The internet's shocking response to Kehlani's suicide attempt should remind us that pop stars are humans, too
It’s no secret that the internet loves a scandal, so it came as no surprise when, just three days ago, R&B superstar Kehlani began trending on Twitter after an Instagram post implicated her infidelity — an implication that turned out to be untrue. The image in question was posted by her ex-boyfriend PARTYNEXTDOOR, a musician signed to Drake’s OVO record label with almost 1 million Instagram followers, and the assumed victim was Kyrie Irving, an NBA star with almost 3 million Twitter followers. The combined profile of Kehlani’s two lovers led to a backlash that transcended the usual gossip blogs and resulted in scathing criticism from Irving’s legions of fans.
The next day, Kehlani posted a photo from a hospital bed alongside a caption implying she had attempted to take her own life. Shortly after, she deleted her Instagram – although she later temporarily rejoined to clarify that she was no longer in a relationship with Irving when PARTYNEXTDOOR posted the image from his bed (possibly without Kehlani’s permission — unsurprisingly, PARTYNEXTDOOR’s role in the alleged ‘scandal’ went largely unnoticed). Irving has since confirmed that he and Kehlani weren’t dating when the photo was taken — but even if they were, what business is it to anyone? In essence, this whole ordeal was based on a strangely puritanical speculation, while the musician herself played no part in actually sharing the image.
Fast-forward 48 hours and it’s now musician Chris Brown who’s trending, using his Twitter to openly dismiss Kehlani’s attempted suicide as a plea for sympathy and state his support for Irving. In a series of scathing tweets, Brown wrote ‘There is no attempting suicide. Stop flexing for the Gram… OK IM DONE. Guess she gone have to watch the games from a real “box” now.’ (And yes, in case you hadn’t realised, the ‘box’ Brown was referring to was a coffin.) It's hard to see any reason why Brown, upon seeing a woman in trouble after receiving a glut of online abuse, decided to amplify that pain to his 16 million followers beyond just being unpleasant. This strong reaction to suspected female infidelity isn’t surprising – one of Brown’s biggest hits, “Loyal”, is based on a chorus of “these hoes ain’t loyal” and sees Brown confess he’d do “anything but trust these hoes.” He later spoke about infidelity in an interview for Power 105.1, stating that while he had dated two girls at the same time in the past he wouldn’t stand for the same treatment.
Now, search ‘Chris Brown’ on Twitter and ‘Chris Brown TRUTH’ is the most related popular search. Brown joked about a suicide attempt and openly slut-shamed a female artist (despite Kehlani clarifying that she and Irving had broken up), yet the internet is largely on his side. Twitter views him as a good guy sticking by his friend through a hard time by branding Kehlani a homewrecker. Of course, Brown is no stranger to public controversy – the musician made headlines back in 2009 for attacking then-girlfriend Rihanna when a police image of her bloodied face went viral. It appears Brown has forgotten what it’s like when personal difficulties play out in a public setting; hardly surprising given that a course of anger management classes and on-stage tears during a Michael Jackson tribute were seemingly all it took to repair his public image. Despite the assault, Brown was back at the top of his game in 2011 when his album F.A.M.E. sold 270,000 copies and debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200.
Chris brown ain't say nothing but the truth y'all always wanna save and feel sorry 4 hoes Fucc that !— ☥ SC: BluFlameGG ♉ (@BluFlameGG) March 31, 2016
every time Chris Brown speak the truth the world mad as hell at him lol— CHRISTIAN ARIEL (@ChrisAriel_) March 30, 2016
Truth hurts when it comes from Chris Brown. I'm with him on this one. And we will all listen to his next album when it's out 😂— Steph (@HovsDaughter) March 30, 2016
Kehlani’s touching response outlined that celebrities are often reified and their human qualities are forgotten. She did absolutely nothing wrong, yet events in her personal life have still been picked apart and vilified by millions. Worryingly, Kehlani’s suicide attempt is emblematic of a wider social trend so polemic it warrants its own label – cyberbullicide. According to a report by cyberbulling.org, while suicide rates have decreased overall, suicides triggered by online abuse have become a new phenomenon implicitly linked to today’s generation. Naturally, musicians and celebrities have a raised profile that logically attracts more interactions, making online threats a depressing reality for young stars. Kehlani’s unique circumstances are harrowing proof of the effects caused by random online abuse, usually perpetrated by anonymous users. After all, the Internet age is characterised not only by an overall lack of accountability, but also a mob mentality. Scandals become trending topics, meaning that people feel compelled to add to the abuse with their own unsolicited opinions and harmful memes for the sake of a few retweets. To be reprimanded by parents or friends for a mistake is one thing – to be subjected to a torrent of abuse written by thousands of strangers is another experience entirely.
These varied factors make Brown’s comments even more irresponsible. The support of his opinion only buoyed the online hatred directed towards Kehlani, thus aggravating the problem. His previous comments on infidelity also highlight a depressing double standard which persists today – namely that infidelity is more acceptable when it’s the man in the wrong. There’s no need to refer back to the concept of ‘slut-shaming’ – there’s an enormous range of examples online already – but it seems that women are still held more accountable for their sexuality than men. Public reaction works in much the same way; even though Brown was charged with assault and making criminal threats towards his then-partner, he still continues to dominate the charts. Artists shouldn’t have their careers derailed by isolated incidents, but at a certain point Brown’s continued misguided comments and misogynistic attitude should overshadow the merits of his musical output – especially considering that teenage girls are a core demographic in his fanbase. It will be interesting to see if Kehlani’s flourishing career will suffer where Brown’s didn’t.
After all, Kehlani is a person, not a ‘celebrity’. Musicians – women in particular – often face particular pressure to act as a ‘role model’. Pop culture is saturated with traditional examples of the ‘good girl gone bad’ - from Miley to Britney, the public seems to derive an almost perverse pleasure from seeing celebrity constructed and subsequently desecrated by the media. The stereotype is so common that Lady Gaga made an entire body of work based on it – her cinematic 2009 VMA performance perfectly encapsulated social fascination with the demise of the starlet. It seems that young women in the media are automatically thrust into the limelight, leaving the minutiae of their personal lives open to public scrutiny. In essence, Kehlani never asked to be a role model and shouldn’t be treated as such unless specifically stating that intention. She may have experienced turbulence in her romantic life, but so does any 20-year-old — it's just that her’s played out in public and she’s now being dragged relentlessly as a result. The worrying consequences of this online scandal should act as a lesson to us all: be kinder online, don’t be so quick to judge and, ultimately, stop demonising young women for their choices.