A quick name association exercise. Chris Brown: beats women. Ike Turner: beats women. John Lennon: a few days ago, I would have said “peace.” Now it’s “beats women.” Peace comes second.
I didn’t know that Lennon was physically abusive to women until I fell into a Beatles research rabbit hole last week for another story I was working on. Since then, my brain has run the gamut of reactions, dismay through anger, before arriving at troubled, which is where it’s stayed.
Lennon’s past as an abuser feels like an open secret. In 1980, during an interview with Playboy magazine, he put his history of violence on the public record. “I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically — any woman,” he said. “I was a hitter. I couldn't express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women.”
Lennon’s admission that he’s “a hitter” has been public knowledge for 30-plus years. But it seems willfully obscured, as if forgotten and forgiven by everyone who loved him for his heroics, real or imagined. No one puts Ike Turner’s musical contributions to Motown ahead of the fact that he beat Tina Turner (nor should they).
Before Chris Brown’s name became synonymous with domestic violence, he and Rihanna were the R&B/pop poster couple for young love. After he viciously assaulted her in 2009 just before the Grammy Awards, there’s been much heated and public discourse about the merit of his existence, never mind his music.
Granted, Lennon’s dark past made headlines as recently as last September when Brown released his newest album and activists in the U.K. placed advisory stickers on his CDs warning “This man beats women.” Then the stickers were put on Lennon’s records as well, and people freaked out — even though it was true.
Comparisons between Lennon and Brown have been made before, but most of those stories err on the side of “Why demonize Brown? Lots of other men hit women. Look at Lennon.”
That’s a point — but it’s not the point. We absolutely need to look at Lennon, but not under the guise of normalizing violence against women. Rather, we have to look at Lennon in the greater conversation of Chris Brown, domestic violence, celebrity and racism because there are some heinous, ugly things at the root of this argument. We’re being urged to gloss over Brown’s behaviour (because so many other famous men have done the same thing before) and also letting inherent racial bias obfuscate key details about whom we hold accountable.
Lennon has literally become a martyr for love and peace, and that one ugly truth doesn’t fit with the legacy of gentle radical and revolutionary genius. Arrogant? OK. Abusive? No way. Lennon isn't in keeping with what the majority’s idea of a criminal looks like. Brown looks like one, Lennon doesn’t — at least that’s what’s reaffirmed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways through most media images, everywhere from advertising to TV to music.
If seeing is believing, it works in strange ways. The pictures that remain of Lennon, particularly after the Beatles, are mostly of him and Yoko Ono, and have become iconic. They reaffirm a story they told of a tangled, immersive, all-consuming love affair, one that often depicted Lennon in a subservient role to Ono, in a fetal position on the bed next to her or draped across her body. There’s tenderness, manufactured or not, that reinforces our idea of Lennon, the feminist.
There haven’t been any photos like that of Brown since he attacked Rihanna. Most show him sullen or defiant or threatening or overly pleased with himself. It’s not hard to imagine the man in these photos doing what he did. And we know what he did. We’ve seen it.
I remember the sickening sensation of seeing Rihanna’s picture after Brown attacked her. Hearing about domestic violence is altogether different than seeing it, and I think that leaked police photo of Rihanna’s bruised, battered and swollen face has been a huge factor in so many people refusing to forgive or forget the extent of Brown’s rage and entitlement.
That the assault is still being talked about four years later — well, that is a PhD’s worth of information, analysis and cause and effect there — is at least in part due to Brown’s obvious lack of remorse and refusal to acknowledge that violence against women is wrong.
That was another part of the story that floored me in 2009, and continues to this day. I honestly — and naively — didn’t think younger generations needed a public discourse about domestic violence, that it was a problem in the past. Of course it’s wrong to hit women. Of course everybody is equal. Of course reflexive violence is usually only an option for the weakest and least educated in society. Of course I am wrong.
And it’s because I’m wrong that it’s important to acknowledge Lennon’s violence against women. Would he have become the revered deity of peace he is today if we saw photos of his victims, his lovers, his wives? The rest of his Playboy quote is telling, even he was still grappling with how his past informed his present:
“I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically — any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn't express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything's the opposite. But I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am not [a] violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.”
Lennon didn’t get the chance to live to be old enough to confront his violent self, nor did he live in a time when that was expected of him. Brown can and does have that opportunity. Comparing Brown and Lennon isn’t an attempt to normalize violence against women, nor is it an argument against enjoying either’s music (I do), nor is it my way of saying people can’t change (they can), but rather to illustrate failings and flaws in our culture that perpetuate privilege and stereotyping.
Chris Brown deserves condemnation. So does John Lennon; he is not a god. Nobody deserves to be beaten. Of course these things should be obvious. But they’re not. So we have to keep saying them.