As part of the promotional efforts for his new album, X, Chris Brown gave a long interview to the Guardian‘s Decca Aitkenhead, which was published over the weekend. Perhaps the most startling revelation in the piece was this: Chris Brown lost his virginity at age eight. Eight. Years. Old. Here in America, we call that “sexual assault.” If the quote came from any other famous entertainer, you’d imagine it’d be everywhere by Monday morning. And in a way, it is — but only as part of the ongoing narrative of sinking the boot into Chris Brown at every opportunity.
This is a difficult subject, and one that’s easy to misinterpret, so I want to be clear here. This piece is not an attempt to defend Chris Brown for what he’s done, or to mitigate the severity of the crime for which he’s infamous: beating then-girlfriend Rihanna in February 2009, injuring her so severely that she required hospitalization.
Having established that, it is possible to observe and comment that the ongoing hatred of Brown seems disproportionate to the treatment of others convicted of similar crimes. This isn’t to suggest the hatred is unwarranted; it’s more a question of why it’s Brown who gets this level of hatred while others get a free pass. Why, for instance, are people still booking Surfer Blood? Why has John “Give Peace a Chance” Lennon’s history as a wife-beater failed to tarnish his messianic reputation? Why does no one ever mention anymore that Nick Oliveri from Queens of the Stone Age held his girlfriend prisoner, necessitating the intervention of a whole fucking SWAT team?
Clearly, there are many answers to these questions. Rihanna was more famous than the victims of any of the abusers above. There was all-too-clear photographic evidence of Brown’s actions. And Brown’s generally seen as being unrepentant, because he hasn’t traveled the well-trod road of penance and redemption that America demands of its errant celebrities.
Is that all? In a piece for Noisey earlier this year, the ever-excellent Ayesha A. Siddiqi made a compelling argument that there’s also an element of racism at play in Brown’s treatment, comparing and contrasting his treatment with that Charlie Sheen, who was arrested in December 2009 for holding a knife to his wife’s throat, the latest in a long line of domestic abuse complaints against him. Does Sheen get the same opprobrium as Brown? Hell, no. It’s all “tiger blood” and “winning” and nudge-nudge-wink-wink-isn’t-Charlie-kerrazee?
As Siddiqi said in her article, questioning Brown’s treatment — ”a cross between being a meme and a national hobby, with all the depth of the former and the level of engagement of the latter” — isn’t the same as trying to excuse his behavior, although the two are easily conflated:
It’s not that Brown doesn’t deserve criticism for his especially obnoxious proclamations or indelicate public appearances; the message that we as a society will emphatically reject a man for violence against women is long overdue. But the media’s reluctance to cover cases involving white celebrities charged with domestic abuse means that it isn’t yet our message. Certain narratives have cultural salience and others don’t, and the distinguishing condition happens to be race.
There’s certainly been a pervasive element of dehumanization in the way Brown’s been described, an implication that he’s somehow animalistic and/or less than human, something that’s inevitably been a feature of racist discourse over the centuries. Take this Gawker post, for instance, which starts by referring to Brown as a “barely competent pop star and less competent human being.” There’s been an ongoing rush for the media to one-up itself in descriptions of Brown — perhaps not surprisingly because constantly escalating rhetoric just keeps dem pageviews rolling in.
So we have Gawker’s cousin Deadspin calling Brown a “professional failure at life” and the “worst person in America,” and Huffington Post reporting the singer suffering a seizure — a seizure TMZ later claimed credit for — as follows: “[Chris Brown] explodes off stage, breaks window.” Dig a little deeper and the descriptions just get more outlandish: “Some people think Chris Brown is a sociopath,” says a writer at, um, Hello Giggles. “I see him more as half a dozen sociopaths packed into a clown car, arms flailing wildly out the windows, desperate for attention.” Uproxx, meanwhile, calls him “just a cancer on everything.”
And then, finally, to bring it back to the initial subject of this discussion, there’s Jezebel, which detailed Brown’s revelation as follows: “Congratulations to Brown… for turning a personal confession into yet another opportunity to showcase how unpleasant he seems.” Let’s just remind ourselves: whether Brown’s bragging about it or not, if you’ve had sex at age eight, you’ve been the victim of sexual abuse. The girl who he slept with was “14 or 15,” which most definitely makes Brown the victim of a crime under Virginia law.
It’s hard to imagine Jezebel (or anyone else, for that matter) being so trite about this quote if it came from… well, pretty much anyone apart from Chris Brown. But they’re not alone in this — neither the original profile nor any subsequent commentary made even the briefest mention of the fact that the encounter was a crime. Instead, writers have either described it as boasting, or said things like, “Chris doesn’t drop that fact as if it’s a crutch or a sign of a rough upbringing — instead the R&B singer totally owns it!,” or used it as an excuse for another clickbait hatepiece.
Let’s just say again: we’re talking about someone having sex with an eight-year-old here. Isn’t that worth stopping and thinking about for a bit? Apparently not — after all, it’s much easier just to pull out the quote and use it as the excuse for a bit of pageview-wrangling “CHRIS BROWN IS THE WORST” sensationalism than to think about its implications.
It’s not hard to draw a line from Brown’s early life to the trajectory of his adulthood — long before the Rihanna incident, he was talking about how his own childhood was plagued by domestic violence: “[My stepfather] used to hit my mom… He made me terrified all the time, terrified like I had to pee on myself.” Similarly, it’s well established that survivors of childhood sexual abuse tend to act out their experiences, which might well go some way toward explaining Brown’s ongoing anger issues and/or his travails with women.
But thinking about that is difficult, isn’t it? It’s a whole lot easier just to dehumanize Brown, to make him a monster who deserves nothing but hatred and contempt. The thing is that, while tut-tutting at celebrities is a great way to feel good about your own life, as a society — even if we view him as a monster — we all have a stake in understanding what makes a Chris Brown. To reiterate: this in no way excuses his behavior. Abusers deserve condemnation, and no one but Brown chose his actions on the night of the VMAs in 2009. But no behavior happens in isolation, either, and Brown is as much a product of his upbringing as anyone else.