| "I loved (8 Mile)
one of the best movies I've seen in years. And I'm a farm boy
from Upstate New York with a weakness for James Taylor
Eminem whitewashed, made to be more likable than his reputation
as a homophobe, misogynist, an all-around unlikable performer
who spews his offensive lyrics across the airwaves? Probably.
(emphasis added) But it's a movie of hope
" -- Craig
Wilson, USA Today
"Put Anthrax on a Tampax and slap you till you can't stand."
-- Eminem, "Superman"
Love him or loathe him, Eminem is unquestionably an impressive
cultural player. He is a multitalented artist: a wildly inventive
rap lyricist, a charismatic performer, and now an effective
actor (essentially playing a heroicized version of himself).
What is in question is the nature of Eminem's art and image,
and its significance. One thing is certain: he has been embraced
by the cultural mainstream in a way that is unprecedented for
a rapper. Obviously this has much (everything?) to do with his
whiteness, and critiques of Eminem have typically centered on
the racial politics of his initial rise to notoriety and now
to the heights of pop cultural fame. But there are other analyses
that have only begun to dim the luster of this 21st century
legend-in-the-making. For example, one disturbing way to understand
Eminem's popularity is that he has achieved success not in
spite of his virulent misogyny and homophobic utterances
as many critics allege -- but in part because
of them. As Richard Goldstein argued in a brilliant piece in
the Village Voice, many of Eminem's male (and some female) fans
take "guilty pleasure" in identifying with the aggressor.
In that sense Eminem's success tells us something about ourselves
something that many progressive, feminist, egalitarian
and nonviolent people in this era of white male backlash and
militarism find quite disheartening.
Eminem has been the target of protest from gay and lesbian
activists who object to his lyrical endorsement of violence
against them. Other gays have embraced him in spite of this
(most notably, and controversially, Elton John). But Eminem's
homophobia is not simply a matter of specific lyrics. Rather,
it is central to his constructed tough- white-guy image. For
all of his vaunted "honesty" and presumed vulnerability,
the misanthropically cartoonish "Slim Shady" persona
that Marshall Mathers hides behind requires (at least publicly)
a purging of anything that can be associated with femininity.
Hence you hear from Eminem (and Dr. Dre) a steady stream of
"bitch-slapping" misogyny peppered with anti-gay invective,
all in the service of establishing their "hardness."
The irony, of course, is that this hypermasculine posturing
so dismissive of women -- produces homoerotic tensions
in the inner sanctum of hip hop maleness, which then requires
Eminem and Dre (and other gangsta rappers) to verbally demonstrate
their heterosexuality by attacking gays. It's an embarrassingly
Unfortunately, the Hollywood mythmakers Brian Grazer, Scott
Silver, and Curtis Hanson (the producer, screenwriter, and director,
respectively, of 8 Mile) have so distorted the Eminem
story in pursuit of box office glory that it will be quite a
while before some of his more innocent fans including
many women -- get a better handle on who and what the artist
represents. The cultural "meanings" of Eminem are
sure to be the subject of debate for years to come. There is
no honest way to predict definitively what course this debate
But so far, the national conversation about Eminem has taken
place on the terms of fawning critics, flaks for the record
and film industries, and lay prophets of the cultural Zeitgeist,
all of whom have been incessantly, and shamelessly, hyping the
"hip-hop Elvis" for the past couple of years. Give
them credit. They've succeeded wildly -- Eminem is now a full-blown
cultural phenomenon and global merchandising cash cow. The open
secret, however, is that in order for this to have happened,
many people have had to go into denial or be unselfconsciously
revisionist -- especially when it comes to Eminem's retrograde
and abusive gender and sexual politics.
It's time to expand the terms of debate. It's time to offer
some counterbalance to the mythologizing distortions from the
PR department of Eminem, Inc. If Eminem is an artist whose work
contains multiple layers of meaning, it's time to examine more
deeply some of those layers. In particular, it's time to consider
with eyes wide open some of the potentially horrific effects
of this art in a world already filled with misogynous and violent
Toward that end, and in the Lose Yourself spirit of
taking that one shot right now, rather than from historical
distance, what follows are 8 arguments offered up as proof that
Eminem's mega-popularity is not only troubling, but is in fact
a disaster for all women (and those that care about them):
1. Eminem's lyrics help desensitize boys and men to the
pain and suffering of girls and women.
Eminem's fans argue that his raps about mistreating, raping,
torturing, and murdering women are not meant to be taken literally.
"Just because we listen to the music doesn't mean we're
gonna go out and harass, rape and murder women. We know it's
just a song." But thoughtful critics of Eminem do not make
the argument that the danger of his lyrics (and the lyrics of
other artists, including African American rap artists) lies
in the possibility that some unstable young man will go out
and imitate in real life what the artist is rapping about. While
possible, this is highly unlikely.
