thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Chuck Bass, Chris Brown, and Un-Forgiving Violent Men

In gender, race, teen soaps, violence on February 12, 2012 at 6:36 pm

Phoebe B.

The controversy surrounding Chris Brown’s upcoming appearance at the Grammy’s has had me thinking about my favorite Gossip Girl character, Chuck Bass. Chuck, his smoldering eyes, and his bad boy-gone-good situation consistently woo me (at least once a week on Monday nights that is). But the thing about Chuck, which I have a hard time reconciling with his position as my favorite GG character, is his past behavior: in the pilot he attempts to force himself on Serena; later in season one he does the same to 14-year old Jenny (Dan’s little sister); later in the series he trades the beautiful and amazing Blair for a hotel; and ultimately when he finds out Blair is engaged he punches through a window.

Chuck Bass

The narrative drive of the show, at least in part, is about Chuck’s redemption—he becomes a seriously swoon-worthy character by this season (and GG’s 100th episode!). For viewers, that violent history, which is often blamed on his absent and fairly mean father and lack of a mother, is erased throughout the narrative of the show. Indeed, my love for Chuck is possible because the show makes me forget Chuck’s darker deeds—which are most often acts of violence against women.

As the most recent episode of GG reminded us, Chuck has come a long way from those earlier dark doings. Last week, instead of trading Blair for a hotel, he volunteered to buy her out of her pre-nuptial agreement (read dowry) with the suddenly evil Prince Louis (so evil!). And, Louis’s evil is conveyed via his cruelty toward Blair. For example, the newly horrible prince confesses to Blaire, mid-couples wedding dance, that he despises her. He goes on to say he only married her to avoid embarrassment and then threatens her should she try to leave the marriage. Indeed, his body language (including the fake smile) and tone become menacing—a dramatic shift and a far cry from the chivalrous Louis who met Blair in that museum in Paris long ago.

At the same time, Chuck’s heroism here is signaled through his newfound chivalrous desire to buy Blair from the prince, a move that presumably mirrors and reverses his earlier misdeeds. Blair, of course, refuses. But, that the show demonstrates how far Chuck has come by trafficking in Blair—that is, offering to buy her from the evil prince—still feels a bit icky (to say the least). Indeed, Blair’s body as commodity is mobilized in favor of the male-centered redemption narrative. That is, Gossip Girl shows something good about Chuck only by placing Blair in peril.

So, Chuck’s darkness or brooding is conveyed via violence against and/or commodification of women (also, true for Prince Louis). And, all those women he attacks eventually become friends with him; have sex with him; and fall in love with him. Within the narrative of the show, those characters whom he has wronged always forgive him and show him that he is indeed lovable. Through their forgiveness he can be rehabilitated and get his second chance. But this narrative isn’t just for fictional (and TV) characters.

Chris Brown

Male media stars from Chris Brown to Charlie Sheen, and Russell Crow (remember when he threw that phone) to a crazy ranting and racist Mel Gibson always seem to get second chances. And then they too, like Chuck Bass, are celebrated for triumphing over their once-turbulent-demon-ridden selves. At the same time, the women who suffer from domestic violence wind up as marked women, are narrated as at fault or deserving of that violence, and always trapped by the violence committed against them. For example, instead of expressing concern for Rihanna in the wake of her abuse by Chris Brown, as this Hello Giggles blog post notes, Hollywood was silent in the face of her abuse by Brown and then the internet began buzzing with blame for her:

“Jay-Z issued [a] statement because the Internet was, in early February 2009, engaged in a very serious conversation about whether or not all of this was Rihanna’s fault. In fact, large segments of the Internet had devoted themselves to making Rihanna the scapegoat for any woman who ever had the gall to do something worth getting hit, and then the cloying self-esteem to go to the cops about it. Bloggers and their commentators flocked to Chris Brown’s defense in droves. It was a full-blown tearing-down of female self-worth, an assault on any progress women have made in this country in the past 200 years, and the mainstream media ignored it.”

And now, the Grammys are welcoming him back with open arms, claiming that they are in fact the victims here:

“We’re glad to have him back,” said executive producer Ken Ehrlich. “I think people deserve a second chance, you know. If you’ll note, he has not been on the Grammys for the past few years and it may have taken us a while to kind of get over the fact that we were the victim of what happened” (qtd from Hello Giggles)

This is a media, and cultural, landscape where acts of violence committed by men against women can become part of their comeback narratives. Chris Brown’s very real violence against Rihanna becomes a plot point in his story and something for him to triumph over. And, this is completely and totally crazy (as the Hello Giggles post most definitely notes). This kind of narrative suggests that violence against women (or anyone for that matter) is not that big a deal and that it is probably the fault of those on the receiving end, who per the Grammys’ formulation, are not the real victims. From the Grammy’s perspective one might actually think that the only victims were Chris Brown and the awards show itself.

Lastly, with Chris Brown, I think race is also a huge factor in the cultural response to to Brown’s violence against Rihanna. I think part of the public reaction, or lack thereof, to his violence against her is part of a larger cultural phenomenon (read, huge problem) that consistently figures white women as the only deserving victims of suffering and sympathy. In this framework, the black female body is excluded and marginalized from cultural empathy. And as a result, this narrative ensures that violent perpetrators, like Chris Brown, stay on top to do more violence.

The Hello Giggles blog post, asks “What if it had been Taylor Swift?” And, I want to suggest here that the reaction would have been rather different as we saw when Kanye took to the stage in support of Beyonce at the MTV Music Awards in 2009 (remember?). Just in case you have forgotten, Kanye’s sudden stage presence occurred just as Taylor Swift won Best Female Video and he proclaimed that Beyonce deserved that honor. What followed was mass media madness framed in terms of of white and black. Taylor Swift became the poor young white passive female victim of Kanye’s crazy and overpowering outburst–a narrative which draws on a long and violent history of framing black men as threatening to white women and was used to justify white on black violence. For more on this, I wrote about this a little on GLG a while ago: Two All-Too-Similar Tales of White Womanhood and also Rebecca Wanzo’s great book, The Suffering Will Not Be Televised. But this is all to say, that despite the crazy claims of post-race-ness, what we witness in Chris Brown’s fall and redemption vs. Kanye’s fall from grace (without the same brand of redemptive story) and the silence and lack of support for Rihanna vs. the outrage for Taylor Swift is that both narratives are all about race. And not only that, these narratives are dangerous in that they re-write Chris Brown as victim, rather than oppressor, and suggest that his violence okay and not that big a deal.

Lastly, The Rule

In this crazy media landscape, a character like Chuck from Gossip Girl then is most certainly not the exception, but rather the rule. It appears, from Chris Brown or even Charlie Sheen at the Emmys, that we are trained to believe in the redemption of men who abuse women and that those on the receiving end of the violence are probably at fault (something often reiterated in news bulletins when women are attacked). In this context, it ceases to be strange that we celebrate Chuck and forget his severe misdeeds. Chris Brown is perhaps, among other things, a real-world version of Chuck living in a culture that champions the belief that men who hit women can change and are deserving of second (third, fourth, etc) chances. Which means, among many other things, most certainly rethinking my already conflicted feelings in regards to Chuck Bass.

  1. […] because) of their venom? Or, to adopt the comparison Phoebe drew brilliantly in her own musings on Chris Brown, is there somewhere for female hip-hop fans to place themselves that falls between Team Breezy and […]

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