Eminem is no stranger to controversy. And this song is no exception. Some have questioned whether the song (and its accompanying video) doesn’t actually glamorize domestic violence. (See: http://www.salon.com/life/broadsheet/2010/08/06/megan_fox_eminem_rihanna and http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2010/08/07/true-love-is-violent-rihanna-and-eminem-style/)
Others have questioned the depiction of what seems to be a high level of female masochism in the song. (Rihanna sings: Just gonna stand there and watch me burn/But that's all right because I like the way it hurts./Just gonna stand there and hear me cry/But that's all right because I love the way you lie.) Neither the normalization of this dynamic nor the fact that the singer happens to be Rihanna, who was so brutally beaten by Chris Brown, will be addressed here. As a man, I feel that my energies around this issue are much better spent working to address men’s violence rather than commenting on and critiquing the motivations and choices of battered women. (An excellent discussion of those issues can be found on feministing.com: http://feministing.com/2010/08/10/love-the-way-you-lie-feministing-group-chat/.)
What I want to talk about here is the way that Eminem misrepresents domestic violence:
Both the song and the video present the experience of battering from the batterer’s perspective, which research has continually shown to be notoriously inaccurate.
Eminem’s rap begins: I can't tell you what it really is/I can only tell you what it feels like/And right now there's a steel knife/In my windpipe/I can't breathe/But I still fight. This “man-as-persecuted victim” theme is well documented in the stories of men who batter. Many batterers have an immense – at times even paranoid – and almost entirely inaccurate sense of persecution, and tend to see their physical violence as a means of self-defense... even though no one is physically threatening them.
Furthermore, what is totally absent from Eminem’s narrative (and from the narrative of most batterers) is any analysis of the context wherein men’s violence occurs – a patriarchal world where women are perceived to be inferior beings upon whom it is acceptable for men to vent our rage. The man’s lashing out in this song is depicted as a series of aggressive events between one man and one woman. But we know that domestic violence is a far, far larger phenomenon than just one man lashing out at one woman. It is a global scourge that violates women’s basic freedoms. The song utterly fails to recognize this patriarchal context, and it fails to acknowledge that the batterer’s fist in fact serves as a weapon that helps to keep women oppressed throughout the world.
Both the song and the video present the violence as mutual combat. This repeats another pattern that is common to many batterer’s narratives: the myth that “we were beating on each other.”
Eminem rhymes: “Now I know we said things/Did things/That we didn't mean/And we fall back/Into the same patterns/Same routine/But your temper's just as bad/As mine is/You're the same as me/But when it comes to love/You're just as blinded... Maybe our relationship/Isn't as crazy as it seems/Maybe that's what happens/When a tornado meets a volcano.”
This distorted batterer’s perspective seeks to describe the abusive dynamic as an “us” problem, rather than a “me” problem, and it locates the dysfunction somewhere in between the two parties, and not in the hands of the abuser. (O.J. Simpson took this story even further. When he was initially arrested for domestic violence against Nicole Brown Simpson, he claimed that he had not hit her, but rather that she had hit him. For O.J. Simpson, it wasn’t even an “us” problem. It was a her problem.)
But ultimately even Eminem’s riffs give lie to this mutual combat scenario:
"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/If she ever tries to fucking leave again/I'mma tie her to the bed/And set the house on fire.”
In the video the woman attempts to flee twice, but the man convinces/coerces her into returning. So even though the fights depicted here have a feeling of mutuality at times, the reality is that when she wants to leave, he does not let her. And Eminem ends his song with the ultimate threat: if she tries to leave again the man will kill her. And that’s not mutual.
(An interesting piece addressing the myth of mutual combat can be found here: http://www.abuseandrelationships.org/Content/Controversies/myth_mutual_combat.html)
(For an earlier profeminist analysis of Eminimen’s work, see http://www.jacksonkatz.com/eminem2.html )