Rather, one of the most damaging aspects of Eminem's violent
misogyny and homophobia is how normal and matter-of-fact this
violence comes to seem. Rapping and joking about sex crimes
have the effect of desensitizing people to the real pain and
trauma suffered by victims and their loved ones. The process
of desensitization to violence through repeated exposure in
the media has been studied for decades. Among the effects: young
men who have watched/listened to excessive amounts of fictionalized
portrayals of men's violence against women in mainstream media
and pornography have been shown to be more callous toward victims,
less likely to believe their accounts of victimization, more
willing to believe they were "asking for it," and
less likely to intervene in instances of "real-life"
Let us not forget that the culture in which Eminem has become
a huge star is in the midst of an ongoing crisis of men's
violence against women. In the U.S., rates of rape, sexual assault,
battering, teen relationship violence and stalking have been
shockingly high for decades, far exceeding rates in comparable
western societies. Sadly, millions of American girls and women
have been assaulted by American boys and men. Thousands of gays
each year are bashed and harassed by young men. For these victims,
this is not an academic debate about the differences between
literalist and satirical art. It hits closer to home.
2. Girls are encouraged to be attracted to boys and men
who don't respect women.
What began as a tentative dance has become a passionate embrace.
After initially airing "misgivings" about featuring
the woman-hating rapper, magazines with predominantly young
female readership, like Cosmogirl and Teen People, now regularly
feature "Em" on their covers, posed as a sex symbol,
as an object of heterosexual female desire. This is not simply
the latest example of the star-making machinery of mass media
constructing the "bad boy" as dangerously desirable
to women. This sends a powerful message to girls that goes something
like this: he doesn't really hate and disrespect you. In fact,
he loves you. He's just misunderstood. It's the hip hop version
of Beauty and the Beast. You know, underneath that gruff exterior,
between the lines of those nasty lyrics, lies a tender heart
that has been hurt, a good man who just needs more love and
This is a myth that battered women have been fed for centuries!
That his violence is her responsibility, that if only
she loved him more, his abuse would stop. This is one of the
most damaging myths about batterers, and one of the most alarming
features of Eminem's popularity with girls. Remember, Eminem
is the same "lovable" rapper who wrote a chillingly
realistic song ("Kim") about murdering his wife (whose
real name is Kim), and putting her body in the trunk of his
car, interspersed with loving references to their daughter Hallie
(their real-life daughter is named Hallie). This is the same
"cute" guy who angrily raps about catching diseases
from "ho's." ("Drips") This is the same
"adorable" man who constantly unleashes torrents of
verbal aggression against women, even though he is so sensitive
to the potential wounding power of words that he famously refuses
to use the "n-word." Why is it not okay for a white
rapper to diss "niggers," but it is okay for a man
to express contempt for "bitches" and "ho's.
His credulous female fans counter: he doesn't really hate
women. How could he? He loves his daughter! For battered women's
advocates, this is one of the most frustrating aspects of Eminem's
popularity. His defenders including women will
utter some of the most discredited myths about abusive men as
if they have special insight! Newsflash to female Eminem fans:
"He loves his daughter" is one of the most predictable
excuses that batterers give in pleading for another chance.
The fact is, most batterers are not one-dimensional ogres. Abusive
men often love the very women they're abusing. And let us not
forget that when Eminem verbally abuses his wife/ex-wife through
his lyrics, he is verbally abusing his daughter's mother
and by extension his daughter.
3. His popularity with girls sends a dangerous message
to boys and men.
Boys and young men have long expressed frustration with the
fact that girls and young women say they're attracted to nice
guys, but that the most popular girls often end up with the
disdainful tough guys who treat them like dirt. We all know
that heterosexual young guys are forever struggling to figure
out what girls want. What are they supposed to conclude when
53% of the 8 Mile audience on opening weekend was female?
What are men to make of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd
when she writes, uncritically, that a "gaggle" of
her female Baby Boomer friends are "surreptitiously smitten"
with a 30-year-old rapper whose lyrics literally drip with contempt
for women? (If you're in denial or simply refuse to believe
that his lyrics are degrading to women, do your homework
download his lyrics.) That girls want to be treated with dignity
and respect? Or that the quickest route to popularity with them
is to be verbally and emotionally cruel, that "bad boy"
posturing is a winning strategy to impress naïve (and self-loathing)
girls? Surely most of Eminem's female fans would not want to
be sending that message to their male peers but they
Boys who have listened carefully to Eminem's actual lyrics
-- not just the hit songs or the sanitized movie soundtrack
-- know that most self-respecting girls who are conscious about
the depths of our culture's sexism are repulsed by Eminem's
misogyny and depressed by his popularity. Sadly, many of these
girls have been silent, fearing they'll be branded as "uncool"
because they "don't get" the artist who is supposedly
the voice of their generation.
