Published: Nov. 1, 2007 By

Indeed if one is to be a man almost any kind of unconventional action often takes disproportionate courage. So it is no accident that the source of Hip is the Negro for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries.

-Norman Mailer, The White Negro

Within the context of possessive individualism, political rights become viewed as commodities that American citizens possess or own as individuals. When tied to a racial system that writes off large numbers of people who are seen not as individuals but as members of groups, this possessive individualism also fosters an irresponsible individualism.

-Patricia Hill Collins, From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism

Subverting Collectivity

[1] At the conclusion of former President Bill Clinton’s eulogy at the 2005 funeral of Rosa Parks he recounted the story of his childhood reaction to Rosa Parks’s refusal to sit at the back of the bus. At the time of Parks’s political and social act of resistance, Clinton explained that he “was a 9-year-old southern white boy who rode a segregated bus every single day of my life. I sat in the front. Black folk sat in the back.” In support and, in Clinton’s words, “approval” of Parks’s refusal to comply with this legalized forced segregation, he and two of his friends had “decided we didn’t have to sit in the front anymore.” Clinton went on to note that his act of resistance was small in comparison to Parks’s, a “tiny gesture by three ordinary kids,” but that it was the motivation provided by Parks’s example that “help[ed] set us all free.” To amplify this notion that whites as well as blacks had been “set free” by Parks’s defiance, Clinton told the audience:

…that great civil rights song that Nina Simone did so well: “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free. I wish I could break all the chains holding me. I wish I could fly like a bird in the sky.” At the end it says: “I wish that you knew how it feels to be me. Then you’d see and agree that everyone should be free.” Now that our friend Rosa Parks has gone on to her just reward, now that she has gone home and left us behind, let us never forget that in that simple act and a lifetime of grace and dignity, she showed us every single day what it means to be free. She made us see and agree that everyone should be free. God bless you, Rosa.

[2] Clinton’s identification with Rosa Parks’s “will to be free” and Simone’s rendition of William Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” provide an interesting case study as well as an entry into interrogating the popular reception and consumption of the rap artist Eminem’s bad boy brand, a topic that I will return to later in this essay. First, it must be noted that Clinton’s affinity with the struggle for African American civil rights is rooted in his personal history of poverty and marginalization based on his own past working class status and identity. Popular representation of Clinton during his presidency often focused on the fact that he was raised by his mother, a strong figure in his life and one who, herself, struggled to raise a family with limited resources that were a direct result of systemic inequities. In fact, Toni Morrison’s well-known tongue-in-cheek quote from a 1998 New Yorker essay provides further evidence of Clinton’s popular reception. Morrison’s statement that Clinton was “our first black president,” someone who, she went on to claim, “displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas” was indicative of the reception of Bill Clinton within the popular imagination and further demonstrates how Clinton’s real and perceived disadvantages, as largely represented by his mother’s economic struggles, have been seen as inherently connected to the history of African Americans’ struggle for self-determination and freedom.

[3] However, Clinton’s symbolic connection to this particular history of struggle is more complicated than it would appear at first glance. As heartening as Clinton’s memorial to Rosa Parks was it also belies a central problem of liberal individualism. That is, within liberal individual discourse, individual freedom is privileged above and beyond collective freedom. In fact, collective freedom can be seen as a detriment to the individual’s desire for personal freedom—for example, freedom from censorship and from personal (read also economic) responsibility for the welfare of other groups and individuals. In Clinton’s story, it isn’t necessarily the desire to ensure African American civil rights that is the impetus for his “decision.” Rather, it is the potential power of his ability to choose, a power that had been delimited by oppressive institutions that Clinton, as a working class child, knew all too well. Although Clinton’s reminiscence was in tribute to Rosa Parks’s and his own contributions to the larger civil rights movement, his representation of “choice” and “freedom” shows a lack of critical awareness underlying a more complicated meaning of the lyrics that Nina Simone made so famous during the same era.

[4] When Simone sang, “I wish that you knew how it feels to be me. Then you’d see and agree that everyone should be free” the emphasis is clearly on “everyone should be free.” While Clinton recognizes the idea that all people should be free, he also seems to imply that we have arrived at a moment where everyone is indeed free, at least free to choose.

