Yesterday, Rihanna and Chris Brown released two songs that they made together, effectively ending any public ill will that existed between the two following Brown’s brutal assault upon Rihanna, his then-girlfriend. Objectively, they are not very good. To take a further objective standpoint, these two ostensibly bland songs will court more controversy than anything that, say, Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu ever could, even though Stewart is the type of guy whose histrionics so screamingly romance such attention that it makes you want to cringe if you’re even paying him the slightest attention. It’s a testament to how pop culture—and society as a wider entity—treats abused women, and the PR machine’s ability to spin those endemic attitudes into something that will make both Chris Brown and Rihanna, no matter how they actually feel about each other, about a yacht and a half’s worth of money each. At some point one has to ask, Who are Chris Brown and Rihanna doing this for?
There are a few factors that probably led to these two songs being called into existence. First, there is very intense societal pressure for the abused woman to forgive, even accept the actions of her abuser. This is something that is very obviously present in pop culture—consider, for example, the scene in the graphic novel Watchmen, where Sally Jupiter (neé The Silk Spectre) cries upon learning that Edward Blake/The Comedian—who once attempted to rape her—has died. This is, of course, because Blake would go on to father Laurie, Sally’s daughter, and Sally is arguably bummed about depriving her daughter of a relationship with her father. On a pretty obvious level, this is an example of how we tend to normalize abuse in pop culture, emphasizing the latent effects such a transgression might have on the man rather than the very real effects that his actions have had on the woman. I personally know neither Chris Brown nor Rihanna, but I’m totally willing to go along with Grantland’s Amos Barshad and speculate here that Brown’s presumably ace PR team hounded Rihanna to hell and back to publicly forgive Chris Brown, emphasizing the effects that her lack of forgiveness had on the nearly supernaturally talented Brown’s career, ie, Rihanna not forgiving Chris Brown meant that she was publicly implying that he was a bad person. Now that she’s forgiven him, he’s just an asshole. People will work with an asshole (see West, Kanye), but they won’t work with a bad person.
Okay, so what does this have to do with videogames? Well, let’s think about Lara Croft andTomb Raider. Though the series hasn’t seen a game since 2008 (a new title is set to be released this year), Lara Croft is in the news again because someone decided to make a porn parody of the Tomb Raider series. Someone decided that this was a good idea for the same exact reason that Spike TV thought it was a good idea to punish those whose speeches ran long with public “teabagging” (this is where you take your—oh, look it up) at their annual videogame awards. The assumed (and perhaps very real) audience of many videogames is the straight male, the type of guy who would hypothetically watch Tomb Raider porn and laugh at teabagging jokes that were broadcast on national television, and so most games are made with the explicit impulse to recreate a perspective called the “male gaze.” This is a term coined by academics and appropriated by bloggers to discuss that idea that, in a piece of entertainment, the perspective (camera, narrator, whatever) generally shows the male side of the story. Lara Croft, a beautiful woman whose butt the player is faced with for the majority of the Tomb Raider series, is quite obviously the player’s tool. She is the instrument used to beat the game, to be ogled by the player as she runs and giggles and shoots her strapped-to-her-thigh pistols at all comers. The player holds the controller. Lara Croft just holds whatever the player wants her to hold.
So, back to the songs in question. The first song, a remix to Rihanna’s “Birthday Cake,” throws what could be an anthem of sexual empowerment into sharp relief, imposing the male gaze upon Rihanna when she was doing just fine telling some random guy to submit to her sexual will. Brown, meanwhile, sounds creepily enthusiastic in his verse, singing, “Girl, I wanna fuck you right now/It’s been a long time; I been missing your body.” In the diegesis of “Birthday Cake”—regardless of what’s going on in the real world—Rihanna has forgiven him for his assault. He’s not only inserted himself into the game. He’s beaten it.
Compare this to “Turn Up the Music,” a remix of a Chris Brown song that Rihanna magnanimously agreed to appear upon. She sounds bored, as if she’s just along for the ride. Yeah, she sings, but she’s following Brown’s lead, mostly just echoing all of the shit that he sings. By the time the quasi-dubstep breakdown hits, it’s pretty clear who’s holding the controller in this metaphorical situation.
To reinsert Rihanna into Chris Brown’s world is to have her become his tool, the object of lines like, “Imma hit this drink up like it’s my last/Imma hit this night up like it’s my last/Imma hit this ass up like it’s my last,” from the chorus of Big Sean’s “My Last,” where Brown objectifies women by virtue of serialization. In this context, the Rihanna/Brown incident has become a commodity, first spun by Brown’s PR team into the crux of his bizarre “redemptive” arc where we’re all supposed to worry about what effects the incident might have had on him, and now into some sort of musical car crash that we’re not supposed to be able to look away from. So maybe the question we should be asking is, If Rihanna is Lara Croft here and Chris Brown is the one playing Tomb Raider, whose eyes are we seeing all of through?