Eminem is back and once again looming large over the pop cultural landscape. On the occasion of the release of his new album, Relapse, his full-length, full-color image appears literally larger than life on billboards in major cities from New York to Los Angeles, not to mention cities all over the world. Although the album itself has received mixed reviews, the elite arbiters of cultural taste and artistic merit have given the rapper's return the red carpet treatment.
The New York Times ran a giant photo and story on the front of its Sunday Arts and Leisure section on May 24. Entertainment Weekly featured the 36-year-old on the cover of its summer music preview issue; Time magazine devoted two pages of its June 1 issue to a review of his album and discussion about the state of his life and career. Of course the online universe is also abuzz; at the time of this writing, a Google search with the words Eminem and relapse returned 2.7 million hits.
Despite a five-year hiatus, there is no doubt that Eminem remains a popular artist. Relapse debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, selling 608,000 units in its first week of release.
For those of us who had hoped that his cultural moment had passed, the return of Eminem forces us to confront the disturbing reality that our society remains in deep denial about misogyny and its myriad manifestations in the art and commerce of everyday life. Misogyny (the hatred of women) in rap preceded Eminem and has thrived in his absence. And in fairness, the fact that he is white makes it easier for this writer and other whites to criticize him than it is to call out Black artists whose work is similarly sexist and oppressive. These racial dynamics are important issues to examine in another time and place.
Nonetheless, the evidence of our culture's unwillingness to address the reality and ubiquity of men's violence against women is not merely contained in the lyrics on Eminem's new album, which when they're not exploring the depths to which the artist's drug addiction had taken him, characteristically communicate a deep contempt for women and a violent rage at them. This unwillingness is most clearly seen in the music reviews and overall media coverage of the rapper's comeback.
It is not what they say that is cause for concern, but what they studiously avoid. With a few notable exceptions, such as Alan Ranta on the web site Pop Matters calling Relapse "chauvinistic hate-speech," the high priests of cultural criticism in the journalistic mainstream seem to have decided that Eminem's virulent misogyny is no longer even worthy of a mention, much less an appropriate subject of extended commentary and critique. Is it truly possible that women's lives have been so thoroughly devalued that a multi-platinum musical artist with nine Grammy awards to his name can sing multiple songs about raping and mutilating women and hip sophisticates can't even bring themselves to utter the words "woman-hating?"
It is as if critics have decided that 1) there is (still) nothing wrong with one of the most celebrated musical artists in the world devoting multiple songs to verbal attacks on women and girls, as long as there's a catchy beat and the content is rationalized as "dark comedy," or 2) homicidal misogyny has become so commonplace in entertainment media that there is no further need to discuss it.
A survey of recent articles about Eminem in several major media outlets yields plenty of lines like "a stunning return to form from the man who is arguably rap's most talented lyricist," (Entertainment Weekly), but a near-absence of criticism directed at Eminem or Interscope/Universal Music Group for releasing an album with lyrics like the following from the song "Stay Wide Awake":
Fe Fi Fo Fum
I think I smell the scent of a placenta
I enter central park, it's dark, it's winter in December
I see my target with my car, and park and approach her tender
Young girl by the name of Brenda and I pretend to befriend her
Sit down beside her like a spider, hi there girl you mighta
Heard of me before, see whore you're the kinda girl that I'da
Assault and rape and figure why not try to make your pussy wider
Fuck you with an umbrella then open it up while that shits inside ya
No thoughtful person would argue that music lyrics themselves cause men to be violent; that is the sort of simplistic argument which defenders of Eminem and other misogynous rappers and rockers raise and then ridicule whenever anyone mentions the possible "real world" effects of artistic portrayals. But just as it is reductive and problematic to draw a causal link between lyrics and actual behavior, it is similarly nonsensical to deny that the production and reception of art always has a social dimension. Popular art succeeds, at least commercially, precisely because it resonates with a certain audience - for whatever reason - in a given cultural and historical context.
In discussions of Eminem's choice to feature on his comeback album a number of songs that explore the sadism of his misogynous serial killer alter ego, Slim Shady, is it not relevant to mention the ongoing pandemic of men's violence against women, including the outrage of serial murder? Is it not relevant to ask why some men are so angry at women that they would derive a twisted sort of pleasure from singing along with a first-person narrator (Slim Shady) who delights in terrifying, degrading, raping and murdering them?
