In the end Chris Brown did what all abusers do—just more explicitly. He didn’t just beat his woman. He had to own her, too. And what better way to own her than to claim one of her most indelible public images as his own?
Make no mistake: That’s a battered and beaten Rihanna tattooed on Chris Brown’s neck these days—and Brown’s denial means he’s either too stupid to recognize the obvious similarity, or so full of contempt for both his ex and that segment of the public that still inexplicably adores him that he thinks he can get away with it.
Or maybe both.
But yes, anybody with a modem and access to TMZ will instantly recognize the ink on Brown’s neck: It’s Rihanna, captured at her most vulnerable in the hours after Brown beat her in 2009. The details aren’t all the same, but there’s too much similarity to ignore: A sharp-featured woman, her right eye bruised, her lips cracked and bloody. Brown could have achieved about as much by inking a middle finger on each of his cheeks; this way, though, he gets to make Rihanna his perpetual victim.
The message: You’re not in control. Only I am.
Of course, the tabloids and the gossip sites ate the whole thing up, just like they did the initial assault, Rihanna’s first interview, Brown’s awards-show defiance, and her forgiveness. And why not? Brown’s abuse of Rihanna has helped sustain its own corner of the info-entertainment complex over the last three years. It’s easy to start thinking of the whole thing as a soap opera staged for our titillation.
Only it’s not much fun, is it?
I’ve covered a few domestic violence cases in my career as a journalist, and none of them involved anybody as glamorous as Chris Brown and Rihanna. There was the woman I met in a broken down trailer, sleeping with a shotgun in her lap because she was afraid her abuser would return. There was a rural Kansas woman who waited until her abusive husband took a nap one day, then balanced a rifle on the kitchen counter and shot him to death while he was sleeping.
They’re the kind of stories that can make you hate and distrust other men, after awhile.
After awhile, the stories can all seem kind of the same. Often, the men in these cases didn’t just beat their victims: They monitored comings and goings of their women, and over time cut them off from other people they loved. The violence was just part of a dynamic in which the men needed to control the women in their lives, and asserted that control in a variety of ways.
And again, that’s exactly what Chris Brown’s neck tattoo appears to be: A last attempt at control. Few men have been so publicly shamed for committing domestic violence; few men have thus been so publicly constrained against repeating their heinous acts. Brown has lost much of his ability to physically assert control over Rihanna. But the tattoo allows him to constantly and permanently remind the public of the time Rihanna was his victim. He’s asserting control over her image, over how people think about her—and even though he’s not using his fists this time, it sure feels freshly violent.
Lucky for the rest of us, if not Rihanna, that image also brands Brown. He’s railed against his perpetual status as abuser, and the album sales suggest there are plenty of people who just want to “move on.” Now it’s impossible. He’s marked himself now, and it will be apparent every time you see his picture: Chris Brown, forever and always a pathetic abuser.