Published: Jan. 2, 2011 By ,


[1] Contemporary celebrity culture allows for the configuration of certain discourses about male violence against women. By paying attention to this form of culture, changes in the cultural landscape, particularly in relation to the emergence of new forms of social media (such as celebrity gossip blogs and websites), are highlighted. These changes provide a space for the discussion of important social issues such as violence against women. In this way, social media contributes to the distribution and facilitation of commentary on these topics and these media formats enable the audience to play a role in shaping public discourse.

[2] These newly created spaces help to circulate a backlash rhetoric that rebukes the gains of the women’s movement to break the silence around violence against women by repositioning victims of dating or domestic violence as somehow “guilty” or “suspicious.” By exploring postfeminist narratives, it is possible to see how they very much conform to and reinforce the notion of a postfeminist female subject as articulated in Anita Harris’ concepts of the “can-do” and “at-risk” girl. These narratives provide a limited understanding of violence against women, gloss over the numerous ways in which women experience abuse, and serve to “let men off the hook.” By exploring the construction of violence against women in celebrity culture, Karen Boyle’s concern that the issue of male violence is an under-researched area, particularly within feminist television criticism, is responded to (162). The idea of “letting men off the hook” points to the fact that, although there has been a proliferation of coverage on dating or domestic violence incidents within the media, it is accompanied by a lack of social and/or legal sanctions. Male perpetrators suffer few consequences, particularly career or publicity wise, and the public seems no longer shocked by it. Postfeminist narratives have contributed to this and the reprivatization and individualization of violence against women allows for “men to slip from the picture” (Boyle 184). Consequently, this “lets them off the hook.”

[3] These concepts frame an analysis of the public relationship between Rihanna and Chris Brown. Through an examination of the media coverage of it, in particular the violent nature of their relationship, Rihanna’s experiences can be interpreted as a postfeminist narrative conveying the idea that she is a “can-do” girl who takes responsibility for the abuse by monitoring her actions and being careful not to be viewed or framed as a victim. In such a way, Chris Brown is “let off the hook” because he experiences few negative consequences for his actions. Consequently, celebrity culture, as part of a postfeminist media culture, helps promote ideas of choice and individual responsibility in relation to issues such as domestic violence, and assists in the surveillance and regulation of women’s actions.

[4] Despite the breadth of media texts circulating discourses and providing space for a discussion of the abuse of women, such as in the case of Rihanna and Chris Brown, they somehow manage to simplify the debate about woman abuse. The discursive logic of neoliberalism and postfeminism is so powerful as to overshadow the ability to offer and/or articulate more nuanced discussions about the issue. This serves to shut down a space to consider the role that men need to play in addressing this pervasive social problem. By drawing attention to this, the aim is to “[put] men (back) in the picture” (Boyle 184) and contribute to a reframing of violence against women as a social issue and one which cannot be understood through notions of individual freedom, choice, and responsibility.

Breaking the Silence: Constructing Violence Against Women as a Social Problem

[5] Since the 1970s, much work has been done to educate various facets of the public (i.e. government, individuals, law) about violence against women in order to develop a deeper understanding of this complex and pervasive social problem. It was at this time that the women’s movement in Canada and the US aimed to break “the silence around the issue of male violence against women” and increase and improve “the provision of support to women who had been victimized by violence” (Comack 33). The movement was successful on a number of different levels and its efforts created “greater cultural awareness of domestic violence as well as the changes that must happen in our thinking and action if we are to see its end” (hooks 61). This led to a growing body of research and literature on this widespread and persistent phenomenon and to the development of tools to collect statistics detailing the extent of male violence against women. For example, one of the developments following the ground covered by second wave feminism in the 1970s was the Violence Against Women (VAW) survey conducted in 1993. One of its central findings was that women were (and continue to be) more likely to be assaulted by an intimate partner rather than a stranger (Comack 34). The survey also found that “one half (51 percent) of Canadian women had experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of sixteen” (Comack 34).

[6] Through such methods, the women’s movement brought to light the frequency of violence against women, but also highlighted the drastic underreporting of such incidents. There are a number of reporting and disclosure issues that indicate “the full extent of family violence in Canada is difficult to calculate because, often, it is not disclosed or reported either by the victim or by those who witness or suspect it is occurring” (Dept. of Justice Canada 6). According to the 2004 General Social Survey, a survey conducted periodically in Canada, “less than one-third (28 percent) of spousal violence victims reported the violence to the police” (Dept. of Justice Canada 10). There are myriad reasons for why an incident may not be reported. For example, “the reasons why victims may keep abuse secret relate to their circumstances, feelings, beliefs and level of knowledge about family violence” (Dept. of Justice Canada 6). Because of this, it becomes all the more important to generate and sustain awareness about domestic violence to provide safe spaces for reporting.

[7] Within the women’s movement, there was eventual national attention and recognition that “violence against women is a serious social problem that takes many forms, including sexual harassment in the workplace, date rape, violent sexual assaults, and wife abuse” (Comack 34). The violence against women movement had a number of key implications, some of which led to the development of feminist criminology. For example, “the movement allowed feminists to break away from the confines of mainstream criminology, which had been complicit in the social silencing around the issue of male violence against women” (Comack 34). For many years, there was the maintenance of various cultural myths and stereotypes that continued the extension of “misconceptions about violence against women (such as women ‘ask for it’ by their dress or their behaviour)” (Comack 35). These ideas were also mirrored in the area of victimology that was developing alongside criminology. The early form of this field of study has been called positivist victimology and central to it were terms such as “victim proneness” and “victim blaming” which served to assign a certain amount of guilt to the victim. It attempted “to cite the victim’s role as a causal effect in their victimization” (Marsh and Melville 102). Following the women’s movement in the 1970s, there have been efforts to move past such terminology. For example, “feminists have insisted on dismantling the categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ victims that have dominated common sense (and media) definitions of the crime” (Cuklanz and Moorti 308).

