For years I have been fascinated by both Eminem and Rihanna. But it wasn’t until their collaboration on the song, Love the Way You Lie, and the controversy surrounding it, that I realized why.
Eminem on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1999
Understandably, the dialogue taking place online about this song and video revolves around Eminem’s history of espousing and trading on racist, sexist, and homophobic lyrics and Rihanna’s responsibility as a woman who has been a victim in an abusive relationship and supposedly left it behind her. It’s taken me a while to write this post because I’ve been reading a lot of the other interesting things bloggers have been thinking and writing about it. (For further reading and insight, please check out the Gender Across Borders blog and Alex DiBranco’s post on Change.org’s Women’s Rights blog.)
But I think the commonalities between Eminem and Rihanna are compelling, which is even more interesting given that he’s a white man from Detroit, and she’s a black woman from Barbados.
I remember how Eminem first came to national attention in the late 90’s. Politicians and activists were quick to vilify him for being nothing more than a “violent rapper”, and most failed to acknowledge the depth and nuance often present beneath the shock value. If you’ve really listened to his songs, it’s clear he is an intelligent, charismatic artist. This is not to say that everything he does lyrically and in his videos for attention merits a serious discussion or should be absorbed without criticism, but regardless of what you feel about him it’s undeniable he’s given us a lot to talk about over the years, for better and for worse. He’s used the media to feed his success, but won’t conform to a one-dimensional image. To me it seems it is because he displays the intense chaos of his life that makes people relate to him and respond to his music so strongly.
The first time I heard Rihanna, on the other hand, was on a flight to Europe several years ago when SOS first became a hit. By the time the long flight was over I’d been forced to listen to that song countless times and I never wanted to see or hear from her again. She was just one more beautiful and very boring young woman spit out by the music industry. But then Rihanna got a lot more interesting. Even before the world knew about her abusive relationship with Chris Brown, you knew something was up if you saw the Disturbia music video. The nice ‘Pon de Replay’ girl had turned into a dominatrix in an insane asylum who ends the video trapped in a box yanking at a chain around her neck. Something was not right and she was telling you—albeit with a song that was in heavy rotation on every “Hot” radio station around the country.
"Nice girl" Rihanna circa 2006
Then in the midst of the Chris Brown media storm came Rehab. Rehab is her domestic violence song—minus the really bad video with Justin Timberlake. Anyone who has been in an abusive relationship–or any unhealthy relationship for that matter–can relate to the lyrics.
Like Eminem, Rihanna won’t conform to the box we want to put her in. She won’t play the helpless innocent victim. He won’t play the one-dimensional abuser. They’re both messy, like most of us, and they’re putting it out there.
That’s what you see in Love the Way You Lie. They aren’t talking about the abusive relationship where there is a clear imbalance of power and an abuser is able to completely dominate the victim. Instead they’re singing about the other kind of abusive relationship, the one where both people take turns manipulating each other and both feed off the craziness in the relationship.
We want to see Eminem and Rihanna in simple terms. We also want to see abusive relationships in the same way. The man is the violent abuser and the woman is always the passive victim. Some abusers know their anger is out of control. That’s doesn’t excuse the behavior, but the fact remains they can be in relationships where the other person lashes out in violent ways as well.
Rihanna & Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie"
So of course it makes us uncomfortable when Rihanna appears turned on as she sings, but part of the lure of abusive relationships is the intensity of the reconciliation—you are in this insane relationship but at least that relationship is yours and you only share it with each other.
If your kids or students are listening to this song or have watched the video, you could start by engaging them with the following questions:
How do you feel when Eminem sings about feeling so angry but not knowing what to do with that anger?
What do we think about women saying that there are parts of abusive relationships that they want?
Is intensity one of the most important things to have in a relationship?
Does it rationalize abuse?
Does it feel like love?
Is it worth it?
And in all seriousness, these last two questions should also be discussed:
What product placement is in the video? Why?
Why has Rihanna chosen leotards as her signature?
As parents and educators we can’t fear this discussion and take the opportunity to engage in it so that young people (and all of us) can have a chance to stop mindlessly absorbing what we see. That’s how you truly get to a place of intellectual independence in a world that is relentlessly wanting you to be otherwise.
Thank you! I was analyzing the song for a “Healthy Relationships” and teen dating violence workshop that I’m teaching and decided to see if you had any comments. The questions are perfect. Thanks for making my job a little easier!
The first time I heard this song I was slightly appalled by the lyrics and immediately thought “Rihanna and Eminem singing about domestic violence, seriously?“ Then earlier this week I overheard a group of girls singing the chorus during lunch and asked if they liked the song. Majority ruled with an overwhelming “yes!” I asked what they liked about it and they talked about the video, (which I had not seen) and how Rihanna had gotten over “her past.” Later I watched the video and downloaded the song. I literally listened to it over and over and thought the same as you in regard to the talent, raw emotion, and deep seeded feelings of the lyrics. I don’t think a lot of people actually take the time to listen and analyze a lot of songs, I wouldn’t have had I not heard these girls belting it out in the courtyard during school. What stood out was my initial reaction vs my reaction when I truly listened. I love the questions. Music is so important to teens and if you know how to have a non-judgmental conversation, it’s a beautiful way to start a dialogue. I hope parents and educators use them! And for the school counselors reading – music is a GREAT group opener! There is a song for every group!
My 14 year old daughter and I have had many discussions about this song. I too have been fascinated with Eminem for years. In my opinion he is an incredible artist. I was a little worried about exposing my true feelings regarding the value of the song and Eminem as an artist. Luckily my daughter understands that artists do things that create an effect, good and bad. Artists make us think about things, good and bad. And lastly we can appreciate someone’s talent without necessarily feeling a “like” for the person. I’m not so sure what Eminem is all about personally, but as an artist he is definetly creating an effect and making us think.
Rosalind Wiseman is an internationally recognized author and educator on children, teens, parenting, education and social justice. Her work aims to help parents, educators and young people successfully navigate the social challenges of young adulthood.