‘The Eminem defence’?
Eminem's recent and highly publicised visit to the UK promoted a storm of debate and discussion. Were his homophobic, misogynist lyrics offensive, or not? Some claimed he was simply being ironic. So does irony mean we can't be offended?
Eminem’s recent and highly publicised trip to the UK promoted a storm of
debate and discussion in the newspapers and radio. Were his homophobic,
misogynist lyrics offensive, or not? Was he advocating and inciting ‘hate
crimes’ (as the Americans call it), or simply telling it like it is? Was he
instigating hatred or mocking it? Was it really offensive
A general confusion seemed to arise. Some claimed he was pure evil,
destructive, and should be banned. “Why is Eminem allowed to incite hatred and
to make violence against women and gay men sound cool?” asked Dr. Gary Slapper,
(Director of the Open University Law Programme) in the Independent.
Lyrics on his current album contain waves of anti-gay vituperation.
He sings: “You faggots can vanish to volcanic ash and reappear in hell with a
can of gas, and a match.” …Next time you hear a catchy Eminem song on the
radio, think of it as the soundtrack to the grotesque homophobic bombing of
the Soho pub, or to the short life of Damilola Taylor … public attention must
turn to the reckless DJs, critics and industry bosses who extol his music while
ignoring its social repercussions – legitimated thuggery.
Others claimed that these people did not really understand the nature of the
songs. They were ironic, of course. He sings this stuff as a
character. ‘Slim Shady’, Eminem’s dark alter-ego, is the narrator of
these controversial rap songs. They’re not offensive. They should be understood
on a whole different level than the purely literal. Come on, if Elton John
can sing duet with him, he can’t be that bad. Here are a few quotes from
letters sent to the METRO newspaper in February which support Eminem.
Eminem’s lyrics may be anti-gay but his actions are the complete
Being British and, therefore, equipped to understand irony, we
should surely understand Eminem is just taking the mickey… He’s actually an
intelligent chap and, if you listen to what he is saying, rather than what
people are saying about what he is saying, you will find he is… being ironic.
Obviously Elton John gets the joke too.
There is nothing in Eminem’s music which does not already exist in
society… Is it not possible that, rather than endorsing these issues, his
music highlights them?
Irony. As the dictionary has it; the use of words to mean the opposite of
what is said, usually in a humorous or mildly sarcastic manner. Seems to be
cropping up a hell of a lot these days. So does the defence of irony mean that
in today’s society, it is impossible to be offended?
‘get the joke’
These days, culture is a complex affair. Nothing is really literal anymore,
and things can have several levels of meaning at the same time. Frequently
now, humour assumes a certain amount of unspoken knowledge from its audience.
It counts on the viewers, readers, whatever, knowing something, such as
a basic knowledge of feminist concepts and that in today’s society certain
viewpoints are generally acceptable. It’s clever, because it is working
on different levels and at the same time makes the audience feel intelligent and
superior because they ‘get the joke’.
It is ironic when the character Larry Sanders, played by the stand-up comedian Garry Shandling, complains that he hates watching stand-up comedians trying to act. That’s only funny of course if you know a bit about the Larry Sanders Show.
It is ironic, and humorous, when Homer Simpson, fends off a rival for Marge’s affections by holding aloft her left hand and shouting ‘You see this ring? This means something!!’
‘It means she’s my PROP-ER-TY!’
(I guess you had to be there, but it was funny). This is ironic, and it’s not offensive of course, because it’s Homer, the world’s biggest idiot, saying it. The ‘programme’ knows that women are not men’s property. It’s just another way to prove Homer as the stupidest man alive (bless his cotton socks).
