I’ve said it for a while now: coming to college made me a feminist. I don’t know if it was having to defend Jane Austen as legitimate literature to endless streams of my male friends, or my first Halloween when the general expectation was that my costume would involve more skin than costume (no. Midwest Octobers are cold), but I’ve evolved from having more or less no social justice views to going off on fem-spired rants after just about every commercial on TV. What can I say? Feminist rants are kind of my thing.
That said, I’ve also discovered a trait about myself in college that would, I’m sure, make most of my feminist counterparts flick holy water in my direction and shun me: I really like Eminem.
Yes, I know. I listen to the lyrics.
It started nagging at the back of my mind this morning, when I put the Recovery album on shuffle as I geared up the treadmill at the gym. (I find I’m more likely to work out if there’s an angry person yelling in my ear.) Should I really be listening to songs with lyrics that not only describe but idolize violence against women, homophobia, and straight-up assault and murder? The objective answer is, “probably not.” How to explain how many songs are on my iPod, then? (Confession: it’s 37.)
I want to make it clear right from the get-go that under no circumstances am I supporting the trivialization of violence against women. Every time I hear a rape joke, it turns my stomach. The Steubenville case makes me want to throw up inside. I don’t think that music needs to stoop down to shock value and the most horrific scenarios possible to send a message. And there are a few Eminem songs that I’ve removed from my music library when they made me too uncomfortable to listen to.
But this isn’t me trying to hedge. I’m trying to make sense of it all.
Straight-up: I think, by and large, Eminem is more clever than a lot of the other rappers currently getting airtime. Very rarely do I laugh out loud while listening to rap, but Eminem has caught me off-guard with some of his lines, and I appreciate that. I like to listen to people who are trying to say something, and if they do it in a witty way, then I’m all for it. Sure, a lot of these are innocuous, not-that-important jokes, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a good line when I hear it:
“My filet is smokin’ weed / my steaks are high” (Cinderella Man)
“Dick’s too short a word for my dick / get off my antidisestablishmentarianism” (Almost Famous)
“I’ll rip a tree out the ground and flip it upside down / before I turn over a new leaf” (W.T.P.)
Okay, they’re not Chaucer. I’m not pretending they are. But I’m comparing them to the likes of “Rack City,” and I’ve got to say, at least there’s some effort here.
Yes, I hear you in the back there. “Are you seriously justifying his violence and mysoginy because he can make a handful of puns?” And no. No, I’m not. But hear me out here for a second. I listened to the song “Space Bound” this morning, and it really struck me: he’s actually considering the consequences of domestic violence. There was one verse in particular that stood out to me as a new way of looking at violence against women; I’ll transcribe it here to prevent unnecessary scrolling.
You won’t even listen so fuck it, I’m tryna stop you from breathing
I put both hands on your throat, I sit on top of you squeezing
‘til I snap your neck like a Popsicle stick, ain’t no possible reason
I can think of to let you walk up out this house and let you live
Tears stream down both of my cheeks now I let you go and just give
And ‘fore I put that gun to my temple I told you this
And I woulda done anything for you to show you how much I adored you
But it’s over now, it’s too late to save our love
Just promise me you’ll think of me every time
You look up in the sky and see a star…
Again, not condoning violence. But this is actually discussing domestic violence from the male point of view, which I don’t think we get very frequently as a society. Attention is focused on the victim of domestic violence, as it should be. These women need our support and our understanding, and by no means should we abandon them.
But there’s a movement in the feminist circles that runs something like this: “Don’t teach women how not to get raped; teach men how to stop raping.” We focus so much on the victims of abuse and violence that often we forget to look to the source of the problem. What is there in our culture that is so insidious that it teaches men that in order to be powerful, they can or should use violence? How can we hope to address this problem if we don’t look at both sides of the issue?
“Space Bound” also recognizes the guilt, shame, and despair of the cycle of domestic violence on both sides of the spectrum. Maybe it’s because I’m an English major, but I was put almost instantly in mind of this scene of Shakespeare’s Othello, immediately after Othello has killed his wife Desdemona (by strangulation, as in the above lyrics):
Whip me, ye devils,
From the possession of this heavenly sight.
Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulpher,
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!
O Desdemona! Dead Desdemona! (5.2.284-8)
I don’t think anyone would argue that Othello celebrates domestic violence here: this seems a clear enumeration of its horrible consequences. Is it possible that some of these songs can be a warning against domestic violence, rather than an affirmation of them? Is the shock value attempting to show the horrors of violence, rather than encouraging it?
I’m not arguing that Eminem is a great feminist activist, nor that he deliberately intended his songs to be interpreted that way. All I’m saying is that it’s tough to listen to a song in which the speaker kills himself out of remorse and despair after having assaulted his wife and come away with a positive feeling on violence.
Whether or not you like rap, it’s art. And art is always up for interpretation. If we can interpret songs that seem on the surface to be violent and destructive and use them in a productive, empowering way, then I see no reason not to. And if it happens to come with a handful of clever rhymes along the way, so much the better.
I’ll keep cueing up Marshall Mathers on my morning runs, and someday I’ll learn all the words to “Lose Yourself.” But in the meantime, don’t think that I’m accepting all the controversial language in his albums without critical thinking. I’m keeping a skeptical ear open. No matter how much I like your flows, Eminem, you’d better remember that your audience extends across the gender lines.
(Author’s Note: Sweet merciful heavens, I just did a cross-textual analysis with Eminem and Shakespeare. Every one of my academic advisors is probably in agony right now, like I’m stabbing their literary voodoo dolls.)