Yet, when we consider Rosa Parks’s life in struggle and further consider the ways in which Simone imbued Taylor’s song with particular meaning as an African American woman caught in what Patricia Hill Collins has famously named, “the matrix of domination,” a more complicated meaning of freedom surfaces from Parks’s iconic legacy and Simone’s lyrical rendering. According to Collins, “The termmatrix of dominationdescribes [the] overall social organization within which intersecting oppressions originate, develop, and are contained. In the United States, such domination has occurred through schools, housing, employment, government, and other social institutions that regulate the actual patterns of intersecting oppressions that Black women encounter” (Black Feminist Thought, 227-8). In other words, unlike Clinton and his childhood friends, Parks and Simone represent a very particular lack of freedom that is the direct result of the intersecting oppressions of race, gender, and class, to name just a few.

[5] Furthermore, it is not simply a lack of choice that Rosa Parks and the lyrics, as interpreted by Nina Simone, call attention to. It is a lack of collective freedom, indeed a lack of collectivity in general. This is evidenced in Simone’s version of the song, a version that differs in significant ways from Taylor’s original lyrics. When we examine Simone’s rendition of the song more closely it becomes clear that she calls attention, not just to a lack of individual choice and freedom, but to the matrix of oppression suffered by those who encounter intersectional oppression. For example, Simone changes the original lyrics “I wish I could say…All the things that I’d like to say” to “I wish I could say…All the things that I should say.” This shift indicates that it is not a matter of individual choice and desire that is highlighted. Rather, Simone’s creative license undermines this kind of self-interest as she asks the listener to think about what it is that one “should” say in respect to freedom, especially freedom that is not limited to individuals but, as Simone goes on to sing, will “remove all the bars that keep us apart.” Again, Simone has altered the lyrics, changing “every doubt” to the “bars” that limit collective dreams of freedom—those numerous institutions (bars) that preserve freedom for some and circumscribe it for others. Likewise, in the second verse, Simone raises her forceful and enchanting tremolo to sing, “I wish I could give…all I’m longin’ to give…I wish I could live…like I’m longin’ to live…” Simone has inverted these lines consequently privileging “giving” which, in turn, suffuses these original lyrics with a tangible blues aesthetic that calls the listener to attend to the lament of a dream deferred but also to the desire to be, again, connected to other dreamers and to “give” as well as to experience a quality of life so far elusive to the speaker. She cannot “give” as she wants to and therefore she cannot “live” as she wants to live, as she and everyone should live.

[6] Ultimately, what Simone’s lyrical interpretation reveals are the ways in which feminist discourse, and in particular, black feminist discourse, lay bare the conflict between individualism and collectivism. As stated by Collins and as evidenced by African American women’s intellectual, creative and political production, “…Black feminist thought views Black women’s struggles as part of a wider struggle for human dignity and social justice” (Black Feminist Thought, 276). Conversely, although Clinton does acknowledge the idea of collectivity within the civil rights movement, his general remarks and interpretation of the song lyrics, as sung by Simone, on the other hand, favor the idea of existential freedom. As noted by scholars like Anthony Appiah, “theexistentialist picture, is one in which, as the doctrine goes, existence precedes essence…you exist first and then have to decide what to exist as, who to be, afterwards” (323). The salient point here is that you get to and, in fact, have to decide, to choose who to be and how to operate in the world. Still, what about the “matrix of domination” that subverts this process of self-creation? Furthermore, is self-creation more important than our social relations with one another, especially given that we are social beings and not simply individual bodies separate and immune from the world and the people around us? As Appiah also points out in critiquing liberalism, “Liberty cannot be the only thing that matters” (309). Moreover, we must pay attention to who gets to decide and why, who doesn’t and why not? This necessarily complicates liberalism’s notion of self-creation and choice and requires us to consider not only our own freedom, but our relationship to other individuals as well.

[7] While Clinton’s tribute acknowledges Rosa Parks’s role in showing him that he could make a choice not to be culpable and participatory in systems of domination and oppression, systems that also prescribed his own freedom, the more important and pressing issue is the intersecting systems of domination and oppression that subvert choice for the greater majority of people and therefore prevent a more inclusive, collective freedom. In other words, it is not individual choice that will ultimately dismantle the matrix of domination that limits and disallows the choices of the marginalized majority. Clinton was fortunate to ultimately break away from his economic oppression by way of the education and opportunities afforded him and by subsequently becoming a prominent public figure. For Clinton, the notion of self-creation and liberty was tantamount to his transformation and remaking. Yet and still, the idea that choice, self-creation, and liberty produce freedom for everyone only serves to reinforce intersectional systems of oppression which in turn work to the detriment of bringing about the social transformation needed to ensure a more encompassing and enduring freedom.

