Chris Brown is our Henry VIII
What if Chris Brown had pummeled Taylor Swift instead? Many around the net this week have been offering this rhetorical inquiry for consideration, fresh on the heels of a triumphant prizes-and-praise shower heaped upon convicted girlfriend beater Brown at Sunday’s Grammy awards ceremony. But I have another, stranger scenario to suppose: what if, rather than beating Rihanna badly enough that a hospital visit and course of leaked TMZ photos were required, Brown had instead ordered her execution? What if – stay with me, mind the gap – Chris Brown, a deftly talented musician with innumerable resources at his disposal, had rounded up a gang of loyal homeboys and intimated suspicions that his woman, in those emasculating Stiletto pumps, was stepping out on him? He insists that any evidence to confirm these paranoid theories be immediately found, no matter how contrived or fabricated. Then, after uncovering a series of perhaps manufactured texts and Tweets that seemed to flaunt Rihanna’s unfaithfulness in his pouting face, let’s pretend that Brown arranged for her imprisonment, conviction, and subsequent public murder by beheading. How many industry stalwarts – or, indeed, regular people music buyers – would be rushing to Brown’s defense with the urgency of a YouTube-ready flash mob then?
I’m no expert in the science of public poll taking, but I’m gonna go ahead and venture that the number of avid Chris Brown supporters in this fictitious, kinda outlandish supposition, would hover somewhere in the neighborhood of ZERO. In fact, I’m willing to bet that the only performing we’d see out of Brown these days would involve an overly aggressive cellmate named Staberella. A happening very much along these same lines came to pass right around this time, several hundred years ago: the kind of undertaking that historians and readers of history can rightly frown over as the symbolic face on a violent, deeply paternalistic and authoritarian black spot on our humanity. It came about on February 13, 1542, that Queen Katherine Howard of England was given a thorough schooling in the appropriate sort of outcome to expect after double-crossing a controlling, hateful abuser.
I thought of this because, well, I think about Tudor times a lot, probably in excess of several thousand times a day. (And there’s nothing I hate more than exaggeration.) I think a lot about the complexity of the female players at court, and why they’re worth remembering – what their struggles have to teach us, on some base, fundamental level, what it really means to be a lady raised high, or a woman scorned. But I also drew up this correlation thanks to a friend posting Herman’s Hermits performance of “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” on my Facebook wall. The post was meant to honor the memory of the late Queen Katherine, known to friends and intimates as “Kitty,” and long regarded as perhaps the strongest cautionary tale of Henry’s queens. There was nothing inherently subversive about this television performance, unlike Brown’s own recent outing, but it still struck me as peculiar that 500 years have passed between one subject matter to another, and we're still completely comfortable with the idea of a known woman-abuser performing on TV to unbelievable acclaim. (Although, to be fair, in Henry's performance is only by proxy, and I don't think anyone would argue for the contemporary appeal of Herman's Hermits.) It was ok then and it’s ok now.
Since, unlike me, you are presumably normal and don’t have dreams in which Anne of Cleves does your mascara, a quick synopsis: Katherine, sometimes called Katharine, Kathryn, or Catherine, was a largely uneducated country girl with a wild, Lohan-like reputation. She started screwing around with older men very young, even young for the age in which it was legally permissible to marry a 12-year-old. By the time she was either 15 or 17, depending on whose birth year theory you subscribe to, she’d already been betrothed and bedded to one lusty common man, and had the King of England, by that time a diseased and dangerous tyrant, dancing to the tune of her stomacher snapping off. Oh, and it probably bears mentioning that Henry was about four times Katherine’s age when they married – the Medieval version of all those sugar daddy arrangement websites. But of course, there was to be no happy ending here; how could there be? Following a scant two years of matrimony, advisors to the king uncovered evidence that shed light upon Queen Katherine’s prior relationship with one Francis Dereham; the boyfriend back home still wearing the promise ring, if you will. To make matters worse for the doomed queen, it was soon revealed that Katherine had also been engaging in decidedly NSFW escapades with a member of the king’s own Privy Chamber, a young pretty boy called Thomas Culpeper. (And he was her cousin!) How did Henry handle the heartbreaking news? He sent his queen into house arrest and only allowed her to leave a head shorter.
Just let that resonate for a bit. You don’t have to boast any niche expertise on Katherine Howard’s life to be familiar with the atmosphere under which she lived. We have long been a people that makes virgins into witches and then burns them; Kitty Howard, no doubt, found her stumble from England’s “rose without a thorn” to its great and disgusting whore a short, quick fall indeed. It is just this kind of thinking that guided powerful men to throw down a pretty, carefree girl for the sin of enjoying sex too much. It is the same mindset which also prompts contemporary questions like “what could Rihanna have done to cause Chris to act this way?” The abuser, divine and anointed with oil or international celebrity, could certainly never have been singularly responsible for the violence that took place at his hands (or his word.) Five hundred years lie between us and the Tudors, and while routine beheadings may have gone the way of the man-ty hose (though the former still elicits some enthusiastic cheering from rednecks), have the messages and morals broadcast by a gender-dictated society at large gotten any rosier for girls and young women?
And, not to keep attempting an overstuffed pop culture metaphor quilt, but we’ve gotta talk about Whitney. Exactly one day before Brown’s controversial Grammy performance, the world lost yet another tragic, abused woman. Whitney Houston may have lived her life in the spotlight, glamorous and successful, but she died face-first in a hotel bathtub; every bit a sacrifice of feminine misery as Kitty Howard had been. For a woman plagued by personal and external demons (lest we forget that other famous singing Brown’s transgresses against her), the end seems pointedly bitter, devastating and ironic, especially considering that one of Whitney’s greatest pop hits loudly, proudly, unabashedly proclaimed that the greatest love of all was just to love one’s self.
What all am I trying to say here? I guess just that, this Valentine’s day, I hope for millions of young Rihanna, Whitney, and Philippa Gregory fans to take heed Whitney’s words and not her decisions. The love of the self, the ability to value self-worth and all that lovely hippie shit, is a force that can overcome the love of a king or a pop star. It’s that powerful understanding of knowing what’s right and how to implement it; it’s the fight we’ve seen in the eyes of so many women and men betrayed by the Komen/Planned Parenthood fiasco. It’s precisely the moxie we all must summon up to change the conversation on domestic violence.
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