[8] Additionally, second wave feminists were responsible for a number of progressive acts to assist women affected by violence, for example, the establishment of rape crisis centers. Further the movement “brought to the fore the issue of engaging with the state to address the issue” (Comack 35) which led to a number of attempts to push for legal reform. For instance, the development of the 1992 Rape Shield Law, which governed the admissibility of sexual evidence, refined the definition of consent to a sexual act (‘no means no’) and restricted the defense that an accused had an honest but mistaken belief that the woman had consented. This was a breakthrough for victim’s rights in the court room.

[9] These are just some of the implications of the actions of second wave feminists. They did a lot to raise awareness about the social problem of violence against women – actions that had an impact on societal attitudes for many years. However, despite these attempts to raise awareness, change societal response to violence against women and dispel the various rape myths, to a certain extent myths and misconceptions have remained pervasive. It has been found that these negative attitudes continue to exist in multiple formats, particularly within the media. In Helen Benedict’s seminal research on newspaper coverage of sex crimes, she found that various rape myths continue to be dominant and that “victims are still widely blamed for inviting rape” (13), reinforcing a central myth that “women provoke rape” to a degree that “victims are believed to have enticed their assailants by their looks and sexuality” (15).

Governing Our Present: Monitoring the Neoliberal and Postfeminist Subject

[10] As a result of the continued persistence of such negative ideas, it is important to question their existence and ask why such myths continue despite the great gains of the women’s movement. Such questions lead to a consideration of the socio-political context that has been pervasive since the 1980s and societal responses to feminism within it.  Ideas of blame and guilt resonate with and draw from the powerful discursive areas of neoliberalism and postfeminism. Neoliberalism is considered to be the political rationality that “governs our present” (Barry, Osborne, and Rose 265). It has been “the dominant organizing principle of government and the economy in the past quarter century” (King  xxvi) – and despite the current economic situation that has threatened the principles of neoliberalism, it has continued to be pervasive, particularly in regard to its construction of the citizen and how far the government intervenes into helping the individual citizen out.

[11] Since the 1980s and the rise of Reagan and Thatcher, there has been a distinct shift within the socio-political landscape.  Instead of committing to a welfare state, government has moved to modes of “governing at a distance” and adopting a neoliberal ideology where they reject “all forms of direct State control” (Hay 53) and “a preoccupation with governmental solutions to the problems of society’s disadvantaged groups” (Weiler 367).  In such a way, there was a dramatic move away from welfare and social reform concerns towards a mindset of deregulation and free trade, which created a very beneficial environment for businesses and corporations. However, it did not foster such an advantageous situation for Canadian or US citizens as “governing at a distance” has had a profound impact on the welfare state’s roles and responsibilities to its citizens.  In relation to the topic at hand, such an ideological shift has led to various funding cuts that have decreased the support for services provided for women who have experienced violence. For example, recent reports by journalists Alison Brewin, Tracy Porteous, and Claire Trevena, as published in the independent paper The Georgia Straight highlight how in British Columbia there have been cuts to funding for women’s centers, for services that respond to violence against women and children, an erosion of welfare, and cuts to legal aid. Therefore, despite efforts to take crimes of violence against women seriously, the provision of government funding has diminished, and so there is a significant gap between policy and practice, particularly because of restricted services due to underfunding (Coppock, Haydon, and Richter 179).

[12] Instead, more responsibility is placed on the individual citizen. In this way neoliberalism is premised on the notion of an “active society” (Dean 561) and an “active citizenship” (Larner, “Neo-Liberalism” 244).  Within it, citizens are encouraged “to see themselves as individualized and active subjects responsible for enhancing their own well being” (Larner, “Post-Welfare” 11) and self-care.  Therefore there has been a striking shift where now, citizens are constructed as “autonomous, rationally calculating, and free” (Gill and Arthurs 445), and “self-governing subjects who regulate themselves without the need for state control or repression” (emphasis added, Gill and Arthurs 445).  In such a societal structure, “its method is to govern people by getting them to govern themselves” (Cruikshank 39). In addition, many agree that governance and power are employed through “a diverse patchwork of sites” rather than “a centralized administrative apparatus” like the state (Williams and Lippert 705).  Consequently, the behaviour of individuals is impacted by several nodes of power and there are “different scales and spheres of governance” (Greene and Breshears 214). The communication media has been recognized as an effective tool to regulate the conduct of individuals and assist in the management of citizens. This is accomplished through the use of blogs within celebrity culture.

[13] Such ideas draw attention to how neoliberalism impacts on feminism and consequently, the formation of citizenship. This convergence of neoliberal and postfeminist ideologies has had very real and often detrimental consequences for women. It has resulted in “the fading away of feminism and the women’s movement” (McRobbie, “Top Girls” 718) with the presumption that women have achieved equality, illustrating how postfeminism and postfeminist media culture have emerged as “a dominating discursive system” (Tasker and Negra 2-3). Postfeminism continuously attempts to undo much of the work of second wave feminists serving “to re-shape notions of womanhood to fit with new or emerging (neoliberalised) social and economic arrangements” (McRobbie, “Top Girls” 721). This has meant that today, there is a “a new disciplinary regime” (Gill, “Empowerment/Sexism” 45) where “women are presented as active, desiring sexual subjects who choose to present themselves in a seemingly objectified manner because it suits their (implicitly ‘liberated’) interests to do so” (emphasis added, Gill, “Empowerment/Sexism” 42). Specifically, postfeminism has led to the depoliticization of feminism. According to Sarah Projansky, “the concept of postfeminism perpetuates feminism in the very process of insisting that it is now over” (original emphasis, “Watching Rape” 66). In terms of what kind of feminism is perpetuated, Stacey comments that postfeminism is “the simultaneous incorporation, revision, and depoliticization of many of the central goals of second wave feminism” (8). Projansky argues further that postfeminism alters feminism to a point where it becomes devoid of its political and social activism.

