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Chris Brown and his infamous tattoo.
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Everyone’s Favorite Whipping Boy aka the Illustrated Man


The internet can be a great place to hear the sound of our own voice echoing back to us. It’s certainly preferable to standing on top of a mountain and screaming at the top of our lungs to no one in particular. The internet’s response feels less lonely because the echo becomes more audible and immediate. It enables us to preach to the choir by speaking our minds through one another. Unfortunately, the voice of reason is often drowned out as a result — it can barely be heard above the din or typically falls by the wayside. Everyone’s favourite sounding board therefore acts like an echo chamber. The internet amplifies and distorts the sound of our own voice by relying on the unquestioning repetition of original sources .


The recent backlash over Chris Brown’s neck tattoo is a case in point. And in case you haven’t heard, the tattoo — especially on such an exposed and public part of the body — is a giant “fuck you” to everyone who thinks he shouldn’t have beaten Rihanna. According to the echo chamber, Brown’s tattoo was another flashpoint for violence against women. Brown allegedly tattooed an image of a battered woman on his neck in order to rub everyone’s face in it.


Brown’s new tattoo, therefore, became an immediate talking point through media outlets as disparate as The Guardian, Time Magazine, TMZ and Perez Hilton. Since we love to hear the sound of our own voice coming back to us, Brown’s ‘bragging about beating Rihanna’ has become the official story that continues to echo online.


Now, Flash Points is no apologist for Chris Brown — we have previously chastised Brown for his role in the slut shaming of Rihanna and critically commented on his vicious assault of her. And to be frank, if you see the tattoo from a certain angle, you could be forgiven for thinking that it is another image of Rihanna’s battered face and/or that Brown is thumbing his nose at us. The resemblance between the two images is uncanny.


Seen from another angle, however, the tattoo appears to resemble something else entirely. Nonetheless, we need to distinguish two issues: mistaking an image for reality and the reality behind the veil of appearances.


We therefore need to be clear about we’ve all been looking at and commenting on. The echo chamber has responded to a photo of an ink drawing that appears to resemble another photo: the infamous image leaked to the internet a couple of years ago. The images are themselves mere echoes of each other, and so remain enclosed within the chamber circulating them in the first place. No one is going to claim that the original image is itself a media beat up —  it was originally leaked online by two female police officers to represent the extent of the assault upon a famous woman. Nonetheless, few people have directly seen the offending tattoo and even fewer people can claim to know what Brown was really thinking when he modified his own body with an ink engraving . All the other ink spilt is mere hyperbole and speculation (and yes, we include our own musings amongst the spillage).


If the controversy can confirm anything, it’s that images of Brown’s body have also become public property, and that it is being exploited for political purposes.Consequently, some feminists have been amplifying and distorting the sounds within the echo chamber even further. Particularly noteworthy is Amanda Marcotte’s “What Chris Brown’s Tattoo Tells Us About Violence Against Women” — an article published online at Pandagon and enthusiastically commented on at Jezebel. We say ‘noteworthy’m because Marcotte’s article takes hearsay at face value and mistakes sophistry for sound reasoning.


Marcotte not only presumes to speak for many people here —- what Brown’s tattoo ‘tells us’ about violence against women —- she also speaks about other violent men in order to tell us all about Brown’s tattoo. Brown’s new tattoo becomes an occasion to prove what she already knows: that many men are violent against women and like to “brag” about it. Unfortunately, Marcotte relies on the kind of essentialist assumptions that feminism fought against. Specifically, all (violent) men are alike and should be treated the same —- women can presume to speak for them because they deserve their contempt. Marcotte’s ‘argument’ consists in running parallel lines together, and she (somehow) forces them to meet in the middle.


“What Chris Brown’s Tattoo Tells Us About Violence Against Women” is itself an act of violence, and involves guilt by association as an ad hominem attack. According to Marcotte, there’s not even an argument to be had: it’s self evident that the photo of the image on Brown’s neck is exactly what it seems… a trophy commemorating Rihanna’s assault. And she knows this because violent men are “typical”: batterers, rapists and paedophiles are all cut from the same cloth, and typically boast about their violence against women. In fact, all these men secretly wish they could be rich and famous like Brownm if only so as to be able to show their true colours or a united front, too. Never mind that Brown is an atypical batterer: there has been no pattern of physical abuse (thus far) while Brown turned himself into the police and pleaded guilty to felony assault after that horrific night. We’re not trying to diminish or minimise a vicious assault—we’re just noting that it’s all too easy to tar different people with the same brush.


