'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?

Catherine Redfern, 16 April 2001

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 anymore?

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 opposite.

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?

The audience feels intelligent and superior because they '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'.

For example...

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!

You can't say it's offensive and sexist, because duh, 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.

The video showed a woman being clubbed hard over the head 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 Independent:

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").

They arn't laughing at sexist jokes in an ironic 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.

they re-marketed it as a kitsch, camp, ironic classic and 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 highlight this.

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 yawn.

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.

It's flattering to think you are enjoying something on a 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 correctness.

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.

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