[14] One key feature of postfeminist discourse is the construction of the “can-do” girl. Such a concept helps to reveal the links between both neoliberalism and postfeminism and how “rhetorics of neoliberalism become particularly visible in representations of young women” (Hasinoff 329).  This convergence of ideologies has resulted in “the remaking of girls and women as the modern neoliberal subject” (Walkerdine, Lucey, and Melody 3) who are capable of working hard and succeeding in the current socio-political landscape.  The ideal citizen is re-presented then as “the ‘can-do girl’ who is successful and career-oriented” and is promoted as an attainable ideal that all young women are capable of achieving (Hasinoff 329). This paradigm sets up a “new normativity” (McRobbie, “Good Girls” 362) for young women showing them how to act and behave in society, particularly in relation to the labor market, elevating the idea that they are “self-making, resilient, and flexible” subjects (Harris 6). This new social norm persuades young women to believe that “girls can do anything” (Harris 8) despite the socio-economic differences between them.

[15] In addition to the “can-do” girl Harris identifies her antithesis, the “at-risk” girl, arguing that these new representations function as a way to regulate young women.  Specifically, the “can-do” girl “functions as a powerful ideal that suggests that all young women are now enjoying these kinds of lives” (Harris 8), failing to recognize that “many young women are not living in ways that match the image of success” (9).  Young women are identified to be “at-risk” if they are not able or willing to achieve the standards operant in this construction of the ideal subject/citizen.  This construction of the “at-risk” girl fails to take into account socioeconomic factors and instead blames girls for their circumstances and “failures” which are “attributed to poor choices, insufficient effort, irresponsible families, bad neighbourhoods, and lazy communities” (Harris 9).  These factors delineate who is designated as “at-risk”; in other words “the failed subject” (Hasinoff 329) is the one who is unable or unwilling to make the right choices.  This “postfeminist fantasy” rewards the “can-do” girls “who stay focused and work hard to succeed,” but strives to regulate and control “at-risk” girls whose failure “is depicted as a set of personal limitations” and a result of “individual choice” (Harris 27).

[16] In relation to the topic at hand, such ideas impact on understandings of domestic violence and violence against women. Due in part to the dominant discourses of neoliberalism and postfeminism, “issues of domestic violence have been decontextualized from the very framework of equality that provided the impetus for initial reform efforts on domestic violence” (Schneider 244), limiting an understanding of the problem. Domestic violence has come to be aligned with notions of choice – a concept that is very popular within the idea of the neoliberal and postfeminist subject. For example, Joanne Baker contends that, “such optimistic notions of new-found freedom for women in Western democracies celebrate the shrinking of imposed constraints and exclusions and the enthusiastic endorsement of individual choice” (“Ideology” 53). Further, these concepts of freedom and choice have contributed to the idea that feminism is no longer needed. Through such a lens, “individuals must now choose the kind of life they want to live. Girls must have a lifeplan” (emphasis added, McRobbie, “Post-feminism” 261) and strive to be the ideal subject who is able to make the right choices and decisions in relation to their lifestyle (McRobbie, “Post-feminism” 261).

[17] Resulting from the dominance of such concepts, issues such as domestic violence are comprehended as “matters of choice” (Baker, “Ideology” 53) and “framed in exclusively personal terms in a way that turns the idea of the personal-as-political on its head” (Gill, “Postfeminist” 153). Domestic violence then becomes reprivatized, making it the responsibility of individuals and therefore invisible once again. These ideas are demonstrated in the media, particularly postfeminist media culture. For example, in Boyle’s work on television talk shows, she demonstrates how women’s personal experiences are privileged over more critical forms of social critique, and how utilizing individual testimony in this way serves to skew understandings of domestic violence (174). Boyle states that “while such testimony was indeed an important aspect of early feminist speak-outs on male violence, critics argue that talk shows consistently marginalize or reject any attempts to connect this personal experience to an analysis of society” (174). Reframing domestic violence in this way – as an individual problem facing women which requires individualized solutions – creates new ways in which women are disciplined and regulated, and thus, diminishes the hard work of second wave feminists who demonstrated the social and systemic pervasiveness of abuse and fought to highlight issues of women’s oppression and inequality. It leads to the questioning and judging of women’s experiences which casts doubt on the experiences of victimhood. Consequently, this serves to (re)produce myths and misconceptions about domestic violence – a mentality that threatens to continue or perhaps increase the levels of underreporting that exist in relation to this crime. Moreover, reprivatizing and individualizing women’s experience of abuse places all of the focus on them and their actions, essentially “letting men off the hook.” As Boyle states, “men’s violence becomes reframed as an issue of women’s mental health and the perpetrators remain virtually invisible” (174).