[8] Perhaps the most poignant example of this, in regards to Bill Clinton’s own legacy, can be seen in his construction of personal responsibility and “freedom” within the welfare reform debates of the 1990’s and his subsequent role as proponent and signer of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) passed in August 1996. While it is true that Clinton’s childhood act of defiance against segregation contributed to the larger civil rights movement of the 1960’s, his 1998 Presidential proclamation that the “new strategy” of welfare reform was satisfying predictions that it “would spark a race to independence” demonstrates how intersectional oppression is propelled by the continued excessive reliance on individual choice and freedom. As Economics and Women’s Studies Professor Nancy Rose has argued, the welfare reform policies of the 1990’s “can be most clearly understood as the culmination of restrictive policies promulgated by the Reagan administration beginning in 1981” and further that “Punitive welfare policies intensified in the 1990’s” (144). Rose attributes these intensified punitive policies to four intersecting oppressive practices: the maintenance of a traditional “work-ethic” economic rationale that favored wage-labor over relief; welfare policies that have been historically characterized by racism and nativism; a persistent stigmatization and humiliation of aid recipients that discourages others from seeking relief; and lastly, the “worktest” that forces recipients to perform some type of work in order to prove that they are not lazy, a practice based on the stereotype that the poor in fact, do not want to work and are, as a result, responsible for their own economic deficiency.

[9] In addition, and more specifically, poor white women, women of color, and immigrant women have been made “scapegoats for the fall in wages, changes in labor markets and families, and wider acceptance of women’s rights” (152). One only need recall the force, for instance, of the “welfare queen” stereotype that constructed black female recipients as lazy and conniving siphons off the public and, given their status as mostly single mothers, threats to the construct of the traditional male-headed nuclear family. Thus, in emphasizing personal responsibility over collective social responsibility, Clinton’s policies reinforced the race, gender, and social class bias paradigm that has persisted in marginalizing and subjugating large numbers of the collective, most especially women.

[10] Moreover, the ways in which the welfare reform discourse of personal responsibility and independence is framed as individual freedom from an over-reliance on the government—that is, individuals are free from undue taxation that is used to provide economic support to so-called lazy adults and subsequently, those “lazy” adults are then free to become independent, contributing members of the society—bespeaks the problem of focusing on individuals to the demise of bonds of community and collective responsibility. Not only have the 1990’s welfare reform policies been based on stereotypes about the poor and especially poor women, they have misrepresented and undervalued the labor of childrearing, particularly childrearing that is done by poor women. Additionally, these policies have relegated poor women to low wage work that does not provide them with adequate income to access quality childcare. Furthermore, within the discourse of welfare reform, there is no tolerance for single family households led by women or any other family structures that deviate from what is seen as the normative family structure. It becomes, thus, the sole responsibility of the poor to manage work responsibilities, secure care for their children, and maintain traditional patriarchal family structures. They are also “personally” responsible for succeeding financially and achieving or at least performing middle-class lifestyle standards such as the accumulation of commodities, including an appropriate domicile, which is intended to present the façade of success and self-sufficiency. Lastly, not only are the poor held accountable for achieving these standards, the 1990’s welfare reform ideology of personal responsibility left little to no room for “dependence” on other members of the community or the government to succeed in attaining any of these goals.

[11] Ironically, in a speech that she gave at the 1996 Democratic National Convention, the same year as the passage of PRWORA, Hillary Clinton invoked the African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child,” to promote the passage of “The Family and Medical Leave Law” that Bill Clinton had been trying to get passed through Congress. The famed proverb was also the title of her book, published in the same year, on the importance of communal responsibility in raising children in the contemporary age. In, It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us, she writes, “Children are not rugged individualists. They depend on the adults they know and on thousands more that make decisions everyday that affect their well-being” (7). Yet it must also be said that adults rely on other adults as well, especially those in power that make decisions everyday that affect their well-being. Essential, then, to the village metaphor is both consciousness and self-sacrifice. It doesn’t simply take a village; it takes a community of individuals who make conscientious sacrifices for the collective good by balancing their own needs and concerns with that of the larger group and community in order to ensure a socially just society that can be experienced by all. In contrast, Bill Clinton’s privileging of independence through personal responsibility subverts the idea and the reality of interdependence and disallows the ability for individuals to recognize and respect their connection to one another and to therefore embrace that connection and sustain communal bonds.

