enough, has glossed over Penn’s violent, abusive behavior while the “Poison Penns” were married. Once, Madonna was hospitalized after Penn struck her with a baseball bat. He was charged with domestic assault in 1988 and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. The two divorced a year later.

Sean Connery’s first wife, Diane Cilento, has alleged he verbally and physically abused her while they were married. But, in an interview with Barbara Walters, the former James Bond said he doesn’t think slapping a woman every now and then is a big deal.

The inclusion of rap star Eminem, whose controversial lyrics have explored a myriad of sex crime fantasies like raping his mother and assaulting underage girls, on this list is almost too obvious. In May 2000, he released a song named after his ex-wife, Kim Mathers, in which he verbally abuses her and slits her throat. Later that year, she attempted suicide after watching him perform the song.

Eminem.

In 2010, he collaborated with Rihanna on the song “Love the Way You Lie” about domestic abuse. “It’s something that, [Eminem and I have] both experienced on different sides, different ends of the table,” Rihanna was quoted then as saying.

Many, including Rihanna, praised Eminem for his insightful break-down of the cycle of domestic violence. “Lost” actor Dominic Monaghan, who stars in the music video alongside Megan Fox, told MTV the song shows “there’s nothing sexy or cool or fun about being in a violent relationship.”

Hmm. Perhaps this stab at accountability would have been more believable if other songs on his album entitled “Recovery” weren’t saying the exact opposite. “I’ll be nicer to women when Aquaman drowns and Human Torch starts swimmin,’” he growls in “Cold Wind Blows.”

And then, of course, there’s Woody Allen. No, he has no history of domestic violence but marrying your adopted daughter and allegedly molesting your daughter by birth are pretty nasty (the judge ended up ruling the sex abuse charges were inconclusive).

Likewise, film director Roman Polanksi was arrested in 1977 for raping a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles, but has evaded justice for decades in Europe.

The types of abuse these male celebrities inflicted and the ensuing public reaction differ but what’s more important is what ties them together – they all still have successful careers.

Sheen was the highest-paid actor on TV in 2010. Penn, with two Academy Awards, a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award under his belt, is considered one of the greats and known for his humanitarian work. Connery, with a number of Golden Globes and awards also attached to his name, was voted “Sexiest Man of the Century” in 1999 and “Scotland’s Greatest Living Treasure” in 2011. Who knew hitting a woman could be such a turn-on?

Rolling Stone has named Eminem, one of the best-selling artists in the world, the King of Hip Hop and among the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Allen’s illustrious career in film includes four Oscars, nine BAFTAs and two Golden Globes, and Hollywood continues to allow Polanski to direct blockbuster movies, and major actors, directors, producers and industry executives consistently line up to work with him and to nominate him for Oscars.

Brown’s pouting over the number of get-away-with-abuse-free passes our society doles out to male celebrities doesn’t appear to be so far off. But has he really been denied one? Perhaps Brown’s gotten a little more heat from the media because of the high-profile woman that he beat but let’s do a quick assessment.

Chris Brown.

The R&B artist was charged with felony assault, but did no jail time. Brown was in court just last week facing allegations that he falsified community service records, the same community service he was supposed to do for assaulting Rihanna. The case has been adjourned for another two months. Three years after attacking Rihanna, Brown won his first Grammy. And his performance at the 2012 award show was widely celebrated as his “comeback.”

Doesn’t look like Brown’s doing so bad after all.

Some have called us a bunch of haters. But, as She the People colleague Michelle Bernard wrote yesterday, “Domestic violence, the propensity of some to accept it, its causes, and its aftermath is everyone’s business.”

After all, 22 percent to 25 percent of American women will face domestic violence at some point in their lifetimes.

Last year, Anea Bogue of the non-profit social campaign Miss Representation listed “nine disturbing messages that will perpetuate the self-esteem crisis among girls and women unless we collectively speak up.” Guess what made No. 7: “Men beating the crap out of their female partners just isn’t that big a deal.” Evidence A: The success of and support for Chris Brown.

But, as evinced by the exhaustingly long list of violence and abuse perpetrators and victims in Hollywood, the problem is bigger than Chrihanna (cringe).

“Hollywood has long operated on ugly double standards,” Jennifer L. Pozner, executive director of Women In Media & News, and author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, told me. “Female celebrities are harshly judged for such sins as enjoying sex (‘Bimbo!'; ‘Slut!’), eating food (‘Baby bump?'; ‘FAT!’) or even being the victims of violence, as witness all the trash-talking about what Rihanna must have done to ‘provoke’ Chris Brown into beating her.”

And don’t forget the real victim here, the Grammys. “[In 2012,] Grammy Executive Producer Ken Ehrlich told reporters ‘that we [the Grammys] were the victim of what happened,'” Pozner said. “Right: because network awards show ratings are what really matter when domestic violence occurs between two of music’s megastars, not the bodily integrity or individual dignity of a female victim of intimate partner violence.”

“The larger risk now is that because millions of young girls and boys love the music of Chris Brown and think Charlie Sheen is hilarious, our media is giving celebrity men a free pass to abuse women,” Jennifer Siebel Newsom, CEO of MissRepresentation.org, said.

Some good news: We all have the power to make ourselves heard when we don’t like what we see in the media.

“While we can’t change court decisions and whether or not these women take these men back into their lives, we do have a responsibility to use our voice to counter the media narratives which say abusing women is an acceptable norm,” Newsom said.

Of course, the media and those who run and work in media companies are responsible as well.

“Rather than giving Charlie Sheen a starring role in a sitcom, or Chris Brown a spotlight performance at an awards show, our media outlets should show some restraint and care for the viewing public,” Newsom argued.

There are plenty of talented performers in the world–don’t tell me we can’t find a few who don’t abuse women.

Aly Neel is a journalist based in Istanbul. Follow her on Twitter at @AlysonNeel.

Aly Neel is a multimedia platform journalist who most recently was based in Istanbul, Turkey, where she reported on gender-based violence and discrimination. She currently is pursuing her master in public affairs at Princeton University. Follow her on Twitter @AlysonNeel.
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