Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Eminem and rape/abuse

Trigger warning

MTV has jumped on the “rape is hilarious!” meme with this exchange between Sasha Baron Cohen (“Bruno”) and Eminem:

Bruno forces his genitals on Eminem, who shoves him and walks off in anger. The event was staged with participation from all parties, but many bloggers have called it out as an example of how rape is played up for humor. Renee Martin from Womanist Musings wrote:

What is shocking about this video is that Cohen is using Eminem’s known homophobia to justify sexually assaulting him… It publicly cemented in the minds of those that have irrational fears of gay men that they are justified in fearing attack.

This is especially disturbing in the context of the promotion of Eminem’s new album, Relapse. Relapse is chock-full of songs that are directly and without question about rape. This is not really new to his literary discography. As in other albums, most rape scenes in Relapse are enacted by Eminem’s sociopathic persona Slim Shady1, who is often blamed for the actions of more ethical personas Eminem and Marshall Mathers. But Insane casts Eminem as the victim and not the actor in rape:

Insane is an extremely graphic and in my analysis autobiographical story about a stepfather raping the narrator. The the second verse seems to refer to “Shady” in Insane and indicate that this is part of the mythology of the Slim Shady persona, but the first and third verse seem to be about Eminem’s “real” persona, Marshall Mathers, his usual vehicle for expressing serious emotions. Most of these references do not suggest self-identification of “Shady”, but being called that by another. Furthermore, Shady’s persona is outwardly violent and rarely introspective, and only the second (and half of the third) verse poses the narrator as the actor and not victim of violence. Shady is not one to say “help me” in any context, as the narrator does in the third verse.

I interpret the first verse (which concentrates on the rape) as autobiographical because of this reference to the mother in this situation:
Debbie don't let that fucker get you upset
Debbie is Eminem’s mother’s real name. This direct mention of her in conjunction with the also autobiographical “My Mom” (which addresses his family history of addiction) further suggests that Eminem is not playing around. After the transition to Slim Shady and outward violence in the second verse, Eminem transitions back to the child Marshall:

What the fucks happening? I think I'm fucking melting,
"Marshall I just love you boy I care about your well being",
No dad I said no, I don't need no help peeing, I'm a big boy I can do it by myself see
Eminem’s voice in these lines are distorted, suggesting a transition. Though the name is again imposed rather than self-identified, the use of Em’s legal name suggests that this is not part of the Slim Shady mythology or an attempt to explain “Shady’s” bad deeds but is instead a dramatization of actual events. [The lyrics quoted come from here.]

Further supporting my analysis of this song as largely autobiographical, most Slim Shady and rape songs are played for comedic purposes (though this is less present on Relapse). I don’t detect a humorous tone in Insane, with its screeching violins., and neither has anyone else I’ve listened to it with.

Eminem’s recent admission of his history of abuse makes an already vile stunt even more disgusting. Even using the interpretation of “he’s a homophobe, he deserves it” is faulty in the context of Relapse, which is to my ear considerably less focused on homophobia, and Eminem’s recent claim of a close friendship with Elton John. As Melissa observed at Shakesville:

Baron-Cohen certainly is aware of the same almost-but-not-quite admissions Eminem has made about his childhood that I am, and he went ahead with this stunt, anyway. Most of the people in that audience, and probably most of the people who have viewed the video and found it hilarious, are aware of the possibility that Baron-Cohen was sticking his genitals and butt into the face of someone who is very likely a survivor of sexual abuse.

Yet it's all so goddamned funny—because most of us won't even make the connection between what Baron-Cohen is doing and sexual abuse.
Eminem may have been a participant in this stunt, but that does not mitigate MTV and Sasha Baron Cohen’s error; it’s never appropriate to sexually ambush anyone, and their choice of a possible rape victim as the victim in this situation accents this depravity.

1 Side analysis of Slim Shady persona: The character’s actions constitute not just hetero/sexism and violence, but also racism – apparently, “Slim Shady” comes from a term for a white rapper who “acts black”, similar to the vile term “wigger”. By making SS the “bad” part of Eminem’s three-pronged persona (Eminem/Marshall Mathers/SS) a figure that “acts black”, Eminem is enacting and furthering the white privilege he takes steps towards recognizing in songs like “White America”.


  1. Thank you so much for exploring this. I couldn't make it through the entire song but I think your interpretation is spot on. The psychological click for Em and his homophobia was just made. It is just so sad that they played on his low self worth about this and made it into a joke on MTV. Thank you sooo much for speaking out about sexual abuse as well! I think for whatever reason in recent years feminists have shied away from the topic, which is very sad and regressive. Excellent work here.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your deconstruction of this, and I think you're right on with what you're saying :]

  3. I completely agree. The transition of character is evident... but the analysis makes even more sense in Eminem's current state. This is the first album he put together while NOT on pills (he used to take things people would give him without knowing what it was. It was something crazy, like the equivalent of 4x potency of heroin).

  4. This review just made me look at that situation in a WHOLE new light

  5. I love this album, Mr O. What are your thoughts on it?

  6. What you are saying about using his mother's real name or all the implications doesn't mean that he was raped by his step father. None of what you suggest is necessarily autobiographically like you claim. Eminem is an artist, a true expressionist. Whether he is expressing truth or what comes out of his head or whether he is using methaphors remains mystery unless he makes an official statement about it.
    That being said: was he emotionally raped? Is there a difference between physical rape and emotional abuse, they both cause pain, so since he heavily talks about that in almost all of his songs that part seems to be true. I am sure his step father abused him, so did his mother, may be he was raped may be not.
    You are talking about a guy who just toys with his audience who, like you, hangs on to everything he says to find a meaning. It does not mean he means anything by most of what he said.
    I personally enjoy his music because he lets out what's in his head, keeping him losing it completely. I admire that because not very many can do it. Take it for what that is and the rest is just a hypothesis.

  7. Feel so sorry for Eminem, his stepfather should be locked up :(


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