Eminem, Rihanna and domestic violence: Or, how Eminem almost tricked me (again)
Trigger warning: Most of Eminem’s lyrics should probably come with a trigger warning attached. In this post, I’ll mark all particularly graphic lyrics with a “**” on either end.
What happens when hip-hop’s most notorious woman-hater releases a frank and somewhat on point song about domestic violence from the point of view of a perpetrator…and enlists an outspoken survivor to sing backup?
I have to admit, when I first heard Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie,” I was impressed. The song is a frighteningly accurate depiction of the cycle of violence. It’s so true to the model popularized by the domestic violence movement the it c0uld be used as a teaching tool. Each verse cycles through arguments and apologies: the promises a perpetrator makes to a victim to prevent her from leaving. While the perpetrator at first attempts to normalize his behavior, the end result is escalation and the murder of the victim, played by Rihanna.
Tension builds with each verse, until a dynamic that seems normal (Maybe our relationship/Isn’t as crazy as it seems/Maybe that’s what happens/When a tornado meets a volcano) is revealed as murderous, and the song culminates in the horrifying conclusion: **“If she ever tries to fucking leave again/I’ma tie her to the bed/And set this house on fire.”**
Like the classic perpetrators I learned about in domestic violence advocacy training, the abuser in this song knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s aware of the cycle (Sound like broken records/Playin’ over/But you promised her/Next time you’ll show restraint) and he doesn’t believe his own promises (I apologize/Even though I know it’s lies/I’m tired of the games/I just want her back/I know I’m a liar). He’s a classic perpetrator: manipulative, angry, and capable of murder.
My concern is that it appears he’s also sympathetic.
A video of a live performance of the song during Rihanna’s tour shows Rihanna fans screaming for Eminem so loudly that it actually drowns out his voice.
Given that Rihanna’s role in the song is restricted to a less-than-empowering four lines, (Just gonna stand there and watch me burn/That’s alright because I like the way it hurts/Just gonna stand there and hear me cry/That’s alright because I love the way you lie) there is something haunting to me about the way the audience responds to the two performers. While Rihanna’s lines could represent an attempt at agency, a coping mechanism for someone trapped in an abusive relationship, her victim character is far less developed than Eminem’s more fleshed-out perpetrator.
And that could be why listeners are cheering so loudly for him. While my initial thought was that no one could possibly find Eminem’s character in this song forgivable, rape culture by its very nature forgives and rewards precisely this kind of rage. And my concern is that the song’s very misogyny, combined with the catchiness of the beat and Rihanna’s refrain, are what have made this song so popular.
After all, this is Eminem, we’re talking about. **The same Eminem who offered to “Put anthrax on a tampax and slap you till you can’t stand.” The same notorious homophobe who has rapped graphically about murdering his ex-wife. The same guy who has written songs about raping girls with umbrellas.** And the same Eminem whose wrath against feminists made me swear at the age of 13 that I would never, ever be one, because I certainly didn’t want to be part of a group of people that was making this guy angry.
Still, when this song came out, I almost forgave him again.
Part of Eminem’s forgivability has to do with his whiteness, as numerous critics have pointed out. Bloggers have also written about the media’s love for Eminem, and the way his “complicated” rebel image, combined with his whiteness, have sugarcoated his misogyny.
But when it comes down to it, there’s nothing particularly original about an aggressive white man playing out fantasies of beating and murdering women, as Jackson Katz points out:
Eminem has been skillfully marketed as a “rebel” to whom many young people – especially white boys — can relate. But what exactly is he rebelling against? Powerful women who oppress weak and vulnerable men? Omnipotent gays and lesbians who make life a living hell for straight people? Eminem’s misogyny and homophobia, far from being “rebellious,” are actually extremely traditional and conservative.
Rihanna’s role in this song is also thought-provoking. Some have criticized her for the message she’s sending to girls and women by singing seemingly disempowering lyrics, and we can only guess why Eminem thought she was perfect for the song. But I’d like to grant Rihanna some agency; she chose to participate in the track and has said the song is “beautiful,” “really stands out,” and is part of a “unique record” from Eminem.
Rihanna has spoken about her experience of domestic violence and has written about it in songs that I think are revealing and bold. I’d like to believe her reasons for participating in this song were political, personal and empowering.
I’d also like to believe this song is a powerful anti-domestic violence anthem, straight from the mouth of the man from whom we’d least expect it. But I’m sorry Eminem, I’m just not buying it this time.
The video for “Love the Way You Lie,” which includes a shot of Rihanna in front of a burning house, is scheduled for release this week, and will likely add another layer to the conversation.