[12] It is at this juncture between discourses of individualism, freedom, choice, and personal versus collective responsibility that I examine Eminem’s performances and popularity as a hip-hop and rap icon. I want to especially focus on Eminem’s widely embraced representation of liberal individualism and the ways in which his hyper-emphasis on masculinist individualism derides women in the service of masculine strivings toward individual freedom that propel the intersecting oppressions of racism, sexism, and classism and further construct the poor, particularly poor women, as “personally responsible” for their marginalized social class and subsequent economic oppression and devaluation. As well, reflected in the “ambivalent space of enunciation” that is Eminem’s brand, is a self-debasement and abjection that is the result of the promulgation of stereotypes which construct the poor as lazy and morally corrupt. Moreover, I argue that Eminem’s artistic production relies on a similar symbolic connection to African Americans’ history of racial and class oppression as discussed with Bill Clinton. Eminem likewise appropriates this connection by using African American expressive forms such as rap and hip-hop in order to promote a laissez-faire attitude of self-interested, self-centered, possessive individualism that operates in opposition to bonds of community, bonds which are, in fact, historically at the very center of African American expressive culture.

“Love Me”: Marshall Matters—8 Mile and Popular Possessive Individualism

[13] In its debut weekend, the film 8 Mile, starring Marshall Mathers, more popularly known as Eminem, earned $54.5 million dollars ranking it at the time as one of the biggest November openings on record and the second biggest opening for an R-rated feature. Although 8 Mile was released in a limited number of theaters, it averaged $22,065 per theater and attracted a wide demographic of viewers, including viewers over 30. Many reviewers of the film lauded Eminem for what they claimed was his surprisingly convincing, thoughtful, and skillfully delivered debut performance. Comparisons to Elvis were also numerous applauding Eminem’s ability to “make black music his own” and claiming that “just as Elvis was eventually accepted by blacks as a promoter of their music, so, too, has Eminem.” Such comparisons have, in addition, linked Eminem’s ability to capture the popular and critical attention of a considerable and diverse number of fans to his successful cross over from the genre of music to film. Eminem became the first artist to have a number one film, single (“Lose Yourself”), and album (the 8 Mile soundtrack) in the same week.

[14] The popular reception of Eminem before and after the success of the film 8 Mile, as well as Eminem’s overall achievement as a pop icon, begs critical examination. As Eminem himself states in his song “White America,” “if i was black i woulda sold half.” Why has Eminem received so much popular attention? What accounts for his popular reception and the ongoing fascination with his renegade brand and with what oneLondon Times critic derisively described as his “white-trash authenticity”? In further investigating these questions, I draw attention to several major themes that recur in Eminem’s artistic production, all of which are related and therefore essential to understanding Eminem as a phenomenon of postmodern liberalism. The first is Eminem’s commodification of poverty and his subsequent transgression of the bounds of middle-class acceptability which, in turn, offer up to his audience an anomalous fetishization of poverty. Related to this is the appeal of the Horatio Alger narrative of self-sufficiency and individual success through perseverance and social uplift. However, Eminem revises the Alger narrative of social uplift to emphasize, rather, the transgression of social acceptability as a means to individual freedom and economic success. As well, Eminem’s artistic production consistently expresses and promotes the idea that he should have the freedom to do and to say what he chooses, without censure, especially given his history as a poor white boy who grew up at the crossroads between the urban ghetto and the suburbs. It is in this way that he is read as “authentic” and thus sells his past economic disenfranchisement as a justification for his self-centeredness. Eminem likewise exploits this perceived authenticity in order to engage in the devaluation of other individuals—in 8 Mile and many of his most popular songs this is particularly focused on women—as an implied “right” to his own possessive individualism. Finally, Eminem achieves acceptance of his popular art by way of his symbolic connection to African American history and his appropriation of African American expressive oral practices, both of which carry potency within the popular imagination and help to legitimize and sustain Eminem’s ideological force, primarily with respect to liberalism.