Postfeminism and The Female Celebrity

[18] In the wake of a diminishing politicized public sphere, celebrity culture has become an important site where debates about the proper roles for men and women often take place, especially in relation to male control and violence against women. Celebrity culture reveals how negative societal myths and stereotypes about women and abuse continue to persist and also how the changing culture of celebrity affects the kind, and scope of attention placed on (young) female celebrities. Increasingly, female celebrities have become the focus of intense public scrutiny and are often the subject of popular debates about the proper roles for young women in contemporary society. More and more, as the boundaries between public/private and ordinary/extraordinary get blurrier, the actions of female celebrities are hyper-magnified for the individual’s consumptive pleasure and scorn which has not gone unnoticed by scholars and journalists alike. Indeed, they have begun to call attention to the ways in which celebrity culture has reinforced a gendered double standard in its coverage of female celebrities. For instance, journalist Alex Williams points out in a New York Times article that, “Men who fall from grace are treated with gravity and distance, while women in similar circumstances are objects of derision, titillation and black comedy” (“Boys will be boys”). Over the last few years, celebrity culture and to some extent even mainstream news, has aided in the proliferation of “moral panics” that characterize and represent female celebrities such as Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse, and Lindsay Lohan as “out of control.”

[These] [m]oral panics…are less monolithic [but] do remain overwhelmingly concerned with moral values, societal regularities and drawing of lines between the permissible and the less acceptable. However, hard and fast boundaries between ‘normal’ and ‘deviant’ would seem to be less common – if only because moral panics are now continually contested (McRobbie and Thornton 572-73).

Far from powerless victims though, these young women also take up the tools of social media (e.g. Twitter, Facebook) often to counter and/or challenge mainstream press coverage, thus celebrities also play a participatory role in constructing their images, in an attempt to hold sway over how audiences receive them. Despite their attempts to challenge such reports, various media outlets continue to take an almost obsessive interest in the daily minutiae of these young women’s lives, following them with cameras 24/7, hoping to catch them messing up or doing something “inappropriate” like drinking. Not only are female celebrities overrepresented within celebrity culture and media but their actions are negatively scrutinized far more than their equally “naughty” male peers. Media coverage of male celebrities tends to be far more sympathetic towards and accepting of the “bad boy” image, revealing a different (and unfair) set of ideals and expectations for females. Feminist scholars Su Holmes and Diane Negra argue that media coverage of female celebrities constructs them as “cautionary tales” while male celebrities’ “behavior is largely immune from public referendum” (par. 12). Therefore it is important to acknowledge and understand how celebrity culture reinforces and reproduces negative gendered hierarchies between men and women, and also between women, and how this helps contribute to distorted coverage of violence against women which can serve to “let men off the hook.”

[19] As discussed in the last section, the creation of new norms for young women, who are now called upon to be self-reliant and responsible for their life choices, sets up certain (and impossible) expectations and female celebrities are not exempt. Harris describes this new flexible subjectivity, which young women are supposed to embody as “responsibilization,” defined as a “devolving of responsibility…onto [the] individual” (9). Similarly to the discussion of the “can-do” girl and the “at-risk” girl, celebrity culture in its incessant evaluation and critique of female celebrities constructs them similarly as either “good girls” or “bad girls.” This good girl/bad girl binary is intricately bound up with postfeminist articulations of femininity, which itself is enmeshed with neoliberal ideologies about the female subject. Within celebrity culture the “good girl” (i.e. respectable) female celebrity successfully embodies these ideologies, refrains from “acting out” in public spaces, and is perceived to be a better “life-manager.” These media representations of “bad girl” or “at-risk” female celebrities invoke moral panic discourses by labeling them “out of control train wrecks,” as they are perceived to have trouble managing the “work/life balance” (Holmes and Negra par. 2).

[20] Aside from the cautionary tales of “out of control” female celebrities there is yet another arena for thinking about the female star “in crisis” which involves narratives of danger, abuse, and victimization. In recent years a number of stories have circulated within celebrity culture about young female celebrities involved in “dangerous” relationships, some of which have resulted in abuse, others merely unsubstantiated rumors.  For instance, in 2004 photos were published showing Paris Hilton meeting her sister at an airport, sporting a number of bruises all over her arms as if someone had violently grabbed her. Hilton never commented on the bruises leaving gossip writers to conclude that her boyfriend at the time, former boy-band member Nick Carter, was responsible. Similarly, audiences watched in frustration as the relationship of Heidi Montag (who starred on the popular reality show The Hills) to Hollywood “bad boy” Spencer Pratt unfolded throughout the second and third season of the series, basically destroying Montag’s friendship with lead star Lauren Conrad. A general sense was conveyed by many fans that they were disturbed by the troubling storyline, which portrayed Pratt as a controlling and possessive boyfriend who went out of his way to isolate and estrange Montag from her girlfriends. From a critical feminist standpoint, his behavior seemed to conform to that typical of partners in an abusive relationship yet no media outlet framed the relationship in this context; instead many celebrity reporters, particularly the hosts of MTV Canada’s The After Show, merely made fun of Pratt for being a “jerk,” downplaying the potential for any serious or harmful outcomes.  With regards to postfeminist media culture, these examples illustrate the limited explanatory power of postfeminist discourses and how they contribute to a narrow understanding of violence against women such that, abuse becomes intelligible only when it is clearly “marked” on the female body whereas the “everyday ways” (Stark 10) in which women experience male violence and control are (still) not taken seriously. Thus, feminist practitioners cannot afford to dismiss celebrity culture as “frivolous” or “silly” given how popular its various genres are with female audiences. Celebrity culture has opened up a space for critically thinking about the ways in which postfeminist and neoliberal understandings of the female subject are also projected onto the female celebrity, revealing very troubling misconceptions and a continued investment in harmful myths about women and domestic violence – that she “deserved it” or blaming the victim – as commented on earlier. Therefore, exploring celebrity culture provides critical and timely insight into how feminist issues are being reframed as individualistic and personal, namely violence against women.

