In the Fishbowl: Domestic Violence and Celebrities

Earlier this year, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson got into the news not with a new book or outstanding achievement, but because her husband viciously choked her in public during an argument. Unforgettably, several years ago, pop star Rihanna became front-page news because of an incident with her boyfriend, Chris Brown. Domestic violence happens in celebrity relationships just as it does in civilian ones, so to speak, except that it’s a lot more public, and it becomes a lot more loaded and complex—especially, as in Rihanna’s case, when it involves a woman of colour as a victim, or a man of colour as a perpetrator.

Many people are uneasy talking about and confronting domestic violence, something they seem to think should be confined behind closed doors. And it often is, because many abusers know that their security lies in being abusive where no one can see them, and in keeping their victims cowed so they can’t respond, escape, or self-advocate. Yet, public acts of domestic violence actually occur all the time, with bystanders rarely intervening or commenting.

Except when it comes to celebrities. Thanks to living in a world where you are constantly surrounded by people with a proprietary sense of ownership, celebrities have a hard time going anywhere without being photographed, captured on video, and stalked not just by the media but by fans and by people who want to hurt them. So when an act of domestic violence involving celebs does occur in public, it’s instantly recorded by scores of cameras, and it’s instantly transmitted to the world; a quick video uploaded on YouTube, a photograph on Twitter, a breaking news update on a gossip rag. It’s repeated and magnified and quickly analysed and discussed.

Pushed into the limelight like that, celebrities who have experienced domestic violence are put into a very uncomfortable and awkward place. Instead of being able to process what is happening and make independent decisions that are the best for themselves and their relationships, they’re expected to leave their partners immediately, to release statements, to become spokespeople for the anti-domestic violence movement. As the clock ticks, people become more and more infuriated. Why hasn’t she said something yet? Why hasn’t she donated to an anti-domestic violence charity? Why are they still together?

If you make the wrong move here, the public will jump all over you. But you’re also trying to navigate a relationship and what may be a complex set of emotions and issues—are you a parent? How are you going to deal with the needs of your children while your family is receiving such focused media attention? How are you going to get to safety when it will be a cinch for your partner to find you again? How do you leave someone if your estates are closely entangled, as is common with celebrity couples? How do you leave someone if you also have a business relationship, and need to think about ongoing contracts and business commitments that will require careful legal action?

And for women of colour, the issue becomes even more loaded, thanks to social attitudes. First Chris Brown was the target, then Rihanna was for not responding for domestic violence in the ‘right’ way. White critics continue to demonise Chris Brown, while remaining surprisingly complacent about white men who have committed violence against women and are also celebrities; what’s good for Sean Connery, apparently, is not good for Chris Brown. White men who abuse their partners, who go on violent tirades, who threaten women, don’t experience the same kind of career problems Chris Brown has—and the women who choose to work with them or to stay with them haven’t become targets of abuse like Rihanna has.

Domestic violence is a really complicated and snarly issue. It would be nice if everything could be simple and we could just say that any incident of domestic violence can and should result in the abused partner leaving immediately, and being safe and secure. It would be nice if people could sever their personal and professional ties neatly and without any consequences, if children and pets could be immediately safe, if there were no potential economic, social, or political consequences to domestic violence incidents. But the fact is that victims of domestic violence face a lot of tangled external pressures as well as internal emotions.

Yes, even when they are celebrities. Even when the violence occurs in public and it’s obvious and outside viewers think the celebrity must be absurd if she didn’t identify what happened as domestic violence. Because outsiders aren’t privy to other things that may be going on within the relationship, such as the history of abuse (or lack thereof) that may have preceded the incident, and the complex ties between the partners. All they say is the quick screenshot from a video, and it looks awful, and it makes you want to scream ‘get away,’ but it’s not that simple. It’s never that simple.

When celebrities are pressured to respond quickly to domestic violence incidents they’re involved in, it reinforces some dangerous cultural attitudes. It’s often the perpetrator who speaks first, coming up with some kind of excuse, while the victim scrabbles for something to say. The expectation that victims be immediately accountable for what happened strays dangerously close to victim-blaming, and the demands that people do something immediately reflects a poor understanding of the potential volatility of domestic violence situations. It’s never easy to make decisions about which move is the best one, not for celebrities or anyone else.

Which isn’t to say that domestic violence should continue to be swept under the rug without comment or discussion, but rather to note that it’s unreasonable to demand so much of celebrities during emotional and complex times in their lives. They are, after all, humans as well.