[15] To further evince the symbolic practices that underlie Eminem’s popular influence in this regard, it is useful to engage a close reading of the semi-autobiographical film starring Eminem, 8 Mile, and to additionally discuss the interconnection between the film and Eminem’s highly publicized life. 8 Mile, directed by Curtis Hanson, depicts the hardships of an amateur rapper, Jimmy Smith, Jr., nicknamed Rabbit, who is confined by a life of poverty and dead-end wage labor. The protagonist is surrounded by a host of friends and foes in his journey to prove his skill as a rapper, even though he is white. The film makes much of the latter aspect of race—the only other white characters in the film besides Rabbit’s mother and sister are his mother’s boyfriend and his inept friend, Cheddar Bob—thus making racial belonging one of the major thematic threads that runs through the film. In addition, the film’s narrative revolves around Rabbit’s persistent attempts to use his verbal talent to escape his social class trappings. Another subplot in the film, nevertheless central to my reading, is the exacerbation of Rabbit’s tribulation by a self-absorbed, irresponsible, and inattentive mother, Stephanie Smith, who is played by Kim Bassinger and based on Eminem’s own mother, Debbie Mathers Briggs.

[16] 8 Mile begins with the protagonist, Rabbit, played by Eminem, staring in a bathroom mirror at a local club conspicuously named “The Shelter.” The camera jump-cuts from his face to his body as Rabbit jogs in place while rehearsing his lyrics as he prepares for a battle (the term used to describe local rap contests). Even though this will be a verbal contest, the audience is drawn to Rabbit’s physical body. The camera jump-cuts again and again from Rabbit’s face to his chest and arms, as he jabs at the mirror, and then to his feet and tennis shoes. Rabbit’s jabs at the mirror represent his incongruous attempt to become physically fit for his impending verbal bout. The physicality highlighted in this opening scene is not only a clear reference, as critics have noted, to the film Rocky, complete with Eminem as the hip hop version of Rocky Balboa who initially loses the fight against his black male antagonist only to become the triumphant victor at the end of the film. The scene’s focus on the physical body in preparation for battle is also the means to foreground the masculine space of enunciation located within the expressive verbal form of rap music, a masculine space where Rabbit is both attempting to gain legitimate membership and also to use as a means of escape from his economic deprivation.

[17] The desire to belong to this masculine space recalls Eminem’s own teenage fascination with and attraction to rap music. In his biography, Eminem: Crossing the Line, Martin Huxley writes, “Attending Lincoln High School in Warren, Michigan, the troubled teen found solace from his bleak everyday existence—and found a much needed source of self-esteem—in rap” (10). Huxley goes on to explain that in the verbal acrobatics of rap, Eminem could express everything and nothing, he could rail against the drug (and other) abuses of his mother, the social and economic inequities to which he found himself a victim, and his inability to “be a man” against it all. In Huxley’s biography, Eminem himself states that, “It was an honor to hear the words out of Dre’s mouth that he liked my shit…Growing up, I was one of the biggest fans of N.W.A., from putting on the sunglasses and looking in the mirror and lip-syncing, to wanting to be Dr. Dre, to be Ice Cube…,” (29, emphasis mine). Huxley furthermore writes that:

The alienated kid tapped into a much-needed source of personal validation and emotional release when he discovered rap music. He [Eminem] now says that his passion for hip-hop was sparked at the age of nine, at the moment he heard the Ice-T track “Reckless” from the soundtrack album of the eighties breakdancing-exploitation flick Breakin‘. He quickly became a devoted convert to the still-emerging new genre, eagerly absorbing the inventively boisterous verbal outbursts of such groundbreaking artists as Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J. “From LL to the Fat Boys, and all that shit, I was fascinated,” he [Eminem] says. “When LL first came out with ‘I’m bad,’ I wanted to do it, to rhyme. Standing in front of the mirror, I wanted to be like LL. (9)

Eminem’s admiration of these performers goes well beyond rap music. It represents a longing to possess an alternative and renegade identity, one that would allow him to escape a depressed and impoverished life that was, in his mind, fully void of meaning and purpose. Rap music therefore became a source of inspiration for Eminem, but most importantly, it became a way to take flight from desperate economic conditions.

