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Eminem, Rihanna and domestic violence: Or, how Eminem almost tricked me (again)

July 28, 2010

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?

Feminists get conflicted. Or at least I did. And judging from the comments on Feministing and other blogs, I’m not alone.

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.

22 Comments
  1. July 28, 2010 1:38 pm

    Hi I have written about Rhianna and her music and representations of domestic violence, here:

    http://quietgirlriot.wordpress.com/2010/06/22/rude-boyrude-girl/

    I don’t want to comment on Eminem’s song as this is the first time I have encountered it. I would rather listen to it on the radio first without the narrative as I like to have an open mind about music. I will return to the analysis when I have heard the song out there in the world.

  2. Mallory permalink
    July 28, 2010 1:49 pm

    Profound and..balanced, unlike the song..I find your take on the chorus to be really well-founded- – – The only real reason Rihanna’s part in the song can be taken as a powerful statement is because of her well-publicized past with domestic violence. What I find really interesting is the sexualization of it..”I love the way you lie.” It’s almost a double-entendre.

    Also, the tone and melody of the chorus verses Eminem’s verses- he always sounds like he’s spitting fire, but it contrasts so deeply with Rihanna’s soft, pretty lines. Another way of demonstrating the gender barriers here.

    The first verse is especially dangerous, I think, especially considering your idea that Eminem’s ample voice time allows the audience to sympathize with his behavior. “I can’t tell you what it really is/ I can only tell you what it feels like.” Right up front, he is the one with the feelings.

  3. Amy Littlefield permalink*
    July 28, 2010 8:49 pm

    Great points, Mallory. I think you’re right on about the first verse, which establishes Eminem’s character as the one with whom the listener is supposed to sympathize. Even though the rest of the song shows the character’s capacity for violence, his emotional complexity makes him appear to be the more human of the two. Interesting point, also, about Rihanna’s singing vs. Eminem’s spitting. It does seem to reassert the gender divide, and the framework of perpetrator vs. victim. It’s interesting, too, that her refrain is what allows a violent song to also be beautiful.

    Rihanna spoke about domestic violence and the song on Access Hollywood in an interview published today. She talked about how Eminem’s song “broke down the cycle of violence” in a way she found “clever.” She also refered to Eminem as an “artist of class,” and said she connected with the song and knew it would be a hit. What disturbs me is the last part of the quote: “It’s something that I understood and connected with, which made me think it was a hit, and I want to be part of a hit. I couldn’t say no to Eminem.”

  4. July 28, 2010 11:20 pm

    First off I think analyzing any Eminem song to this degree is slightly dangerous to a degree. The man is an entertainer and has made money by expressing his real life findings and multiplying it by 10.

    So while you may perceive him to be a woman hater or homophobic, none of what he says has shown to be true in his personal life. Sure he had a terrible relationship w/ his ex wife Kim, and there was mental abuse by both sides (and perhaps too much drug use) he has never been said to have committed any physical crime to her. He has shown nothing but respect and admiration for his daughter, and has adopted two other girls with family ties as well.

    He is pretty much best friends w/ Elton John–one of the most famous musicians to be openly gay there is. He speaks nothing but highly about him in life, citing him in numerous tv appearance and articles, but continuously poking jokes at him on his CDs. “Like Elton I am just a mean C*ck Sucker” -Recovery “Sunglasses w Elton John’s name, on my drag wall”-The Eminem Show.

    Do you see the difference? Eminem is going to twist your arm on his CDs, he’s going to be demeaning to women because that stuff still stirs up the media. He is going to make homosexual references because he likes to get a reaction. But in life, Eminem is much more complex. On a Cd the man can literally seem like he is soaring w/ confidence, that he’s in love or that he’s maniacally depressed, but then you see him in an interview and you see a humble man who simply loves his child and is trying to find an outlet for all the pent up energy that comes along w/ being a star.

    Anyway when it comes to this song he clearly portrays an abusive relationship…ON BOTH SIDES. The woman isn’t given immunity on partaking in the violence in either the first or especially the second verse. These two are rolling around wrestling each other back and forth. Of course the male ends up taking it even further, pleading for her to come back, but knowing that he loves her so much that in his mind he will never be able to let her leave again intact.

