The power of social media to rehabilitate, spin, or simply make palatable through exposure any number of awkward incidents should never be discounted. Thanks to pervasive use of sites like Facebook and Twitter, we are accustomed to learning, in real time, what each of us thinks, feels and does – from celebrities to politicians to the rest of us mere mortals. Social media prevents us from having heroes and idols, because when you know what your favorite actor had for lunch and what he or she thinks (or doesn’t) about the latest snippet of news, your simulated familiarity breeds contempt.
Even as your heroes’ political views annoy you, their humanity renders even their misdeeds trivial. Lewd conduct in an adult movie theater permanently altered the course of Paul Reubens’ career in 1991. Two decades later, when comedian Fred Willard was arrested on similar charges, the behavior that destroyed “Pee Wee Herman” barely elicited a yawn among Willard’s fans.
Reubens, making a public appearance in character following his arrest, asked a cheering audience, “Heard any good jokes lately?” He was referring, of course, to the slew of public-naughtiness jokes that followed his arrest. There was a time when such jokes were forwarded and re-forwarded in email and in almost unreadable faxes, compiled in Usenet groups and told in office corridors throughout the nation. That was 20 years ago. If you told a Fred-Willard-touches-himself joke today, nobody would care, and most of them would ask you who Fred Willard is.
Hey, here’s a joke: I hear Chris Brown got beaten for a Grammy this year, which was a real turnaround for him. No, no, wait, this one is better: Chris Brown was really happy for his girlfriend Rihanna because she beat all her competition at the Grammy awards. After all, nobody beats Rihanna but Chris Brown. No, even better: Rihanna gets struck in the face by an alien soldier in the film “Battleship.” Don’t worry, they’re working on getting back together. Hang on, just one more: Recently, Chris Brown was back in the news for engaging in a fistfight with a rival musician. On the plus side, at least he’s hitting men now.
Why aren’t you laughing?
The truth is that there’s nothing funny at all about watching an abusive relationship unfold before your eyes. Thanks to social media and gossip websites, Americans have absorbed the lurid play-by-play of the Chris Brown and Rihanna saga: How the two young singers, both extremely popular and on the rise in their careers, got together. How the explosive and cowardly Brown, who apparently has significant problems controlling a raging temper, beat Rihanna bloody the night before she was to perform at the 2009 Grammys. How they subsequently started interacting, first furtively, then openly, on Twitter and while working with each other to remix each other’s songs. How they ultimately got back together after Brown dumped his rebound girlfriend.
Gawker put together what is probably the definitive timeline of this dysfunctional relationship. The two met as teenagers at the Vibe awards in 2005. They were photographed together at the Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards the following year. By 2007 they were responsible for one of the best performances in the history of the VMAs, to hear Gawker tell it, and in 2008 they were denying their relationship while obviously having one. Then came 2009.
On Feb. 8, 2009, after a pre-Grammy party for Clive Davis, the pair got into an argument over text messages Brown sent to his female manager (and not because, as was rumored following the incident, that Rihanna had supposedly given Brown a venereal disease). He beat her so badly she couldn’t perform at the Grammys. Brown is still on probation for that.
In 2011 the couple started following each other on Twitter (the same year Brown exploded on the set of “Good Morning America,” breaking a window in his dressing room). There was clear sexual subtext to some of the messages the two exchanged. Their interaction became more open in 2012 before they finally went public again.
The most insidious aspect of all this is that both Brown and Rihanna seemed to know what they were doing as they gradually but deliberately conducted a public-relations campaign in support of their reconciliation. Before their renewed relationship went public, and as rumors swirled that both were still in love with each other, Rihanna was giving interviews bemoaning the fact that she didn’t just get beat up that fateful day. She also, as she put it, lost her “best friend.”
Three years after the assault, she told Oprah Winfrey, “”It was embarrassing, it was humiliating. I lost my best friend. Everything I knew switched, switched in a night, and I couldn’t control that. … As angry as I was – as angry and hurt and betrayed – I just felt like he made that mistake because he needed help. And who’s going to help him?”
That statement was a simultaneous plea to grant Brown, the aggressor, victim status. This sends a horrifying message to admirers of both singers. It tells their young fans that hitting your girlfriend is OK as long as you get “help.” It was also a combination of trial balloon and inoculation, a calculated move to prepare the American public for Brown/Rihanna as a couple again. All you need do to see that this worked, and worked perfectly, is search the hashtag #teambreezy (a reference to Brown’s nickname) on Twitter. Brown’s “team,” his followers, are nothing if not mindlessly devoted to their petulant, volatile idol.
“Chris is winning,” wrote user @BreezyTygaKevJB on Feb. 10. “He has Rihanna. He is getting a good support system around him. Is being positive. I am proud of him!”
And who wouldn’t be proud of a violent, childish thug who beat his girlfriend until her face was swollen? She’s taken him back. They’re best friends. All’s forgiven. All he needed was “support.” It’s Chris who is the victim here, and Chris who truly needed help. We know it must be true, because social media told us so.