However, there’s only so many times a person can, in all honesty, laugh at a
sexist comment because it is suposedly presented in a self-consciously
offensive, but ironic manner. Often, all people are doing is admitting upfront
that, hey, we know this is offensive. But you can’t be offended because, well,
we know it’s offensive. And anyway it’s ironic. Lighten up!
that’s the point
Take the character ‘Sid the Sexist’ from the infamously crude adult comic Viz
magazine (which by the way, will soon be stocked with the rest of the men’s
lifestyle magazines in WH Smiths). By labelling the character from the offset
as ‘sexist’, the comic effectively halts all complaints. You can’t say it’s
offensive and sexist, because duh, that’s the point. The character is at the
same time labelled as an anachronism (so escaping criticism) and is
allowed to be as offensive as the writers want to make him, because that’s his
main character trait. Nice one!
In the same way, Loaded magazine, the bible of 90s ‘laddism’, uses the phrase
‘For Men Who Should Know Better’. Yeah, they say, we know this isn’t really what
we’re supposed to be thinking and doing and saying, but hey. At least
we know that. Right? So that’s okay then.
and dragged by the hair across the floor
The Wu-Tang Clan’s recent ‘Gravel Pit’ video featured the ‘Clan’ in a
cartoonish, Flintones setting. They swaggered and pouted at the camera, while
the women jiggled their breasts behind them. The female lead singer was shown
tied by the hands and feet to a wall wearing the tiniest bikini possible. The
video showed shots of one of the singers clubbing a woman hard over the head
(who was shown smiling just before she collapsed), and then dragging her by the
hair along the dusty floor. Alright, so the Wu-Tang Clan has hardly been known
for their sensitive attitude towards women, but is this kind of thing okay just
because it’s done in a cartoonish, unreal setting? Were they ironically
parodying Neanderthal man’s treatment of women? Or were they just whacking a
women in the head? I was quite shocked when I saw this, but MTV and every other
music channel seemed to think it was fine to show. Maybe I’m just not
‘sophisticated’ enough to ‘get’ the joke.
In South America, a pop song caused uproar as it seemed to glorify violence
against women. The ‘Face Slap’ featured lyrics such as ‘When we make love, what
does she ask for? Slap in the face,’ and even had its own dance in which
men pretend to slap and women sway as if reeling from the blows. People have
called for it to be banned, some radio stations refused to play it, and women’s
groups claimed it promoted domestic violence. However, as John Walsh said in the
Latino Sociologists… claim it’s all just sophisticated fun, a
postmodern caricature of macho posturing which shouldn’t upset anybody (this is
better known as “the Eminem defence”).
postmodern way: it’s a nostalgic trip.
Things like this present themselves as ironic and postmodern, but in reality,
they’re not. They don’t mean the opposite of what they say. They pretend they
do. But it becomes a loophole that allows them to do and say whatever they like.
The readers arn’t laughing at sexist jokes in an ironic postmodern way. Its a
nostalgic trip back to a time when men could make sexist jokes and that was
normal. It seems that you can slap the label ‘irony’ on something and just
carry on exactly the same as you were before. Imelda Whelehan, in her book
on Nineties culture, ‘Overloaded’, calls it ‘Retro-Sexism’.
Even Benny Hill has had an irony makeover. It’s now being claimed that Hill
was ahead of his time, that his tits and bums saucy postcard comedy was ironic
and clever, that his sketches were an ironic comment on British attitudes to
sex. Whatever you make of that, it shows that pretty much anything can be
re-vitalised to become acceptable in modern society. Not just newly created
things which incorporate irony from the start, but older material which was
intended to be serious when it was first created.
it became a success
For example, as Naomi Klein explains in ‘NoLogo’, the film Showgirls flopped
when it was first released as an erotic thriller. But when MGM found it had
become a cult classic amongst the younger generation who screamed with laughter
at it how unbelievably bad it was, they re-marketed it as a kitsch, camp, ironic
classic and it became a success (well, relatively). Just look at how popular the
now kitsch and camp archetypal Fifties housewife images are: used in greetings
cards, postcards, even in feminist publications.
One problem with irony is the possibility that people can and do misinterpret
and take what is being said at face value, especially children who famously
don’t understand sarcasm. Thus at one Eminem concert in the UK crowds of louts
chanted ‘Kill all Poofs’. Children bully other children by calling them gay.