    Its a beautifully accurate portrayal of a love-hate relationship and the dangers of it. But will it teach people to identify these relationships and step away. No, because as the record itself says, “It’s the rage that took over, it took control of both, so they say its best to go your separate ways, guess they dont know you, cause today, that was yesterday, yesterday is over”

    The people in these relationships aren’t going to remove themselves from it because of a song, hell maybe it will help them afterwards on reflection, but during the moment, well, it takes something much stronger.

    Appreciate the introspective tho–Thanks.

    • Paula permalink
      July 29, 2010 4:18 am

      b:

      “he loves her so much that in his mind he will never be able to let her leave again intact”.

      Would you call that “love?
      I wouldn’t!

    • July 31, 2010 8:47 am

      Thanks b, you said what I couldn’t half as articulately as you. Representations have meanings, but maybe not literal ones.

  5. Amy Littlefield permalink*
    July 29, 2010 1:36 pm

    b: Thanks for voicing your input. First off, I want to respond to your statement that it is “dangerous” to analyze Eminem’s music because he is just an entertainer who is trying to grab media attention. Sure, he’s going for shock value — so are many misogynist pop artists out there — but does that mean we should laugh off lyrics that are violent and hateful? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s very important to analyze pop lyrics like Eminem’s. They are important pieces of evidence in trying to understand sexism and violence in our society.

    As Jackson Katz has said, “Eminem has elevated to an art form the practice of verbally bullying and degrading people (especially women and gays) and then claiming ‘I was just kidding around.'” You seem to take for granted that Eminem is going to be misogynist and homophobic because he wants to grab attention. But I don’t think we should let him off the hook for lyrics that are violently abusive, misogynist and homophobic, just because he is trying to be funny or ironic. Regardless of his intentions, those lyrics help promote a culture in which girls and women are regularly abused and hurt.

    Recent studies have shown that 1 in 5 high school girls has been physically or sexually hurt by a dating partner, and 1 in 3 teens have experienced at least one form of abuse in their romantic relationships. I’m sorry, I just don’t find that funny.

    You bring up some details about Eminem’s personal life that I’m not sure are relevant to a discussion of his music. Eminem, in fact, has been arrested on assault and weapons charges. He has also written violent songs about murdering his ex-wife, Kim, who has said she attempted suicide because of the way he treated her.

    I don’t know Eminem personally, so I’m not sure how much the character he creates in his music actually matches his own character, or how much the relationship in this song parallels his own relationship with Kim. I’m much more interested, however, in the homophobia and misogyny in the music he writes and the aggressive image that he promotes. It’s the music and the image that have the greatest impact on a society that buys millions of his albums. Even if Eminem had a violence-free past, I don’t think that makes his music any less violent. And being friends with Elton John also doesn’t necessarily make his music — or him — any less homophobic.

    Finally, your analysis of the relationship in the song as abusive “on both sides” reflects a common myth about abusive relationships — the myth that the victim is ever to blame for her own abuse. When the perpetrator in this song describes fights in which the victim participates, he is trying to normalize his own behavior and blame the victim. That normalization breaks down as his anger escalates, until he is threatening to murder the victim. This cycle represents a common dynamic in abusive relationships: the cycle of violence. Abusive relationships are about power and control, and even when both people in the relationship are seeking control, it’s important to ask the question: “Who has the power in this relationship?” In this case, it’s the perpetrator — the one who is threatening murder, the one who is manipulating the victim, lying to her, hurting her, and in the end, killing her.

    • July 31, 2010 9:21 am

      So what do you suggest, amy? That nobody sings about, writes about, makes films about or talks about violence ever? As someone who has suffered domestic violence, I actually have found artistic representations of domestic and other types of violence quite cathartic. Nil By Mouth, Thelma and Louise, Eminem’s music to some degree, Rage against the Machine, the murder ballads by Nick Cave. If I had to suffer violence with nothing to refer to and no examples of others going through that or even perpetrating it, I think I would feel very isolated and confused. Music is not there to mirror how the world should be, it is part of how the world is.

      • Paula permalink
        July 31, 2010 9:57 am

        So that’s the way world is… let’s just let it go?
        Why not Fight Club world? Catharsis through violence…
        Where is the limit?
        No. Let’s be subversive, let’s change what we don’t like.
        We don’t need violence to have strong feelings, emotions, or whatever you want to call it.
        Ahimsa!
        And did you meant that having other examples of violence other than yours would help you in case of agression? I wouldn’t!
        And I think, if you had to suffer violence you’d already feel very isolated and confused, no matter what others are going through.

    • Jesse permalink
      August 3, 2010 3:29 pm

      wait. Are you claiming only men are abusive?