[18] The film’s similarities to Eminem’s life are therefore established at the very onset of the film. Eminem’s self-obsession and desire to emulate black masculine performance in rap, explicitly denoted by the reference and relationship to Dr. Dre and N.W.A. (an acronym for “Niggas with Attitude,”) and his “mirror” performance attempts to “be like LL” are epitomized in 8 Mile‘s “mirror” scene. This opening scene is therefore significant in that it can further be read as a complicated Lacanian mirror stage moment of identification where Rabbit attempts to recognize himself as a distinct and separate subject by embodying black male subjectivity. In addition, it is this separateness that foregrounds the film’s problematic treatment of the intersection between racial, gender, and social class identity. When Rabbit looses his first rap battle he literally looses his ability to speak, that is to enunciate his space as a subject. He has also failed to make a connection with the audience who is largely black and, more importantly, to exhibit domination over and against his own racial marginalization within this space. In this way, Rabbit’s racial marginalization is figured in the film as a reverse discrimination which is extended by and equated with his economic subordination. In fact, Rabbit’s first rap battle opponent, Lil’ Tic, calls Rabbit out as a fake, not only because he is an amateur, but because he is white and presumably doesn’t belong in the competition in the first place. In his scathing verse, Lil’ Tic tells the approving audience that Rabbit is “faker than a psychic with Caller ID” and that he “doesn’t belong” in the hip-hop community because he is merely a “tourist.” Rabbit has no response but to exit from the stage, thus not only losing the battle but being humiliated—and symbolically emasculated. He is subsequently teased throughout the film for “choking” under pressure. Again, his masculinity has been seriously compromised and he must spend the rest of the film regaining it—saving face, as it were, by proving he is, indeed, “a man” in spite of it all. Notably, Rabbit never forgets or forgives the initial rejection of the community of the rap battle circuit and he subsequently uses this memory of disconnection to justify his ultimate turning away from any communal bonds at the end of the film.

[19] Consequently, we are meant to focus in on Rabbit’s individuality and to view him as distinct and separate from anyone else in the film. The film is about his journey and struggle, a struggle for acceptance “beyond race,” but what, in actuality, turns out to be his desire to achieve domination through the genre of rap, as signified by the decidedly black masculine space privileged in the film, and to, as well, overcome his misfortunate “trailer-trash”—a term literally and symbolically evoked and illustrated in the film—upbringing and existence. As such, Rabbit is portrayed as a solitary soul who, in fact, is alienated from everything and everyone around him. To intensify this idea, there are key scenes that focus in on Rabbit’s tenacious self-absorption as he concentrates on the many pieces of paper onto which he has and continues to scribble his lyrics. The camera also shows, in these same scenes—most notably as he rides the bus to work and stares out the window at abandoned and dilapidated buildings that symbolize his own abandonment—Rabbit’s recurring far-distant gaze, a gaze that amplifies the notion of his separateness and further distinguishes him from the other characters who are always looking at each other or at Rabbit. Conversely, Rabbit is often seen looking away from the other characters and looking away, in general, from everything that is apart from himself. In this way the film ensures that Rabbit’s disconnection is consistently palpable. The resulting effect for the viewer is that this separation and symbolic distance presents Rabbit as possessing an interiority that becomes crucial to his definitive claim to possessive individualism.

[20] Although Rabbit amiably interacts with his friends, and especially with his mentor and closest friend, in relative terms, David “Future” Porter (Future is ironically named so since Rabbit ultimately rejects a “future” in the rap business with him), his most intense relationship in the film is with the one person that Rabbit does most often look at and, in fact, glares at: his mother, Stephanie. While Rabbit has moments of affection with her, as he more tenderly does with his younger sister, Lily, it is Stephanie who Rabbit most forcefully scrutinizes throughout the film. Rabbit ultimately blames her for their impoverished circumstances and constantly shifts responsibility for their degraded life “style” squarely onto her, much as Eminem has done in public accounts of his relationship with his own mother, Debbie Mathers Briggs.

“I’m Sorry Mama…Cleanin’ Out My Closet”: Blaming Mother

[21] In Eminem’s hit song, “Cleaning Out My Closet,” from the 2002 album, The Eminem Show, he tells the listener to

“put yourself in my position. Just try to envision witnessin’ your Mama poppin’ prescription pills in the kitchen/bitchin’ that someone’s always goin’ through her purse and shits missin’…Going through public housing systems….”