“She’s No F***n Victim”: Framing Woman Abuse in Postfeminist Celebrity Culture

[21] As illustrated above, the North American second wave feminist movement made significant inroads into social understandings of violence against women by challenging pervasive cultural myths that put the blame on the victim – it was something she said, wore, did – but more importantly, redefined violence against women as a publicsocial issue which is experienced by women from all socio-economic and ethnic groups. In short, it is a systemic problem requiring state interventions and solutions. With regards to the discussion at hand, popular postfeminist representations of violence against women reduce and simplify an understanding of domestic violence. First, popular culture often constructs male violence as an individual problem rather than an enduring social issue needing collective, long-term strategies and solutions. Second, popular culture texts drawing on “backlash rhetoric” often diminish the systemic aspects of male violence by producing narratives which place blame on both partners in heterosexual relationships. Finally, mainstream representations of violence against women completely gloss over the myriad ways in which women experience abuse, as it is not always “incident-specific” nor does it always culminate in physical injury (Stark 10). To varying degrees the media and audience reception of abuse as it transpired in the relationship of young R & B stars Rihanna and Chris Brown helps shed light on this ongoing problem, and how celebrity culture has become a key site for the dissemination of postfeminist and neoliberal ideologies which in turn help to reframe the issue of women’s abuse in problematic ways. As Maria João Silveirinha comments “By framing the issue [of male abuse] within the context of celebrity and voyeurism, the media displaces the political nature of patriarchal violence replacing it by personal contexts that obscure this very political nature” (75).

[22] In early February 2009, a news story broke alleging that Rihanna was violently attacked by her then boyfriend Chris Brown after they left the Grammy Awards, where they were expected to perform. Prior to the incident, Rihanna and Brown were often portrayed in the media as an ideal couple, a perfect picture of “puppy love” between two successful and popular music stars. However, within weeks this idealism was squashed as the popular celebrity website TMZ.comknown for getting “exclusives,” published a disturbing photo of Rihanna whose face appeared bloodied and bruised. TMZ.comrevealed that it was a police photo but never named their source(s). It was later revealed that two female police officers, veteran Rebecca M. Reyes and rookie Blanca Lopez were responsible for leaking the photos. In September 2009 journalists Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton reported on the LA Times blog, L.A. NOW, that the female officers were “placed on paid leave” and “assigned to home” during the internal investigation. Both the LAPD and the women’s attorney’s declined to comment on the investigation, thus revealing nothing about the officers’ motivation for leaking the photos.

[23] Almost immediately audiences posted comments, with responses ranging from sympathetic to suspicious, as some posters questioned whether the picture was actually “Photoshopped”; in other words, digitally altered. Perhaps their queries about the “authenticity” of the picture had more to do with their shock and disbelief that someone like Rihanna, who up until that time had received mostly positive attention from the entertainment media, could be abused. In addition to the troubling photo, a number of rumors began spreading like wildfire throughout cyberspace, many of which held Rihanna accountable in some way for the abuse: She gave him herpes! She hit him first! She was jealous! To add insult to injury, cell phone pictures of a half-nude Rihanna sexily posing were also anonymously released (Brown has always denied responsibility), yet the photos appear to be intended for a lover’s gaze (she has said they were sent to Brown while they were dating). With little context or few explanations given, audiences are left to try and piece together what “really” happened and to form their own opinions based on their personal experiences and beliefs. As Erin Meyers notes in her discussion of Britney Spears, it is “up to the audience to put together the pieces of [a celebrity’s] persona in a way that is socially meaningful and pleasurable to them” (897). However, all of these examples when taken together help cast doubt on the “authenticity” and “truth” of Rihanna’s experiences of abuse, effectively calling into question her “victim status.”

[24] New York Times writer Jan Hoffman published a troubling article shortly after, which not only proved that audiences had trouble believing Rihanna was a victim of abuse, but that many young womenblamed her and completely supported Brown (“Teenage Girls”). The young women’s willingness to forgive Brown for his violent transgressions was compounded by reports that Rihanna briefly reconciled with him, causing confusion for their respective fans. Why would she take him back? If she forgives him, why shouldn’t they? The experts cited by Hoffman help to create a complex picture with regards to how the public relates to and makes sense of domestic violence; and how young women especially have to navigate through their conflicted feelings, made all the more tricky by celebrity culture’s intimate façade. Many of the negative comments about Rihanna reveal the complex feelings fans (and even anti-fans) have for celebrities. However, it should be noted that it is difficult to pinpoint the location, quantity, and authorship of those who make negative comments with any degree of authenticity. Therefore, further research into the specificity of these posters and what incites them to make their opinions and voices heard on celebrity gossip sites would be welcomed. Returning to the issue at hand, Hoffman’s article revealed that many young women seem reluctant to pass judgment on Brown’s actions, hinting that there is a double standard when it comes to the actions of female vs. male celebrities. Take for instance comments posted by “Liza” on in response to the report “Rihanna Attack: The Official Blow-by-Blow,”

I would love to hear Chris Brown’s version because I believe she instigated the whole thing. Brown was wrong in hitting her, but you can only push people so hard and their [sic] going to hit back. She’s no f***n [sic] victim, she’s a spoiled brat and playing the victim. I hope her career tanks, and he does his service and makes a comeback. This just humbled him and now hopefully he’ll become a better person. As far as Rhianna [sic], once a bitch always a bitch…

Negative sentiments like these are hardly the exception, illustrating that myths about victims of abuse (i.e. as “asking for it”) run deep in North American society. Yet the celebrity aspect of the case helps to keep the issue of woman abuse in the public sphere, and illustrates just how much work still needs to be done. Despite feminism and the gains that women have made politically, socially, legally and so forth, troubling beliefs about the “reality” of violence against women continue to persist. Celebrity culture both provides a forum to debate these issues but at the same time it is also complicit with a system that makes violence against women possible. Celebrity culture, as a part of popular culture, does not offer solutions to the problem and instead relies on simplistic understandings of male violence and control.

