Saweetie, Rihanna, and the Memeification of Domestic Violence

Illustration by Marylu E. Herrera/Getty Images

On March 30, TMZ released elevator footage of Migos member Quavo physically assaulting his then-girlfriend Saweetie. Despite the viscerally upsetting images recorded, including a disheveled and traumatized Saweetie huddling in the corner as Quavo coldly stared at the camera without offering to help her up, popular TikTok and YouTube content creators, including Tpindell and Woahvicky, wasted no time creating video parodies of Quavo realizing the elevator cameras were capturing the incident. Viewers found humor in the way Quavo dragged Saweetie into the elevator and suddenly realized that he was caught by the elevator cameras. Though the parody videos were disturbing for many reasons, including the fact they garnered thousands of views, likes, and comments, the willingness of women, especially Black women, to participate in the mockery of another Black woman’s pain hits hardest.

It also raises an important question: What does it mean to live in a society where violence against women and girls, particularly those from marginalized communities, is treated as comedic fodder? Emerald Fennell’s Oscar-winning rape-revenge film, Promising Young Woman (2020), explores how comedy helps perpetuate and further rape culture. She tells this story through Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a 30-year-old former medical school student who’s seeking justice for the rape and death of her best friend Nina Fisher. When a former med-school friend, Madison (Alison Brie), gives Cassie a videotape of Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) sexually assaulting Nina, Madison says “I don’t know how I could ever have watched it and…thought it was funny.” During her 2018 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Christine Blasey Ford said she most remembered now–Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, laughing as Kavanaugh assaulted her. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she said. “The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”

Similarly, people find humor in videos of Black women being brutalized because Black girls and women have not historically been viewed and treated as victims, even when they are. A 2001 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that “disparaging humor…belittles and ‘silences’ the target social groups (women), normalizing and desensitizing society to violence against women.” When considering that Black women are already 2.5 times more likely to experience domestic violence than white women (and those rates have risen during the COVID-19 pandemic), normalizing domestic violence—through humor, no less—only further traps victims in cycles of abuse. There’s nothing new about this phenomenon: After Chris Brown assaulted then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009, YouTuber Ryan Higa (also known as “nigahiga”) as well as Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele of Key & Peele parodied the incidents.

Higa’s video, which eventually garnered more than 27 million views, was captioned “This is a very accurate video showing the reason why Chris Brown beat Rihanna,” and insinuates that Rihanna verbally provoked Brown. The argument ends with Rihanna (played by Higa) shuddering as Brown (also played by Higa) punches the camera as if he were punching Rihanna. In Key and Peele’s sketch for their Comedy Central show, meanwhile, the comedians play Rihanna and Brown, respectively, and re-enact the incident while using a car that resembled the one Brown trapped Rihanna in. Throughout the video, Key, as Rihanna, flinches as Peele, as Brown dances while singing the lines “Tonight I’m gonna hit that hit that…don’t try to fight back” (Unlike Higa’s video, this sketch ends with Rihanna escaping after she incapacitates Brown with a Taser.)

Unsettling as they were, these videos reflected a common sentiment at the time: Many people, men and women alike, blamed Rihanna for Brown’s behavior. In their view, Rihanna was an uncouth and aggressive woman—an embodiment of the Sapphire figure that historian Deborah Gray White described in her 1985 book Ar’n’t I a Woman? as a Black woman who “consumes men and usurps their role thus emasculates them”—provoked her abuser, making his violent reaction acceptable. When the singer sat for a 20/20 interview later that year, Diane Sawyer presented a YouTube video of a Black man saying “I don’t believe that Chris Brown attacked Rihanna for nothing. I believed she provoked him and that’s what happened.” To this man and many others, Rihanna had challenged Brown’s manhood and therefore needed to be put in her place.

When considering that Black women are already 2.5 times more likely to experience domestic violence than white women, normalizing domestic violence—through humor, no less—only further traps victims in cycles of abuse. 

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The videos made by Higa, Key, and Peele remain on YouTube, and their creators have yet to issue any apologies for them. In a 2013 interview with Sway in the Morning, Key and Peele insisted their sketch didn’t make light of domestic violence because, they explain, “The bit is that he’s not hitting her and she flinches. The joke is, his choreography is very physical and every time his arm gets within four feet of her she’s like ‘oh damn’ [mimics a person flinching].” But explaining the joke as an attempt to poke fun at Brown, rather than Rihanna, didn’t change the fact that Rihanna—in this case, the PTSD that frequently plagues survivors of physical abuse—was the butt of the joke.

Video and comedy parodies like these don’t exist in a vacuum: Juries, after all, are composed of everyday people—many of whom are familiar with depictions of Black women as aggressors who provoke violence and are thus incapable of being “real” victims. Black girls and women who retaliate against their abusers, for instance, are regularly treated as antagonists by law enforcement and the judicial system: Cyntoia Brown was incarcerated for 15 years for fatally shooting a man who attempted to solicit her for sex when she was 16; Marissa Alexander was incarcerated for three years for firing a warning shot at her husband after he attacked her and threatened to kill her. a husband shot. When Megan Thee Stallion arrived at a hospital with a bullet wound through her foot, she didn’t immediately tell her doctors that fellow artist Tory Lanez shot her because she “didn’t want to die” and she didn’t want Lanez to be shot by law enforcement. Megan’s shooting also became internet fodder, leading her to say in a July 27 Instagram Live video, “It was the worst experience of my life. It was not funny, it was nothing to joke about. I didn’t deserve to get shot, I didn’t do shit.”

If A-list celebrities with millions of dollars and followers can’t escape their trauma being turned into a joke, what hope is there for Black women who aren’t as wealthy or influential? Fortunately, survivor-led groups such as Survived and Punished and celebrities, including FKA twigs—who recently sued ex-boyfriend Shia Labeouf for abuse—are using their platforms to challenge the dehumanization of Black women survivors. In 2018, Rihanna’s informal boycott of Snapchat, after the company published an ad mocking domestic violence, cost the company $800 million. But this fight isn’t theirs alone: Although Saweetie hasn’t officially spoken out about the elevator footage, we must still ensure her pain isn’t turned into more dehumanizing viral moments. After all, our pain isn’t a joke and should never be treated as such.

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by Heven Haile
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Heven Haile is an Eritrean-American writer and filmmaker based in New York City.