In addition to his predilection for writing "comic" lyrics in the voice of a serial murderer, Eminem continues to find lyrically inventive ways to joke about raping women by shoving objects into their bodies, like in the lyrics above, or in the song "3 a.m.," where he casually raps about inserting "...a flashlight up Kim Kardashian's ass." This is in a country - ours - where one out of six women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. And while the reality of rape is not funny anywhere, the global reach of the U.S. entertainment industry means that boys and men can listen and laugh along to Eminem's songs in countries where the rape and mutilation of women and girls are even more common and less socially stigmatized than they are here.
Consider the tragic case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the rape and murder of women are beyond pandemic and are closer in scope to genocide. For years Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist, has operated daily on dozens of women and girls as young as two and three-years-old whose insides have been ripped apart by men who brutally gang rape them, shove sticks and bottles into their vaginas, and sadistically mutilate their sexual organs in unimaginable ways, causing the ones who survive a lifetime of excruciating pain, incontinence, disease and loneliness. In a New York Times article in 2007 Dr. Mukwege said "We don't know why these rapes are happening, but one thing is clear. They are done to destroy women."
Is it going too far to suggest that when wealthy nations such as ours export music by the likes of Eminem to countries with that level of misogynous violence that we are practicing what might be considered a particularly insidious form of cultural imperialism?
Defenders of world-famous artists like Eminem would surely rush in to say: Eminem is not responsible for these unspeakable outrages! He is an artist! Of course. But is it unreasonable to suggest that when Eminem jokes about sticking umbrellas up women's vaginas that one effect might be that it helps to desensitize his male (and even female) fans across the globe to the humanity and suffering of women? Desensitization is one of the key effects of exposure to violence, both in media and real life. An Alternet article entitled "Torture Chic: Why Is the Media Glorifying Inhumane, Sadistic Behavior?," suggests that the increasing presence of torture in entertainment media, such as on the hit TV series 24, has helped to desensitize Americans to real torture done in our name, such as in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
The silence of mainstream music critics on the possible societal effects of misogyny in popular music has been deafening. If an artist's job is sometimes to be provocative and push boundaries, isn't it a critic's job at the very least to ask questions like: What does it say about our culture that Eminem's lyrics resonate with millions of American men, and even many women? How can we discern the difference between artistic revelation and crass exploitation in Marshall Mathers' art? Does his vaunted lyrical virtuosity provide us with any insight into the larger belief systems - along with individual motivations --- that lie behind men's sexualized brutality toward women? Is he a brilliant artist exploring important artistic terrain, or is he merely going for cheap voyeuristic thrills at the expense of women, knowing full well that no one will hold him - or his record company -- accountable?
One piece of circumstantial evidence for the latter view is provided by Jon Pareles in The New York Times, who explains the process Eminem and his collaborators went through in deciding how to position his comeback:
"Both Eminem and Dr. Dre thought hard about how Eminem should re-emerge. And both concluded the world wanted more Slim Shady. 'I talked to my son about it,' said Dr. Dre, 'and he was like: 'The kids want to hear him act the fool. We want to hear him be crazy, we want to hear him be Slim Shady and nothing else.' "
The tone of at least some of the coverage this time suggests there are a few authoritative voices in music criticism and commentary who have moved beyond the adulatory groupthink that characterized much writing about Eminem back in his heyday earlier this decade. In those headier days, when Eminem was both lionized and criticized for being the "Hip-Hop Elvis," many in the cognoscenti actively sought to rationalize Eminem's murderous lyrical misogyny and homophobia by claiming that the "Slim Shady" character Marshall Mathers hid behind was a creative fictional construct through which the artist sought to explore taboo topics with lyrical dexterity over an infectious beat produced by Dr. Dre. If you didn't get the joke or appreciate the humor, it was because you were too dense or politically correct to appreciate the brilliant artistry at play.