Chumbawamba’s supposedly ironic piss-take of the drinking culture,
‘Tubthumping’, became the biggest drinking song of the year.
And surely what is happening is the same no matter how differently we
supposedly look at it? Showgirls is still a crap film. Eminem is still telling
gays they can burn in hell, even if he is saying it as a character.
Despite all this, I don’t think that people should be censored or
forced to change what they’re doing just in case children or others arn’t
‘clever’ enough to ‘get it’ free speech is a fundamental right. However, I
do think that people are using ‘the Eminem defence’ far too much. Nowadays
its possible to do anything ironically; wear lipstick, pose naked for a
lad’s mag, wear hideous fashion, even advertise your product in a hip postmodern
way. As Suzanne Moore wrote in the Guardian in 1993,
Irony, that sad excuse for not caring anymore, is now the dominant
aesthetic. Advertisers are so hip that they claim their ads are not sexist, but
a comment on sexism… The good old fashioned sexism that has crept back into
ads in the name of ultra-modern in-jokiness is… insidious.
It is true that society has changed, and the way we view things
has grown, evolved, become more sophisticated and layered. This isn’t a bad
thing. If people of my generation are shown clips of the 70’s sitcom ‘Love thy
Neighbour’, we laugh not at the racist jokes but with incredulity and amazement
that this stuff was ever considered okay. We can and do see things in a
different light now, and irony can be used cleverly and persuasively to
But if irony means we cannot show offense without being sneered at for being
out of date or ‘missing the point’ if sticking up for feminist ideals means
being seen as passe or unfashionable; if being offended by anti-gay lyrics means
you’re seen as unsophisticated and humourless, then it is dangerous. We may
not want to go as far as censoring the offending item, but if we can’t even
criticise it where do we go from here? Saying something is ironic
just halts the conversation straight away. ‘You know, isn’t this a bit dodgy?’
you might say, concerned. ‘Oh come on, it’s ironic isn’t it?’ comes the
response. Subtext: a) you obviously have no sense of humour. b) what’s more, you
are thick. Duly chastened, you change the subject.
As Susan Faludi puts it, in ‘Backlash’:
the current onslaught adds a sneering ‘hip’ cynicism toward those
who dare point out discrimination or anti-female messages. In… entertainment
and advertising… the self-conscious cast of characters constantly let us know
that they know their presentation of women is retrograde and demeaning,
but what of it? To make a fuss about sexual injustice is more than unfeminine;
it is now uncool. Feminist anger, or any form of social outrage, is dismissed
breezily – not because it lacks substance but because it lacks ‘style’…
Feminism is ‘so seventies’, the pop culture’s ironists say, stifling a
So, back to Eminem. To be honest, I don’t know enough about him or his songs
to really comment knowledgably. I haven’t really made my mind up about it, and
in any case it’s not the sort of thing I normally listen to. You could accuse me
of picking and choosing what I deem to be an ‘okay’ use of irony; accepting the
things I personally like and dissing the stuff I dislike. Am I right to be
offended by the Wu-Tang Clan but laugh at Homer Simpson? If you’re a rap fan you
may see it differently.
superior, complex intellectual level: especially when it allows you
to sidestep political correctness.
I’ll accept it is possible that the people who claim Eminem’s lyrics are
offensive may be seeing things too simplistically. But it’s also true
that just because something waves the ‘irony’ flag shouldn’t mean anything goes.
We should see clearly through the intellectual fog of irony and not feel
inferior for being offended. It seems to me it’s often a case of the Emperor’s
New Clothes. It’s flattering to think you are enjoying something on a superior,
complex intellectual level: especially when it allows you to sidestep political
So where do we go from here? My boyfriend reckons the next trend – beyond
post-modernism and ‘post-feminism’ – will be post-ironic. But perhaps we’re
already there. In 1994, the satirical news programme The Day
Today featured a spoof report on a gangster rapper who’d killed people
live on stage as part of his act. The report cut to a Rolling Stone journalist,
who sighed with exasperation: “I just don’t know what the fuss is about. It’s
clearly ironic.” Nuff said.