There are women who like Eminem because (they say) he's complex
and not easily knowable; they would argue that it is reductionist
to characterize his art as sexist. But the burden is on them
to demonstrate how -- in a culture where so many men sexually
harass, rape, and batter women -- it is possible to reconcile
a concern for women's physical, sexual, and emotional well-being
with admiration for a male artist whose lyrics consistently
portray women in a contemptuous and sexually degrading manner.
Girls and women, even those who have been coopted into Eminem-worship,
want to be treated with respect. They certainly don't want to
be physically or sexually assaulted by men. They don't want
to be sexually degraded by dismissive and arrogant men. But
they can't have it both ways. They can't proclaim their attraction
to a man who's gotten rich verbally trashing and metaphorically
raping women and yet expect that young men will treat them with
4. The racial storyline around Eminem perpetuates the racist
myth that "hip" white guys are those who most closely
emulate the sexist beliefs and hypermasculine posturing of some
Eminem is popular with white audiences in large measure because
the African American gangsta rap icon Dr. Dre and other hardcore
Black rappers with "street credibility" have conferred
on him the mantle of legitimacy. Dre is Eminem's mentor and
producer, signaling to Black audiences as well that unlike Vanilla
Ice a useful object of derision from a decade ago --
this white boy is for real. What's missing from this story is
that Dr. Dre himself is one of the most misogynous and homophobic
figures in the history of rap music. He has produced and performed
some of this era's most degrading songs about women. (e.g. "Bitches
In other words, Eminem and Dre are modeling a perverse sort
of interracial solidarity that comes at the expense of women.
It's an old and sordid story: sexism provides men a way to ally
across race and class lines. African American people who are
happy to see Eminem earning rap even greater legitimacy in white
America might want to consider that this era's white artist
most identified as a bridge to Black culture has built that
bridge on the denigration and undermining of Black women --
and all women.
5. Eminem's personal trajectory either the so-called
"true" story, or the explicitly fictionalized version
in 8 Mile perpetuates damaging mythology about
Eminem's fans like to ascribe to him the sympathetic and classic
role of underprivileged underdog. But Marshall Mathers, if he
ever was an underdog, has long since crossed over into the role
of bully. Unlike most bullies this side of right-wing talk radio,
however, he has a very large microphone (and now a screen presence).
You can gain important insight into one key aspect of the Eminem
persona by studying both the behavior of men who batter and
people's responses to them. The man who is being lionized as
one of this era's emblematic artists shares many character traits
with men who batter. One glaring similarity is the folklore
that Mathers has actively constructed about his famously difficult
childhood. Narcissistic batterers frequently paint themselves
as the true victims. It's them we're supposed to feel
sorry for not their victims (or the victims/targets of
their lyrical aggression.).
It is well-known that many of Eminem's fans, male and female,
reference his abusive family life to explain and rationalize
his rage. But it is not as well-known that batterer intervention
counselors hear this excuse every single day from men who are
in court-mandated programs for beating their girlfriends and
wives. "I had a tough childhood. I have a right to be angry,"
or "She was the real aggressor. She pushed my buttons and
I just reacted." The counselors' typical answer: "It
is not right or ok that you were abused as a child. You deserve
our empathy and support. But you have no right to pass on your
pain to other people."
6. Eminem's success has unleashed a torrent of mother-blaming.
One element of Eminem's story of which all his fans are aware
is that he and his mother don't get along. Many people psychoanalyze
him from a distance and argue that his problems with women stem
from his stormy relationship with his mother. This may or may
not be true, but it is an excuse that abusive men often make
for their behavior. As Lundy Bancroft observes in his book Why
Does He Do That: inside the minds of angry and controlling men,
battered women themselves sometimes like this explanation, since
it makes sense out of the man's behavior and gives the woman
someone safe to be angry at since getting angry at him
always seems to blow up in her face.
It is hard to say what percentage of the Eminem faithful relate
to his oft-articulated rage at his mother. But consider this
anecdotal evidence. I attended an Eminem concert in southern
California during the "Anger Management" tour a couple
of years ago. At one point, Eminem ripped off a string of angry
expletives about his mother, (something like "F-you, bitch!")
after which a sizable cross-section of the 18,000 person crowd
joined in a violent chant repeating the verbal aggression against
Ms. Mathers (and no doubt other mothers by extension.)
Why is this aspect of the Eminem phenomenon such a cause for
concern? No one begrudges Eminem, or anyone else, the right
to have issues including in some cases being very angry
with their mothers. But it is not a great stretch to see that
Eminem's anger can easily be generalized to all women
tens of millions of whom are mothers -- and used as yet another
rationale for some men's deeply held misogyny.
Considering Eminem's (and his mother's) roots on the economic
margins of "white trash" Detroit, class is also a
critical factor here. Poor women especially poor women
of color -- are easy scapegoats for many societal problems.