      Also, yes, co-abusive relationships happen (from experience).

      Please don’t conflate that to abuse being ok.

      • Amy Littlefield permalink*
        August 4, 2010 9:44 am

        Jesse,
        I don’t think anyone said that only men are abusive, or that it’s not possible for two people in a relationship to be abusive. But I think this song very clearly portrays a dynamic in which one person has most of the power, and that person is a man. Abuse against men, boys and all people is a real issue that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. But abuse against women is far more common and it is also tied to institutional sexism and misogyny. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 85% of domestic violence victims are women.

  6. July 31, 2010 10:11 am

    I’m just speaking out about my own experience. I found music and film that depicted gender violence, cathartic after I’d been attacked. I loved Fight Club, but that was because Pitt and Norton were so very hot in it.

  7. Amy Littlefield permalink*
    August 1, 2010 8:29 am

    Quiet Riot Girl,
    Thanks for sharing your experience of how music related to domestic violence has been cathartic for you. I think that you make a really important point about how depictions of violence, abuse and other forms of marginalization can make people in those situations feel less alone. Everyone has the right to heal in their own way, and I’m certainly not suggesting we shouldn’t talk (or sing) about violent experiences. Quite the contrary — I think such expression is incredibly important. My concern is more about the larger political implications of songs about domestic violence that don’t seem to condemn the violence, but rather encourage or excuse it. As Paula said, music has the power to be subversive and to undermine the existing power structures that make violence against women (and all people) so common. Music that depicts violence the way it exists in the world is important; I just think the next step should be condemning that violence. My question is: Do Eminem’s songs subvert patriarchal violence by sending a message that such violence is unacceptable? I am afraid Eminem’s aggressive image and lyrics might actually do the opposite and enforce those structures. It’s interesting that you brought up Rage Against the Machine as an example. My understanding of their music is that it’s pretty explicitly political; they make music about violence, but it’s music that seeks to undermine violence and create a more peaceful society. Their depictions of a violent, capitalist society reveal the urgency of subverting that system. I’m not sure I give Eminem the same credit.

  8. Amy Littlefield permalink*
    August 1, 2010 8:31 am

    Also, excellent point about the physical attractiveness of Norton and Pitt.

  9. August 2, 2010 6:09 pm

    Amy,

    I understand that you can’t write off eminem’s music for being misogynist and homophopic–just because he knows this type of shock value sells, and that is fair. But what I am also saying is that you can’t just condemn him for it because he has a larger share of the populace’s ear–he never asked to be this famous, it simply happened.

    So while kids and adults of many ages listen to his words, and perhaps misinterpret them, Eminem is simply reporting the news. It is what the best artists do, they look at society, all of the rough edges of society, and then they speak about it with music in the background. Eminem has that famous song chorus”I am, whatever you say I am”. He sings:

    And “oh it’s just lyrical content!”
    The song “Guilty Conscience” has gotten such rotten responses
    And all of this controversy circles me
    And it seems like the media immediately points a finger at me

    then goes on to talk about Columbine:

    Cause they full of shit too
    When a dude’s gettin bullied and shoots up your school
    And they blame it on Marilyn – and the heroin
    Where were the parents at?
    And look at where it’s at middle America
    Now it’s a tragedy
    Now it’s so sad to see
    An upper class city having this happening
    Then attack Eminem cause I rap this way

    These lyrics are powerful! They are powerful because they are true. We will always have someone to attack for the wrongs in the world, always a scapegoat, but when it comes down to it we ALL have free will. We all have family (whether distant or not) to help guide us along as much as a cd.

    It is too simplistic to say Eminem is enticing a homophobic following by saying “Fag” on a record. Anyone whose opinion is swayed by a guy jokingly saying fag on a record is clearly well over the line when it comes to homophobia to begin with.

