Two events of lasting significance occurred last week: the breakdown of the Democratic party and the breakthrough of Eminem. His debut film, 8 Mile, became the highest-grossing movie in America just days after Republicans won control of Congress. These two events may not seem related, but they both reflect the mainstreaming of ideas that seemed extreme just two years ago. Bush’s right-wing agenda and Eminem’s violent misogyny were once considered over the line. Now they have crossed over and become the line.
Not that Em is a Republican (though he might favor ending the estate tax). But he and George W. Bush do have certain things in common. Both draw their power from the compelling image of the strongman posing as the common man. Both played the populist card to win the nation’s heart. And I would argue that both owe their success to the sexual backlash.
When Scott Silver, whose last movie was The Mod Squad, was asked by Universal to write a screenplay for Eminem, he couldn’t resist. “I pitched something that reflected [the] outrageous humor and cartoonish violence of his records,” Silver told Entertainment Weekly. “They were like, ‘Uh, no.’ ” Universal wanted to expand the demographic of its hottest music property, so Silver was ordered to create a drama that could reach an audience with reservations about Eminem. Bush faced a similar task in winning over an electorate with doubts about the economy. His solution was to play down the message and play up personality. 8 Mile does something similar by associating its star with root values like struggle and community. It’s a stump speech for Eminem.
Though 8 Mile is being described as a blue-collar inspirational in the tradition of Rocky, it’s more like a classic war movie with a white alpha male and an interracial unit. In this spectacle of the street, the sun never shines and the nights are tinted lurid blue. It’s the perfect setting for a film about male combat and solidarity. All evidence that women play a powerful role in working-class society is repressed. The good bitches help their men; the bad ones betray them—end of story. Worst of all is our B-boy’s dissolute mother. There’s no attempt to reckon with the reasons for her haplessness. The social context is reserved for the men. They are full-blown characters; the women are full-bodied foils.
This distortion would have been noticed just a few years ago. But as the backlash advances, it gets harder to argue against the flattening of women without being pounded with the cudgel of p.c. A lot of men—and women—like it that way, at least in bed. It sure beats sex-role anxiety. What’s truly alarming is the extra-libidinal dimension of this fantasy. There is growing pressure on women to cede their autonomy, and last week’s election hinted at the result. The gender gap, which played a major role in recent elections, seems to have narrowed considerably this year. It’s not just the reflex to close ranks behind the leader in a time of crisis; it’s an impulse to stand by the Man. Bush benefits from this retrenchment, and so does Eminem, as the large female audience for 8 Mile attests.
Women are not the only swing constituency that voted in great numbers for Eminem. Many liberals are drawn by his populist aura, which 8 Mile plays to the hilt. Of course, populism is a two-edged sword: It validates the working class, but it can also justify the confinement of women to traditional roles. In most populist epics, men represent the people and women express solidarity. This, too, is a reassuring image, one that can reconcile many liberals to the backlash because it makes the sexual order seem progressive.
Liberals are no less susceptible than conservatives to nostalgia for a world where male power seems righteous, especially when it’s allied with the truth-telling vitality of the street. 8 Mile is a feel-good movie with precisely that scenario. It kindles the old liberal dream about class trumping race while repressing the real reason why black and white men can bond over a rapper like Eminem. He gives them a common enemy: women. In fact, gender trumps both class and race in his music, but populism lets liberals pretend otherwise.
You wouldn’t know from 8 Mile that bitch bashing is what made this angry white male a star. On-screen, our hero gets violent only with nasty dudes, and he’s a friend to homos, chastising his posse for taunting a gay member. So much for Em’s bad old boast about stabbing “you in the head, whether you’re a fag or lez.” The willful forgetting of what these words actually mean is a sure sign that the social climate is changing. Eminem is an icon of that shift.
When Elvis Presley was ready for his close-up, he chose a historical romance with the buttery title Love Me Tender. It was an ideal crossover vehicle because it sublimated his sexuality into devotion. But the image onscreen was still Elvis of the writhing hips and sly regard. The audience could enjoy his transgressive aura while pretending to watch a love story. The same process of turning funk into frisson is now being applied to Eminem, but the times are very different now. El ushered in a sexual politics of Dionysian ecstasy and male display. Em emblematizes an age of sadistic pleasure and male control. In order for liberals to enjoy this show, they must convince themselves that something else is going on. This is where pop critics come in. Their job is not to deconstruct the culture but to preside over guilty pleasures.
Frank Rich, the Times critic at large, certainly knows how to go with the flow. As the Eminem consensus evolved, so did he.
Two years ago, Rich described our hero as “a charismatic white rapper [who] trades in violence, crude sex, and invective roughing up heterosexual women, lesbians, and gay men.” A year ago he pondered whether “racial crossover in the cultural market makes up for a multitude of misogynistic and homophobic sins.” Now he’s slamming “moral scolds” for dissing Em, while confessing, “I’ve been fascinated by him ever since I first heard his songs at the inception of his notoriety.” Now Rich accepts the dubious claim that faggot is just “an all-purpose insult,” and he regards the sexual violence as no worse than “typical multiplex Grand Guignol.” Imagine the word kike becoming a generic insult—would that make it less anti-Semitic? Imagine racism as violent as the sexism in Em’s oeuvre—would anyone slough it off as a charade?
You can claim, as Rich no doubt would, that the playa/’ho dichotomy is just a metaphor in the service of arousal. But erotic fantasies are never just about sex. They are subversive precisely because they have the potential to construct a social norm. What does it mean when our most powerful public reveries are dedicated to male dominance and female submission? This is the crucial question posed by the triumph of Eminem—one most critics won’t touch. Instead, they ratify the consensus, making it legit. Male dominance, the populism of fools, becomes something to celebrate. And when culture is on the same page as politics, you’ve got hegemony.
J. Hoberman’s review of 8 Mile
“Crossover Dreams: Class Trumps Race in Eminem’s 8 Mile” by RJ Smith
“The Eminem Shtick: What Makes a Bigot a Genius? Presiding Over Guilty Pleasures” by Richard Goldstein