[25] Celebrity gossip blogs and websites like play a crucial role in facilitating these postfeminist discourses of abuse and victimization in high-profile celebrity cases, as the gossip blogger invites readers to participate in public discussions about these issues. There has been a boon in recent years in (internet) celebrity journalism, propelled by the rapid growth of the recording and mobile devices that enable reporters as well as ordinary folks to monitor the actions of celebrities 24/7. Some of the new gate-keepers of celebrity culture, such as Lainey Lui and Perez Hilton, have become as popular and well-known as some of the people they write about. As Anne Helen Petersen illustrates in her article, “Smut Goes Corporate:TMZand the Conglomerate, Convergent Face of Celebrity Gossip,” popular internet celebrity blogs and websites are so successful that they are now competing for audiences with traditional entertainment shows likeEntertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood, making them a desirable venue for the proliferation of postfeminist and neoliberal discourses about female celebrities and women more generally. Aside from their entertainment values, celebrity gossip blogs have been instrumental in carving out “legitimate” as well as participatory spaces for the dissemination of neoliberal and postfeminist ideologies. Moreover as part of the complex matrix through which these ideologies travel, celebrity blogs are enmeshed with “spheres of governance” (as noted earlier), becoming effective sites for the regulation and management of citizens (but not immune to contestation or resistance).

[26] In her discussion of postfeminism and celebrity culture, Kirsty Fairclough argues that celebrity bloggers and reporters use “bitch rhetoric” (par. 19) which helps frame female celebrities in such a way that they “are no longer held up as models to aspire to unless they rigidly conform to [a] limited range of representational tropes” (par. 19). According to Fairclough “bitchiness” is a form of postfeminist commentary used by celebrity gossip bloggers which serves to police the actions of female celebrities (par. 11). Moreover, their ongoing “bitchy” critique of stars makes it all but impossible for celebrities to live up to the audiences’ expectations. Bitchy celebrity coverage has been able to flourish in a media culture which no longer reveres celebrities the way it once did; they are no longer considered untouchable, but are now viewed as “characters to judge and deride” (Fairclough par. 3). The previous example from the website certainly suggests that some audience members felt entitled to “judge and deride” Rihanna and to question her credibility. Postfeminist media culture encourages everyone, men and women, to be complicit with new forms of governance which require self-monitoring and regulation, as well as surveillance of other people’s actions.  Therefore it is important to understand the ways in which (bitchy) celebrity gossip is on the one hand, a source of pleasure for audiences; but on the other hand, given how few outlets there are for debating feminist issues within the public sphere, celebrity gossip sites aid in the construction of a public (although highly commodified) space where people can come together to discuss male violence and control.

[27] Burgeoning qualitative audience research into the appeal of celebrity journalism tends to support the argument that gossip plays an important social function through its creation of community as people use it to engage in conversation with one another, thus providing an important venue for debate and discussion of important social issues. For example, in “‘Sometimes you wanna hate celebrities’: Tabloid readers and celebrity coverage,” author Sofia Johansson argues that there is indeed a political dimension to celebrity gossip, particularly “celebrity bashing” which challenges the long held assumption that it is merely a form of escapism or diversion (although that could certainly be one component). “Bashing celebrities” which taps into feelings of anger, resentment and frustration also functions as a means of interrogating and debating the social inequality embedded within celebrity culture. Indeed, audiences understand that they are not afforded the same privileges and powers as celebrities. Certainly, while women might be and are critical of female celebrities, gossiping about them could “lead on to a discussion about their own thoughts, feelings and action” (Feasey 693). Rebecca Feasey posits that the socializing aspect of gossiping is a major part of its appeal for female audiences especially when it “can be used to engage in debates about fundamental moral issues, such as infidelity and the role of violence in society, without passing judgments and making potentially unpopular comments about friends, family and work colleagues” (693). Furthermore “interest in tabloid celebrity stories can therefore be seen as a commentary on some very real social tensions and power struggles in the society in which they operate” (Johansson 356).

[28] Therefore the internet along with traditional entertainment formats like the magazine has helped create a much more interactive experience of celebrity culture by offering audiences, consumers and fans the opportunity to express their multivalent feelings about celebrities either in person or in cyberspace, as most websites and blogs enable viewers to make (anonymous) comments. The internet in particular has become a receptacle for the circulation of postfeminist discourses, especially when the female celebrity in question is perceived to be some sort of “threat” whether due to her morals (or lack thereof), political beliefs, physical appearance and so forth. Specifically, celebrity bloggers feed into these postfeminist discourses about the neoliberal female subject by “punishing” the actions of “at-risk” female celebrities through their bitchy critiques while giving praise to the “can-do” celebrities for making “correct” life choices, all the while encouraging other women (and men) to participate. As Fairclough comments, “audiences become complicit in a postfeminist policing of the boundaries of the celebrity…through identification with the Bitch persona of the blogger” (par. 18). Indeed, a quick perusal of the comments sections of, Lainey Gossip and Perez Hilton, illustrate that men and women are equal participants in this new form of interactive celebrity cultural critique, helping to shape and reinforce narrow conceptions of “acceptable” femininity. Conversely celebrities, who have always enjoyed a special relationship to the mainstream press, have become even more woven into the fabric of celebrity culture with the advent of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook which allow up-to-the-minute updates about their daily lives, blurring the public/private divide even further. Not surprisingly, Brown made use of his privileged access to the press and social media sites like YouTube in order to re-present himself to the public as a sympathetic “character.”

