Sunday, September 5, 2010

When a tornado meets a volcano

Maybe our relationship isn't as crazy as it seems

Maybe that's what happens when a tornado meets a volcano
Love the Way You Lie

I don't know if Eminem is a misogynist or a recovering wife batterer or a man struggling with the vestiges of misogyny and a troubled, volatile relationship with his ex-wife Kim Mathers. I do know that he has precipitated a number of arguments about his body of work between myself and my husband R. It may surprise you to learn that R is not particularly an Eminem fan and that I (largely and in most instances) count myself as one.

Is Eminem exploiting images of domestic violence in a sexy way, condoning it, advocating it in his new video "Love the Way You Lie"? By using Rihanna in this song does he exploit the well known details of singer Rihanna's own history of domestic violence with the singer Chris Brown? Male anger towards women exists. It's very real and extremely dangerous. But it does exist. Does Eminem have the right to talk about this anger? To write about it? To depict it in video? What are his obligations as an artist? And I do consider him to be an artist.

I can't tell you what it really is I can only tell you what it feels like... he begins. Against a background of a burning house - an apt description for the destruction of the relationship and the family home - Eminem and Rihanna trade lyrics but never looks, never direct physical or visual contact, as if to emphasize the enormous gulf between men and women in this situation.

Eminem's graphic lyrics provide the exposition for the troubled relationship between Megan Fox, the female lead in the video, and her lover, the Lost actor Dominic Monaghan. Fox is shown both in passionate embrace with Monaghan and then in violent altercations. Monaghan also assaults a man who appears to be wooing Fox in a bar. I think critics are most disturbed by the alternating images of passion and violence - as if it is saying these situations are sexy, exciting. Why does she return to him after the violence? Why does she not leave? She tries but she never succeeds in doing so.

Rihanna offers a conflicted and disturbing chorus to Eminem's lyrics and the images we see:
Just gonna stand there
And watch me burn
But that's alright
Because I like
The way it hurts
Just gonna stand there
And hear me cry
But that's alright
Because I love
The way you lie
I love the way you lie
I love the way you lie
The female character (lyrics spoken by Rhianna but written by Eminem) is on to him, on to his lies...she knows he can no longer be trusted and she possibly mocks him with her words "But that's alright because I like the way it hurts". Or possibly she means it - perhaps that is part of the excitement that their relationship provides for her as disturbing as that sounds. At first her attitude is almost sneering, petulant, but she seems to melt under the weight of the song, actually crumpling to the ground at the end as if she can't bear what she has experienced.

I think these relationships are more complicated than we admit as men and women. The singer (or Eminem as the first person narrator in the song) is clearly conflicted by both his feelings of desire for her and violent anger against his partner. He talks about being ashamed ("... when it's bad it's awful. I feel so ashamed." and "You don't get another chance. Life is no Nintendo game.") He demonstrates that he is troubled by what has happened ("I'll never stoop so low again" and feels "Drunk from the hate").

But the video and its lyrics can be problematic and ugly. At its climax, Eminem says that if she tries to leave again he will tie her to the bed and burn the house down. In the video Eminem, Monaghan and the Fox character are all shown burning in flames. They are consumed by desire or hate or violence or all three. At the end of the video, the two singers face the house, backs to the camera, for the first time as if recognizing what they have done, what they have wrought.

It's a frightening and thought provoking video. And I simply can't believe it's as simple as Eminem hating women which may or may not be the truth. It is too carefully constructed, too layered and conflicted in meaning.

As my husband R astutely pointed out to me, this is a virtually impossible position for him to take as a progressive male. It's true, it's an utter minefield. Most men I know have had the same reaction to the video: repulsion, anger, distaste, a healthy skepticism towards the motivation for its creation. Unequivocally, they have condemned the video to me and perceived it as, if not an endorsement of domestic violence, a calculated and cynical move by both singers to exploit their troubled pasts.

Try this exercise...Would you say that I have the right as a feminist and as a writer to write/sing/create artistic work about a domestic abuse situation where the female character has a great deal of anger towards her partner? Has complicated feelings of love/desire for her abuser? Has murderous impulses towards him and perhaps acts on them? I'm fairly sure that most artists and writers that I know would not deny me that right. 

Obviously, I do not support violence against women. Obviously, like every right-minded person, I vehemently oppose it. But do I oppose talking about it? Writing about the complexity of those relationships and feelings? No, I don't, even if it is written from the viewpoint of the transgressor.

On Eminem's website, it indicates that Fox had foregone her fee and donated it to a women's shelter. Despite this, viewers of the video may still insist that it promotes or glamorizes violence. Is it merely the fact that we are captivated by the vivid images, remain unconvinced based on his prior history of domestic violence and are not hearing the lyrics.

I can't honestly construe this video as pro-domestic violence but they could have chosen a less "sexy" actress and scenarios because we, the viewers, then possibly become fixated on Fox, her beauty, the revealing nature of her clothing, rather than what is portrayed. And the choice of the Eminem's T-shirt in the video (sometimes referred to by the more offensive term "wife beater") was either an unfortunate or a very cynical choice. I don't think it's a mistake.

The reservoir of Eminem's hostility towards his mother and ex-wife appears bottomless at times which is evidenced by his music lyrics in numerous other songs and public statements, ill-conceived diatribes against both of them. By all accounts his mother Debbie Mathers Briggs would not have won any mother of the year awards and Kim Mathers has been no shrinking violet in the drama and violence department.

Does this mean that he had the right to batter Kim, threaten her, demean her? No, absolutely not.

Does Eminem have the right to talk about it, write about it, create a fictional scenario surrounding these events? I would say unequivocally, as a feminist, as a sometime writer of disturbing and complex fictions...yes. I don't take this position lightly. I have been threatened with physical violence by a partner in the past and have known real fear that he would act on it.

But... you can't create anything of value if your primary consideration is that your art may be misconstrued and reviled.


Slim Shady said...

Lit chick, you rock! As a progressive male, I need to say to my fellow progressive males, shame on you! Listen to the song! The whole song! Not just the chorus and not just the last line. This song is full of pain, anger, love, frustration and, most importantly, ambiguity. It doesn't simply throw out ramdom profanity. It explores an issue that is all too common, and that is personal to the artist. It presents real feelings that, like it or not, exist. We aren't going solve the problem of domestic violence by everybody making sure to say only nice things about women. We are going to solve it by understanding what drives it, and this song should be required listening for that purpose. To Eminem, I can only say, "Kudos".

Michelle said...

Slim, thanks for the words of encouragement. We shouldn't fear the complicated nor the controversial in art - society can't progress or change for the better if we ignore the real anger and frustratiosn that exists between men and women or cast the blame on one sex or other other.