Recently, Time Magazine suggested that the word "feminist" be banned as part of its annual "word banishment" poll. Predictably, the Internet howled in disapproval, with the Huffington Post's own Emma Gray grousing that feminism is, in fact, a political movement. Very true: after all, it was the women's suffrage movement which afforded women with the right to vote. While the term feminist has become a kind of political volleyball, it is undeniable the way feminists have fueled progress in the United States and around the world.
Still, the Time Magazine response has been unfortunate, as Katy Steinmetz was offering a nuanced view of the word, lamenting the way it has morphed into an extension of celebrities' personal branding. So never mind the way the word has been deconstructed in recent history -- from Alice Paul to Betty Friedan to Madonna, and their various waves of feminism -- to now apparently meaning... anything.
An otherwise interesting dialogue has been quickly struck down as "indefensible" and "gross" by the almighty Internet. And then 4chan arrives...
Context matters. In another example, Lauren Duca at the Huffington Post recently published a piece that has many Twitter feeds chattering: has Eminem finally crossed a line by rapping he'd like to assault Lana Del Rey? After all, this would seem to endorse violence against women... well, except it doesn't.
Now, full disclosure: I have written on Marshall Mathers periodically, so I consider myself somewhat familiar with his body of work, as well as his faults. There is a reasonable argument that -- at 42 -- it's cringe-worthy for him to continue rapping about Britney Spears. However, just as tired is the occasional kneejerk outcry in response to what's essentially a lyrical exercise.
Again, a little context: Eminem delivered the much-discussed line "punch Lana Del Ray right in the face twice like Ray Rice" in a cypher to promote his upcoming compilation album, SHADYXV. Now, for readers more pop savvy than immersed in hip hop terminology, a cypher is like a rap battle: it's purposefully aggressive, and often includes violent content. It's designed to be provocative as a means to display a rapper's verbal dexterity. Even today, Eminem for all he is -- Academy Award winner, multi-millionaire, father, middle-aged man -- likely still thinks of himself as borne out of this kind of politically incorrect tradition. He cut his teeth sparring with friends and, at this point, altering his word selection would likely constitute selling out in his mind.
After all, as he also says in the cyber immediately right before the Lana Del Rey lines:
I think of all them times I compromised my bottom lines/
And thought of rhymes that sodomized your daughter's minds/
...then I'm like: "dollar signs"
He literally makes his intent clear, later in the cypher spitting:
You playing right into Lex Luthor's hands/
It's such a ruthless plan, might even lose a fan
In other words, Eminem is less a bona fide sexist, and more deliberately pushing buttons. We've had this discussion before. And if you are outraged by his purposefully offensive lyricism? Well, he has a rebuttal for that too:
With the sentiments, Eminem isn't penning them for the women/
I'm an enemy to them and the epitome of an inconsiderate idiot/
...but I stiggity stand for the fliggity flag/
Of the United States and the freedom, I distribute these raps through/
And if I catch you doing anything/
Hindering or prohibiting that after I give me that/
...Pickin' up and deliberately whippin' the Statue of Liberty at you
Eminem positing himself as a defender of the freedom of speech is nothing new -- pull up "White America" on Spotify. Nor are his cartoonish, infantile disses to female celebrities. (On "My Name Is" -- his first crossover hit -- he threatens to rip Pamela Lee's breasts off.) The backlash this go-around may have less to do with Eminem, in fact, and more to do with the way Lana Del Rey is viewed today as the voice of a new kind of artist.
Personally, I find most of the spitball raps tired (he's 42...) but then out comes another think piece that nearly misses the point, and projects on Eminem some larger debate about misogyny, rather than contextualizing the cypher within a larger scope of rap, or acknowledging the rapper's points about "conditional tolerance."
It's a fascinating question that goes beyond Eminem's relevance, frankly. (It goes without saying that the always hypocritical artist would never provoke the black community the same way he does women's groups, or gay rights organizations.) As South Park famously said, "either it's all okay, or none of it is." There is a case to be made that it's not what you say, it's how artful you say it. Artists are not moral arbiters... and God help us if they are.
Moreover, in today's world of digital media thought leadership, it is critical that the bigger picture always be kept in view.
Particularly given last Tuesday's election, there are truly meaningful issues regarding the treatment of women to be had by the cognoscenti. Feminism is more about writing a tweet about how gross Eminem is, objecting to some Time post... or even Kim Kardashian's butt (another think piece!). In the grand scheme, these things are good fodder while you're sitting around at work on BuzzFeed... but ultimately are here today and gone tomorrow.
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