Witness the way Brown is conveniently associated with convicted rapists and paedophiles to implicate a tattoo in a another crime. Marcotte uses other people’s different behaviour (explicit boasts about distinct crimes) to prove the hidden meaning of Brown’s neck tattoo. She reverse engineers a boast back to its original source code. Rihanna’s recent interview with Oprah, however, paints a different picture to Marcotte. Instead of seeing an unrepentant “monster”, Rihanna describes an unhappy person yet “to find peace” and reaffirmed their “love” for each other.


Unfortunately, the echo chamber has therefore failed to see the bigger (or other) picture emerging. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the tattoo is not a sugar skull modelled on a MAC cosmetic design (as Brown and his tattooist have independently claimed). Let’s even assume that it is a tattoo of Rihanna’s battered face. For all we know, Brown publicly branded himself to remind both of them of his shame so as to prove his commitment to her. Given that the image occurred in the aftermath of Rihanna’s interview with Oprah, we could be seeing another sign of their inevitable reconciliation. Whatever its meaning, it remains clear that trial by media begins with a presumption of (further) guilt and feels entitled to punish Brown even further. Although it might feign objectivity or fairness, the court of public opinion is more interested in projecting its own image onto him.




Eating Her Own Words


Chris Brown is living proof that fame can be a ‘monster’ (to quote renowned media critic Lady Gaga). The ‘fame monster’ can swallow people whole and produce its own demon spawn. It’s worth noting that Gaga hasn’t pulled out the torches and pitchforks—that’s one image yet to be associated with her. Perhaps that’s because angry mobs invariably turn out to be the true monster. Or maybe Gaga just doesn’t want to bite the hand that feeds and risk being starved for attention. Group think has obviously been good for her ‘brand’ of individuality and self acceptance. So instead of forming a group to track ‘the fame’ down, Lady Gaga wants other impressionable young women to “walk around delusional about how great they can be—and to fight so hard for it that the lie becomes the truth”. The only problem is whether its possible to believe the lie that image doesn’t really matter—or rather, whether false images of women should become ‘the truth’ (the standard in which to perceive and/or value women).


Witness the way Lady Gaga has struggled with the issue of her own body image over the years –- and how recent images of her body sent the media into a tailspin. The fat shaming proved to be a flashpoint that resulted in an attempted Body Revolution. Gaga called on her Little Monsters to “Be brave and celebrate with us your ‘perceived flaws,’ as society tells us. May we make our flaws famous, and thus redefine the heinous.” In another call to arms, she urged “Now that the body revolution has begun, be brave and post a photo of you that celebrates your triumph over insecurities.”


Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga


Lady Gaga’s initiative isn’t so much a revolution but a complete turnaround. It’s part of the feedback loop that is consumer culture. She had previously been called a hypocrite for failing to lead by example, and some of her own followers publicly chastised her for perpetuating the beauty myth when she tweeted Just killed back to back spin classes. Eating a salad dreaming of a cheeseburger #PopSingersDontEat #IWasBornThisWay (10 April, 2012). The myth, of course, is that Gaga wasn’t born this way – the way women view their own bodies (and their so called ‘individuality’) mirrored a broader cultural conspiracy. The conspiracy was that images of beauty were typically used against women to reflect existing social standards: women being objectified and turned into commodities was somehow seen as natural.


Gaga was already aware of the tension between image and reality, or when the one gets mis/taken for the other and false images are held up to reflect real life. During the It’s Our Turn conference in February, she encouraged young women to see their inner beauty and asked them to stop dieting to please others. Nonetheless, she couldn’t help but see where they were all coming from: she also confessed to having an eating disorder at the same age and only stopped throwing up because the acid in vomit was damaging her vocal chords. Gaga subsequently told Sirius XM Radio that she had progressed to a drunk diet to help maintain her toned body as an adult.

Steven Aoun was the film and television critic for Australia's leading film journal Metro magazine. He has also written music criticism for Melbourne's daily newspaper Herald Sun and been an editorial assistant for CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, the peer-reviewed quarterly of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. He is currently writing a PHD on the nature of critical theory and may even finish it within this lifetime. Steven regularly contributes to PopMatters as a feature writer and previously wrote the column Through the Looking Glass and the Flashpoints series. Steven can be contacted at bonnee01@gmail.com when he is not also writing the novel "On Caroline Jane's Happiness".


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