Recently, celebrities have been making major news headlines for perpetrating domestic violence: NFL player Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend and then committed suicide, Olympian Oscar Pistorius murdered his girlfriend, and Charles Saatchi was photographed strangling his wife, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, to name a few. However celebrity domestic violence headlines are nothing new. Images of Bobby Brown assaulting Whitney Houston, as well as OJ Simpson’s trial for the murder of Nicole Brown, are often noted when the subject of celebrity domestic violence arises.
Celebrity domestic violence is not only not new, but seems to be on the rise. In 2009, the year singer Chris Brown assaulted pop-star Rhianna, 18 celebrity couples made headlines because of involvement in domestic violence. In 2012, the number climbed to 31 couples. By the end of July in 2013, 17 couples had already been reported to be engaged in abusive and violent relationships (perpetrating and/or surviving). In total, I identified 118 celebrity couples between January 2009 and July 2013.
I identified couples by using the search term “domestic violence” on 3 top entertainment websites and 3 popular sports news websites. Given that many news articles fail to label domestic violence as such, this is likely an under-count. I also limited the sample to those couples in which legal involvement (an arrest, petition for order of protection, reports detailed in divorce papers, etc.) was present (thus Elin Nordegren, Tiger Wood’s ex-wife, is not included). Additionally, I identified celebrities as television and movie actors, reality television stars, and musicians, and sports figures were categorized as professional sports players (no college football players were counted).
Today I’m publishing a PHOTO GALLERY of celebrities and sports figures who have made headlines for perpetrating domestic violence. While the nature of the photo gallery gives the appearance of a clear divide between who perpetrates domestic violence and who survives abuse, the reality is much messier. A good example of this is actress Lisa Robin Kelly, known for her role on the television sitcom That 70s Show. As illustrated by this TMZ article, initial reports identified her as the perpetrator of abuse. However, looking not at a one-time incident, but the relationship over time, it’s easy to see that things were more complicated than an initial arrest. The descriptions of abuse Lisa describes enduring from her husband provide a much clearer picture of a pattern of power and control executed by her husband over her:
According to Lisa, the argument started because Gilliam wanted her to empty her bank account and give him her money. She refused, and claims Gilliam attacked her, pulling her hair, throwing her to the ground, and choking her. She says he even threatened to shoot her. (TMZ)
When looking at the celebrity domestic violence photo gallery, it’s important to be clear about what it shows and what it does not. It shows who has been arrested for perpetrating domestic violence, not necessarily who is the abusive individual in the relationship. An excellent primer on the differences between labeling someone a perpetrator vs. an abuser and a victim vs. a survivor is available via the Northwest Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian & Gay Survivors of Abuse. It's possible to be a perpetrator of a crime and a survivor of abuse simultaneously.
In addition to the photo gallery, I’m including some basic demographic information about the perpetrators in my sample (I’m using the “perpetrator” definition and not “abuser” definition here). The statistics are taken from 110 individuals identified as celebrities who have perpetrated domestic violence. Eight couples were excluded because either the celebrity in question was the victim or there was no clear perpetrator in the relationship (i.e., mutual arrests). These couples still appear in the photo gallery. Almost 50% of the perpetrators were between the ages of 25 and 34. 90% were men, 96% were in heterosexual relationships, and 63% were dating their partner at the time.
Why does Celebrity Domestic Violence Matter?
We are bombarded daily with information about how relationships are supposed to be. Representations of relationship norms, expectations, and ideals are often depicted in reporting of celebrities’ lives (Kate Middleton, anyone?). Intimate partner violence is pervasive in our society and how it is framed influences what we believe about domestic violence, what causes it, and how we can solve it as a society.
As a sociology PhD student, my current research is a content analysis of online coverage of celebrities and sports figures making headlines for perpetrating domestic violence. As part of my research I am analyzing the framing of domestic violence, gender, and race. How does race and status influence reporting on violent relationships? What are the messages about masculinity and femininity embedded in our conversations about this social problem? By changing the way we report on these relationships, can we create social change?
Related Blog Post:
A message to the media on reporting on Domestic Violence