Eminem's fans presumably know little about the context within
which Debbie Mathers (who is white) tried to raise her kids.
Might we have some compassion for her as we are asked to for
him? Why was she constantly struggling financially? How did
educational inequities and lack of employment opportunities
affect her life, her family experiences, her education
level, her dreams, her ability to be a good parent? As a woman,
how did sexism shape her choices? What was her personal history,
including her history with men? Was she ever abused? We know
a lot of women with substance abuse problems develop them as
a form of self-medication against the effects of trauma. What
is the connection between Ms. Mathers' alleged (by her son)
substance abuse and any history of victimization she might have?
Further, if Eminem's father deserted him and the family when
Marshall was young, why is so much of Eminem's verbal aggression
aimed at his mother and at women? If you buy the argument that
Eminem's misogyny comes from his issues with his mother, then
considering his father's behavior, why doesn't he have a huge
problem with men? (Hint: the answer has to do with SEXISM.)
It's easy to blame struggling single mothers for their shortcomings;
right-wing politicians have been doing this for decades. A more
thoughtful approach would seek to understand their plight, and
while such an understanding would provide no excuse for abusive
behavior (if that is what Eminem actually experienced), it would
give it much-needed context. Unfortunately, this context is
notably absent from much political discourse and from
7. 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."
In fact, many of Eminem's fans will claim that his Slim Shady
persona or any of his nasty anti-woman lyrics
are just an act. On a more sophisticated level, Eminem's defenders
including a number of prominent music critics -- like
to argue that his ironic wit and dark sense of humor are lost
on many of his detractors, who supposedly "don't get it."
This is what his predominantly young fans are constantly being
told: that some people don't like the likable"Em"
because they don't get him, the personae he's created, his outrageously
transgressive humor. In comparison, his fans are said to be
much more hip, since they're in on the joke.
One way that non-fans can respond to this is by saying "We
get it, alright. We understand that lyrics are usually not meant
to be taken literally. And we think we have a good sense of
humor. We just don't think it's funny for men to be joking aggressively
about murdering and raping women, and assaulting gays and lesbians.
Just like we don't think that it's funny for white people to
be making racist jokes at the expense of people of color. This
sort of 'hate humor' is not just harmless fun no matter
how clever the lyrics.
Millions of American girls and women are assaulted by men each
year. According to the U.S. surgeon general, battering is the
leading cause of injury to women. In recent years there has
been growing recognition of the alarming prevalence of abuse
in teen relationships; one recent national study found 20 %
of teenage girls experience some form of physical or sexual
abuse from men or boys. Gay-bashing is a serious problem all
over the country. Music lyrics and other art forms can either
in some way illuminate these problems, or they can cynically
exploit them. Eminem is arguably a major force in the latter
category. Sorry if we don't find that funny."
8. Eminem's rebel image obscures the fact that sexism and
men's violence against women perpetuates established male power
it is not rebellious.
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. As a straight white
man in hip hop culture, Marshall Mathers would actually be much
more of a rebel if he rapped about supporting women's equality
and embracing gay and lesbian civil rights. Instead, he is only
a rebel in a very narrow sense of that word. Since he offends
a lot of parents, kids can "rebel" against their parents'
wishes by listening to him, buying his cd's, etc. The irony
is that by buying into Eminem's clever "bad boy" act,
they are just being obedient, predictable consumers. ("If
you want to express your rebellious side, we have just the right
product for you! The Marshall Mathers LP! Come get your Slim
Shady!) It's rebellion as a purchasable commodity.
But if you focus on the contents of his lyrics, the "rebellion"
is empty. Context is everything. If you're a "rebel,"
it matters who you are and what you're rebelling against. The
KKK are rebels, too. They boast about it all the time. They
fly the Confederate (rebel) flag. But most cultural commentators
wouldn't nod approvingly to the KKK as models of adolescent
rebellion for American youth because the content of what they're
advocating is so repugnant. (And Eminem would be dropped from
MTV playlists and lose his record contract immediately if he
turned his lyrical aggression away from women and gays and started
trashing people of color, or Jews, or Catholics, etc...) Isn't
it plausible that when "responsible" critics, journalists
and other entertainers embrace Eminem as a "rebel,"
it provides a glimpse into their own repressed anger at women,
their own unacknowledged anxieties about homosexuality?
Isn't it also plausible that after Eminem has posed for dozens
of magazine layouts dutifully wearing the swoosh logo of the
Nike corporation, he finds amusing how easily people buy the
outlandish idea of him as a rebel?
Jackson Katz is the creator of the award-winning educational
video "Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis
in Masculinity." His new video, "Wrestling
With Manhood" with Sut Jhally, examines the gender and
sexual politics of professional wrestling. For more information,
go to www.mediaed.org
© 2002 Jackson Katz. Forward freely. Reprint with author's