But at least some writers seem to have grown tired of parroting the debatable (and profitable) premise that Eminem is a major artist with important things to say. In one of the most dismissive pieces I reviewed, Josh Tyrangiel in Time magazine ridicules Eminem's attempt to regain the title of America's Most Outrageous:
"Half of Relapse - the aggressively dull and stupid half - is devoted to re-establishing Eminem as a man so unhinged, he's capable of anything or at least fantasizing about anything.... By the middle of the first song, '3 a.m.,' Eminem, or one of his multiple alter egos, has masturbated to Hannah Montana and left a pile of bodies behind the counter of a McDonald's....On 'Medicine Ball' he promises to rape the Pussycat Dolls and spits out a couplet of abuse for Madonna and Rihanna, while 'Same Song and Dance' has him raping Lindsay Lohan in one verse and Britney Spears in the next. Suffice it to say that many more rapes occur and I stopped taking notes. "
The corporate media have played a crucial role in Eminem's highly lucrative career in part by defining the parameters of how he can be criticized. As Jon Pareles writes in The New York Times, Eminem "quickly became an offensive scourge to those who took Shady's fantasies literally, or worried that others might." Note the narrow range of possibilities the writer offers to describe those who might be "offended" by Eminem's art. Conveniently left out are Eminem's detractors who possess a more complex understanding of the effects of violent, misogynous lyrics than whether or not people (men) take them literally.
Another distortion about Eminem and his detractors that many music critics have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy is the idea that resistance is futile, because Marshall Mathers is just too clever. Pareles writes that when combined with Eminem's murderous lyrics, the "bouncy beat and singsong choruses of kiddie music" that characterize Dr. Dre's production constituted a "smiley-faced nastiness (that) was enough to make Eminem a target for the censorious, which in turn gave him a new bunch of antagonists to provoke."
So people who are concerned about the ongoing pandemic of men's violence against women -- including thousands of domestic violence and sexual assault advocates and educators - are "censorious" if they have a problem with lyrics that normalize and find humor in (fictional) rapists' misogynist fantasies of brutality and degradation? Pareles quotes Eminem's response to (unspecified) criticisms of his work with yet another non sequitir: "I didn't get in this game to be a role model." As if criticism of his artistic contributions necessarily implies such an unsophisticated understanding of the social functions of art.
Many of the same people who defend Eminem and dismiss his feminist and gay rights critics are white people - including good liberals and progressives -- who long ago accepted the idea that racist depictions in media play an important ideological role in perpetuating racism, not because whites will go out and imitate the behavior of fictional racist characters, but because the institutional structures of racism require ideological and cultural apparati to sustain them.
It takes no great leap of logic to see that sexism works in the same way. One need not argue that boys and men who listen to Eminem will become rapist-murderers in order to maintain that misogynous music and lyrics play an important role in legitimating men's mistreatment of women by making it culturally acceptable and even "cool" for men to express sexist rage against women and then hide behind the pretense that "it's only a joke" if anyone takes it too seriously. That argument has long been discredited when it comes to racism. What's the difference when the oppression in question is sexism, or heterosexism?
For women and men who work in the trenches of the sexual and domestic violence fields, and see daily the brutal results of male socialization played out on the bodies of girls and women (and other men), bearing witness to the continued success of Eminem, Inc. can be an emotionally excruciating experience. I know plenty of people who would prefer to crawl under the covers and pretend that none of this is really happening.
But those of us who take seriously the feminist idea that rapists teach us something about the society that produced them have no choice but to pay attention to Eminem -- both the content and context of his art, and how critics and others describe and make sense of it. With rare exceptions, men who rape are not anomalous monsters. They are products of their socialization and the deeply misogynist norms that prevail in their societies. In the long term, the only way to reduce dramatically the incidence of men's violence against women is to change the social norms that help to produce abusive men - which includes critically examining what sort of art we choose to celebrate, and why.
In domestic violence advocacy, there is a term used to describe a situation where people contribute to an abusive man's behavior by their conscious actions, by their minimization of his crimes, or by their silence. It is called "colluding with the batterer." It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a society where radio stations continue to play Eminem's records, people continue to buy them, and critics continue to write about them while leaving out any condemnation of their vicious sexism, is a society that is in profound collusion with the batterer.