    No, I refuse to accept that we can blame this man for taunting society, for honestly bringing to the forefront the problems with this society, which we all too often miss by bashing him. He has provided with lyrical warnings:

    “My songs can make you cry, take you by surprise
    And at the same time, make you dry your eyes with the same rhyme
    See what you’re seeing is a genius at work
    Which to me isn’t work, so it’s easy to misinterpret it at first,
    Cuz when i speak, it’s tongue in cheek”

    “Nine millimeter, heater stashed, in two-seaters with meat cleavers
    I don’t blame you, i wouldn’t let hailie listen to me neither”

    And lastly I think this verse covers what we are speaking about pretty well:

    See what these kids do, is hear about us toting pistols
    And they want to get one, cos they think the shit’s cool
    Not knowin’ we’re really just protectin’ ourselves
    We’re entertainers, of course this shit’s affecting our sales
    You ignoramus. but music is reflection of self
    We just explain it, and then we get our cheques in the mail
    It’s fucked up ain’t it, how we can come from practically nothin’
    To bein’ able to have any fuckin’ thing that we wanted
    It’s why we sing for these kids that don’t have a thing
    Except for a dream and a fucking rap magazine
    Who post pinup pictures on their walls all day long
    Idolise their favourite rappers and know all they songs
    Or for anyone who’s ever been through shit in they lives
    So they sit and they cry at night, wishing they die
    Till they throw on a rap record, and they sit and they vibe
    We’re nothing to you, but we’re the fuckin’ shit in their eyes
    That’s why we sieze the moment, and try to freeze it and own it
    Squeeze it and hold it, ‘cos we consider these minutes golden
    And maybe they’ll admit it when we’re gone
    Just let our spirits live on, through out lyrics that you hear in our songs

    See we can take a couple of homophobic lines from a song and think that is all there is to Eminem, but there is so much more of a dynamic to the man, that people who truly listen to him will know and understand. And if those are the people we are truly worried about “Followers of Eminem” maybe we can take some solace in the fact that during the course of a CD he explains to the listener that he isn’t always being serious, that he’s rapping for entertainment sake, as well as to provide the listener with an outlet. He is critiquing society, not trying to evoke it. He is satirizing it, not endorsing it.

    • August 3, 2010 9:05 am

      Nicely put, b.

      And Rhianna is much more of a strong woman role model than Dido, for fans. (I believe).

    • Amy Littlefield permalink*
      August 4, 2010 10:27 am

      b,
      Regardless of whether he asked to be famous, Eminem’s music does have an impact on our culture, and that’s why I think it’s worth analyzing. But I think you make a really good point: we can’t blame Eminem for misogyny, homophobia or violence, as these are social and political forces that existed long before he picked up a microphone. You quote some lyrics that show a more complicated portrait of the artist and his motives. What’s interesting to me is that some of his most violent songs have gotten the most radio play — and the most attention, positive and negative. I first heard “Love the Way You Lie” played in a short mash-up clip by my local radio station. They had isolated the line: **“If she ever tries to fucking leave again/I’ma tie her to the bed/And set this house on fire”** to play alongside other catchy clips from popular songs. What message does that send? So I think you’re right, it’s not all about one man; it’s also about a misogynist and homophobic society and the way people respond to his lyrics.

      I still think his music is more self-promotion and uncritical woman-bashing than it is social commentary. You say Eminem is critiquing society in songs like “The Way I Am.” What strikes me most about the lyrics you posted is that they are all about one thing: Eminem and the way society reacts to him. I don’t see social commentary in these lyrics — I see Eminem talking up his own impact on society. And while Eminem may be reporting on a real dynamic — and a real state of mind — in “Love the Way You Lie,” my concern is not just about the song, it’s also about the way people receive it. How many people read this song as a condemnation of domestic violence? If it was a more overt condemnation of domestic violence, would it get as much radio play as it has?

  10. Martin permalink
    August 5, 2010 8:06 pm

    Amy:

    Your last comments about Eminem’s self-aggrandizing ways get right to the heart of the reason this song even exists. What I find more disturbing is that a woman who is herself a victim of abuse would sing the words that she sings here. People are complex, and have many ways of coping, dealing with loss, and communicating their condition to others. I can’t understand why Rihanna would agree to sing these lyrics with their obvious implication that the character portrayed craves abuse and deserves to be mistreated. I have to trust that she has her reasons. I know her words are a form of artistic expression, not necessarily her own thoughts. But as you have demonstrated so eloquently, the real message is going all Eminem’s way. Folks who use these kind of sentiments to make money may claim they are gadflys stirring up public debate, but to me this just smacks of exploitation.

  11. August 6, 2010 12:22 pm

    If there was any doubt about the abuser being overly sympathized, I think the music video now puts that to rest…
    I cannot believe Rihanna chose to appear in this…

  12. Paula permalink
    August 7, 2010 5:15 am

    Here’s a lot more about the same subject.
    http://jezebel.com/5606423/rihanna-stars-in-eminems-video-about-domestic-violence
    Very interesting.

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