This article is originally written for an assignment of Media & Popular Culture at the Journalism Department of the Faculty of Political, Administrative and Communication Sciences, Babes-Bolyai University, under several changes.
Throughout the years, misogynistic approaches and objectification towards women throughout lyrics and music videos often occur in hip-hop. Oftentimes, it comes from a place to assert dominance and demonstrate toxic masculinity to win monetary advantages (Femlee, Rodis, & Zhang, 2020). It is the reflection of the patriarchic society at large. Without denying the existence of amazing old-school female emcees, hip-hop was a male-dominated industry at the time.
For example, multi-million-selling rapper Marshall ‘Eminem’ Mathers is known for his excessive use of troublesome lyrics in his albums. The Marshall Mathers LP, one of the fastest-selling albums of all time which sold over 1,78 million copies within the first week (Oxoby, 2003), finds misogynistic content in eleven out of fourteen songs. Another best-selling Grammy-winning album by him, The Eminem Show (2002), also boasts about the same subject albeit under a much more controversy-less approach.
This topic will discuss the layers of the reasoning behind Eminem misogynistic lyrics throughout the years, and what it means for the freedom of speech in art.
“Slim Shady” as an artistic approach & how it translates to Eminem’s music
Just like watching a film where actors portray characters, Eminem tries to take his audience to a cinematic experience within each record. His main goal was to grab people’s attention under any means necessary, even it means picking people’s names out of a hat and “pushing the envelope” a little bit.
To understand Eminem’s music stance on women, it is critical to grasp the concept of three intersecting personas that he often uses throughout his music. “Eminem” is the inspirational, razor-sharp battle rapper with a lethal pen game who doesn’t hesitate to raise the stake against his opponents, “Slim Shady” is the violent, unhinged serial killer who raps about eerie & taboo subjects, whom he developed out of frustration of the commercial flop of his 1996 debut album Infinite, and “Marshall Mathers” is the real person and a proud father of three behind all the masks.
In short, Eminem is the facade, Slim Shady is the character, and Marshall Mathers is the human.
The “Eminem” persona can be heard in motivational songs like “Lose Yourself,” “Till I Collapse,” “White America,” even in his recent releases like “Higher” from Music to Be Murdered By album (2020). “Slim Shady” possesses a neurotic personality & embodies all the evil thoughts deterred from Marshall’s experience of growing up in such vicinity, which can be heard in tracks like “The Real Slim Shady,” “Kim,” “Crazy on You,” and more. “Marshall Mathers” is a self-aware, emotional alter ego who often talks from an introspective point of view about his hardships in life: “Mockingbird,” “When I’m Gone,” “Going Through Changes,” and more.
As a character, Slim Shady represents the frustration of the ‘white trash’ demographic and its rebellious nature that early Eminem tries to appeal to (Ramsaran & Hill, 2009). Coming from the lower-class poverty-stricken streets of Detroit, Eminem wanted his frustration to be heard and vented everything through this troublesome character, even it would get him in trouble. At the time, he was struggling with many things in life: providing for his daughter, being underestimated in rap battles, getting in touch with his estranged father, keeping his marriage intact, struggling with an alcoholic mother, and moving from one trailer park to another.
Then, he founded Slim Shady to channel his mixed emotions of anger, hate, and frustration, & gained commercial success shortly after. Contrary to the content of Em’s debut album Infinite, Slim Shady allows him to develop shock values, poke fun, trigger thoughts, and create conflicts.
How the three intercepting personalities concept backfires
Eminem has a long history of problematic remarks on women in his records during a career that spans since 1997, which even continues to his recent releases. Yet, the rapper is currently one of the most groundbreaking and bankable hip-hop artists of all time, selling over 220 million albums worldwide.
Despite often being classified within the ‘non-gangsta’ wing of the genre, Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP scores 78% for misogynistic content, compared to its gangsta counterpart (22%) (Armstrong, 2001). He fantasizes about murdering his wife in ‘Kim,’ “Sit down bitch! You move again I’ll beat the shit out of you!” performs lyrical tirades on random women in ‘Kill You,’ “I’ll choke radio announcer to bouncer / From fat bitch to all seventy thousand pounds of her,” and the list of troublesome lyrics goes on.
The loophole of this concept though, as Eminem’s career progresses into his 40s, the lines between these characters keep getting blurry. On The Eminem Show (2002) even, the three personalities fit together, which leaves almost no room for clarity. Incorporating these personas into music is never easy because, unlike films where there’s a big line to draw between actors and characters they portray, music has no third dimension. It goes straight into our ears, and that’s where it gets messy for Eminem. He even admitted that he’s been trying to “chase the momentum” of The Marshall Mathers LP in a 2019 interview, but it is never going to happen.
Slim Shady gets more and more irrelevant as Eminem’s career progresses. During the earlier days of Eminem’s career, the sinister character dealt with Eminem’s high school bullies, his hard time providing foods on the table for his family, his struggle in the predominantly Black genre as a white rapper, and more, but as Eminem continues to achieve success, these aforementioned struggles are not as relevant & relatable as they used to be. Eminem is now worth over $230 million according to Celebrity Net Worth and has become one of the highest-selling rap artists of all time, and that somehow contradicts what Slim Shady initially represents as a character.
Does “Slim Shady” still hold up during the latter stage of his career?
There has been a long discussion about hip-hop’s worrisome state on females. Rappers have glorified violence against women, homophobia, and several questionable topics to boost sales and increase their street credibility throughout the decades.
Then, came Eminem who, not only raps about taboo subjects but also boasts violence against women to an astronomical level, statistically speaking.
The key of grasping Eminem’s music is understanding the concept of split personalities he often incorporates into his music. Just like actors who portray dozens of characters in films, Eminem tries to take his audience into the cinematic experience within each album. Eminem is the underdog rap artist, Slim Shady is the violent & mentally unhinged character, and Marshall Mathers is the flawed human behind all the masks.
Unfortunately, this practice backfires often especially in the latter stage of Eminem’s career. Slim Shady represents the struggle of the “white-trash trailer park” Middle Americans, and it lacks relevance as Eminem’s career progresses. It lacks directions and that argument does not really hold up throughout the time, which is extremely hypocritical. The contradiction is too sloppy to work, and the excuses that gave Slim Shady its foundation during the earlier stage of Eminem’s career do not apply anymore.
Without taking credits out of the cultural impact Eminem has brought for hip-hop, the real Slim Shady, the one that represents the struggles Eminem had endured in his early life & made him cater to the majority of his audience, just can’t stand up anymore, and probably never will.
Anthony Bozza, Eminem Blows Up, in Rolling Stone, April 23, 1999.
Dave Ramsaran, Simona Hill, Hip Hop and Inequality: Searching for the “Real” Slim Shady, Cambria Press, New York, 2009.
Diane Felmlee, Paulina Rodis, Amy Zhang, Sexist Slurs: Reinforcing Feminine Stereotypes Online, in Sex Roles 83, 16–28 (2020).
Edward Armstrong, Gangsta Misogyny: A Content Analysis of the Portrayals of Violence Against Women In Rap Music, 1987-1993, in Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 2001.
Marc Oxoby, The 1990s: American Popular Culture Through History, Greenwood, California, 2003.
Jonathan Riesch, Hip Hop Culture: History and Trajectory, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, 2002.