[29] In June 2009 Brown plead guilty to felony assault and in August was sentenced to one year of probation and counseling, six months of community service, and a five year, court-ordered restraining order which was publicly objected to by Rihanna. There was much speculation leading up to the trial, regarding what role Rihanna would play in the investigation, if any. Many of the initial reports posted onTMZ.comsuggested that Rihanna did not want to help with the investigation and that she wanted to remain silent in court (presumably because of her brief reconciliation with Brown immediately after the incident). In June 2009, Rihanna was set to testify in the court case but just hours before her testimony, Brown agreed to a plea bargain which resulted in no jail time, allowing her to remain publicly silent a little while longer.

[30] Needless to say, after the assault came to light a vigorous PR campaign was undertaken to rehabilitate Brown’s tarnished celebrity persona and for the most part it seems to have been successful. Other than a few cancelled performances and a terminated ad endorsement deal with Wrigley, Brown appears to have suffered few consequences for his behavior. Some critics did publicly chastise his behavior before the trial, as many pictures of him surfaced on celebrity websites and blogs looking happy and relaxed, gallivanting with his celebrity friends. Brown also made two public appeals to his fans (and Rihanna) asking for their forgiveness: first, in a video released on YouTube in the summer of 2009 (no longer available) and then in an interview with CNN’s Larry King that September on Larry King Live. Notably Brown – flanked by his mother on one side, his lawyer on the other – refused to answer King’s questions about why he became violent as well as questions about what exactly happened, citing “privacy” and “respect” for Rihanna as the reasons. At one point Brown seems to infer that his youth, lack of good role modeling, and relationship inexperience might have contributed to the abuse. Unfortunately King did not attempt to expand upon these brief insights which could have possibly opened up the discussion to think about the role that harmful social and cultural norms play in normalizing violence in heterosexual romantic relationships. Moreover this “failure” of the celebrity interview to help politicize the problem of male violence demonstrates how popular culture texts remain invested in simplistic narratives of woman abuse that in turn recreate stories centered around “severe incidents” (Stark 3).

[31] Politically, Brown’s celebrity status and therefore privileged position, enabled him to intercept and help shape the media discourse surrounding the case that in turn recasts male violence as “accidental” or a momentary “lapse in judgment” thus negating the ways in which physical abuse is but one form of abuse along a continuum of female subordination. Evan Stark, in his discussion of “coercive control,” argues that abusive men draw from a “repertoire of techniques” (10) to subordinate women and deny their personhood; thus media in this particular example can be used to the advantage of certain men, especially those who wield economic and/or political power. By invoking a “code of silence” about the abuse, Brown (and the media) denied the audience insight into men’s experiences of exercising “coercive control” over women. This lack of critical and political discourse reduces the incident to mere celebrity spectacle which in turn discourages individuals from identifying with either the facilitators or receivers of “coercive control.” Instead the incident becomes simply another tabloid story to be consumed by audiences, reinforcing the unsettling and disheartening notion that woman abuse is an accepted and expected part of everyday reality. Additionally, postfeminist ideologies reposition women as beyond (feminist) “victimization” and so the female celebrity in particular, is expected to overcome and triumph in the face of such adversity. Rihanna, while she remained absent from public life during this time, eventually intervened in the public debates about the abuse, illustrating that it matters whether women have media control over how they are represented (Silveirinha 73-74).

[32] In November 2009 Rihanna finally broke her silence in an interview with journalist Diane Sawyer, which originally aired on the ABC television program 20/20. In a deliberate display of strength and courage, Rihanna talked at length about her relationship with Brown – before, during and after the abuse – offering audiences the opportunity to hear her “truth.” At times her comments echo postfeminist discourses about choice and responsibility. On why she was “ashamed” about the incident, Rihanna tells Sawyer, “That’s embarrassing that’s the type of person I fell in love with” suggesting that if only she had made a “better choice” she might have avoided the problem altogether.  Rihanna also comes across as determined to reject any kind of victimization narrative stating, “I didn’t want people feeling sorry for me, like, there goes the victim.” Rihanna’s 20/20interview also illustrates how postfeminist and neoliberal discourses are wed together, as she reveals that her contract with Cover Girl was in jeopardy after her brief reconciliation with Brown – “I built this empire and the man that I love beat me and because I’m going back, I’m going to lose it? No.” So while to some extent she draws on postfeminist discourses to explain her decision to finally end the relationship (she realized the impact she could have on young women in similar situations), she also employs an economic rationale which illustrates a tacit recognition of herself as a powerful commodity in need of careful management and protection. In the conclusion of the20/20 interview Rihanna calls on Brown to “take responsibility” and to “not feel sorry for himself,” sentiments mirrored in her own public appearances since then.

[33] By all accounts, Rihanna has garnered a lot of praise from her fans and female supporters in her handling of the situation. However, when examining some of the media texts which help shape and make sense of the events, it is possible to see how Rihanna’s experiences are interpreted as a postfeminist narrative conveying the idea that she is a “can-do” girl who takes responsibility for the abuse by monitoring her actions and “withhold[s] critique” (McRobbie, “Post-feminism” 260). For example, in an issue of W magazine journalist Danielle Stein comments rather approvingly, how Rihanna refrained “from acting out at clubs or in front of paparazzi cameras” and that she “refused to wage any sort of war or publicity campaign in the tabloids” (102). In another interview with GQ writer Lisa Depaulo, Rihanna declares that “nobody” (“Good Girl”) helped her through the ordeal. Interestingly Depaulo prefaces her question with a comment that young girls, having been through similar situations themselves, wanted to know how she handled the situation. Rihanna offers a very individualized strategy for coping, saying “I just knew I’d be good one day. I just knew it. So I just kept waiting for the day…I’m gonna get over it” (“Good Girl”). Further on in the interview Rihanna attributes her ability to cope with the incident by throwing herself back into work, which led to the release of the 2009 album Rated R. Moreover Rihanna, across all of these media texts, is careful not to incite the “V-word”; she never refers to herself as a victim of abuse nor do any of the interviewers. By doing so, Rihanna, the celebrity journalists and the media culture more generally, become complicit with a patriarchal-capitalist system that seeks to render male abuse and female subordination normal and inevitable. The fact that it can and does happen to the most privileged people in North American society – here the female celebrity – may prove as the tabloids like to remind fans and audiences, that they really are “just like us.” In this way female celebrities (and all that they symbolize) are ideally positioned as mediating figures through which postfeminist and neoliberal discourses are read, particularly in how they attempt to curtail and monitor women’s actions. Exploring narratives of victimization as they are framed within celebrity culture also helps shed insight on how it is that myths about woman abuse persist despite the work of the second wave feminist movement to politicize what was previously dubbed a personal issue. As Stark has pointed out, North American society generally recognizes, or at least pays lip service to the notion that male violence is “bad” (195). Yet, high-profile cases such as the Rihanna/Chris Brown one brings to the fore and makes public a cult of misogyny that is constantly brewing beneath the surface. When this misogyny boils over into the mainstream via celebrity culture, the message is relayed once again that women are to blame for their victimization and subordination, while men (and the patriarchal system) are not obligated to explain or alter their actions. In effect then, celebrity culture is a key site where “letting men off the hook” has become a familiar narrative, easily bolstered by the individualistic discourses of neoliberalism and postfeminism.


[34] Celebrity culture as a vital component of postfeminist media culture has been examined. It has been argued that celebrity culture both articulates and reproduces harmful and simplistic notions about male abuse. Drawing on a number of recent examples within celebrity culture, in particular the highly publicized troubled relationship between music stars Rihanna and Chris Brown, it has been explored how these scandals rely on and are mobilized by neoliberal discourses about individual responsibility and personal choice.  Neoliberalism “resonates with postfeminism’s individualist and commoditised understanding of empowerment and agency, [which is] at odds with second wave notions of collective politics and community activism” (Genz and Brabon 170-71).  These discourses circulate across a variety of cultural texts, namely online gossip blogs and websites devoted to (primarily negative) commentary and criticism of celebrity culture.  This negative (mis)treatment of celebrities is also echoed in the discourses used by online audiences when responding to major “crises” in the lives of female celebrities, such as the Rihanna incident.  Recent criticism, both journalistic and scholarly, has shown how this form of celebrity gossip is highly invested in a “bitchy” form of commentary which tends to punish female celebrities for their “transgressions” much more harshly and more often than male stars.  As has been illustrated, celebrity gossip blogs and websites are key sites where struggles over the cultural meanings and politics of celebrity, gender, and important social issues such as male abuse are constantly debated and worked over.  This intense fascination with the daily lives of female celebrities is also reflective of a general shift in media culture “where the primary emphasis is increasingly on a person’s ‘private’ life or lifestyle rather than their professional role” (Holmes and Redmond 11). This turn toward the private lives of celebrities opens a space for audiences and consumers to critique their actions, especially if there is a perceived disconnect with their public persona (i.e. at formal events, awards ceremonies). This blurring of the public/private divide in media culture can be seen everywhere from the explosive popularity of Reality TV to the expansion and normalization of surveillance culture.  Individuals have not only become accustomed to the idea of being constantly “watched” and monitored, but are also encouraged to participate in an ongoing process of judgment and regulation of those around them, whether celebrity, friend or family member.

[35] Moreover social media sites not only facilitate audience engagement with celebrity culture but have become another semi-public receptacle/forum within the public sphere where sexist and violent misconceptions about male abuse are struggled over, as was seen with the tragic story of a young woman from British Columbia, who was gang raped at a party and then was victimized yet again when pictures of the assault were posted on Facebook (The Canadian Press). In addition, a number of Facebook groups were formed that proceeded to attack the victim’s credibility, essentially blaming the victim.  Therefore these changes in the reporting and coverage of incidents of male violence have far-reaching and detrimental effects, even beyond celebrity culture, on how male abuse and female subordination are understood and framed within the public sphere. In sum, by continuously “letting men off the hook” whether in the legal, social, or cultural realms, the false notion that individuals are living in a “post” feminist era becomes even more entrenched systemically; where the individual reigns supreme, free to choose her life path and devoid of any structural limitations or barriers to her success(es). It is important to be cognizant of how postfeminist and neoliberal discourses work in tandem with, and are articulated on various sites within the media sphere to constantly reconstruct myths and misconceptions about male abuse.


Much thanks to Ann Kibbey and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. We would also like to thank our co-panelists (especially Isabel Pinedo) for their feedback at the 2010 meeting of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, where an early draft of this paper was presented.

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