In this self-revelatory and confessional verse, Eminem attempts to explain the perceived “dissin'” of his mother and to likewise justify his repudiation of her. Along with the homophobic reference to his “faggot” father, a term Eminem subscribes to him because of his abandonment of paternal responsibility, the song is replete with derogatory references to his mother as a “bitch.” At the song’s climax, she is described as a “selfish bitch” who he “hope[s] [will] burn in hell for this shit.” The “shit” to which Eminem presumably refers is not only the drug abuse and erratic behavior, but it is, more importantly, his mother’s failure to maintain a traditional family structure—implied in the song is as much culpability for his “faggot” father’s abandonment as the father himself—and to shield Eminem from poverty and its resulting desolation.

[22] Indeed, the disparaging terms employed by Eminem in the song, and in much of his music, evidence this. The term faggot, for instance, is indicative, not of the father’s sexual orientation, but rather for Eminem, the loss of patriarchal tradition and subsequently a “father figure” that would provide the template for him to achieve manhood. Additionally, the term “bitch” conveys Eminem’s sense of despair over his mother’s dominance within the family structure, a dominance he equates with her irresponsible behavior as well as her complaints about the adversity she, as well, suffered. Her attempts to “take what [she] didn’t help…to get,” further construct Debbie Mathers Briggs as a conniving and morally bankrupt person who is solely interested in her own well-being and in gaining wealth at the literal expense of her famous son. Ironically, even as Debbie Mathers Briggs sued Eminem for defamation of character, his representation of her motivations for the lawsuit further disparaged her and recalled the common media stereotyping of the poor as self-serving and determined to exploit any opportunity to get rich without truly earning their “keep.”

[23] A contemporary example of this kind of class-based stereotyping can be seen in the Fox television drama, “The Riches,” which depicts an itinerant family who, as a result of a fatal car accident, steals the identities of a deceased wealthy lawyer and his wife. The series spends its time chronicling the “exploits” of the family in their dogged attempts to maintain their false identities and continue benefiting from their unscrupulously achieved fortune. This is but one of many conspicuous examples of the depiction of the poor as opportunistic and morally corrupt. As revealed in the documentary, Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class, directed by Pepi Leistyna, inherent in television’s depictions of working class people as either clowns or social deviants are stereotypical portrayals that reinforce the myth of meritocracy. Similarly, Eminem insists that Debbie Mathers Briggs has not “help[ed] to get” his riches and therefore does not “deserve” to benefit in any way from his wealth. Thus, the attempt on her part to “take” any of his earnings only serves as further proof of her depravity.

[24] Additionally, in a most extraordinary move, Eminem equates, by way of the structure of the song lyrics, Debbie Mathers Briggs’s “poppin’ prescription pills,” denial, false accusations and claim that Eminem, as a child, was sick with Munchausen’s syndrome (again, for Eminem, this provides undeniable proof of her disrepute), with “going through public housing systems.” Both literally and symbolically, these “public housing systems” to which Eminem refers in the song, denote public assistance, more commonly and derisively (in the popular usage) known as welfare. Eminem draws a powerful parallel here, thus constructing his mother as the main culprit for the poverty that inflicted his childhood and adolescence. In another clever lyrical turn meant to further justify his misogynist rant, Eminem explains that “[he] would never diss [his] own mama just to get recognition” and implores the listener to “take a second to listen who you think this record is dissin'” implying that although his “dissin'” may be explicitly directed to his mother there is more to the picture. Yet “Cleaning Out My Closet” and Eminem’s lyrics in general consistently fail to critique the structures of economy and capitalism that in fact produced the very conditions of poverty and lack that he so often holds up as a shield within his art. Instead, Eminem’s performances commodify the very poverty of which he laments, making it a lucrative selling point for his uncritical tirades. Moreover, his displacement of anger and blame onto his mother, as the “selfish bitch” who did not rise above it all and protect him from the sting of poverty, exemplify the gender and class anxieties that are linked to his claim to possessive individualism, an individuality that not only rejects meaningful connections with other individuals but also derides women and suggests that they are wholly responsible for their oppression.

[25] Likewise, Eminem’s striving to be “better” with and for Dre, emphasize not only the desire for domination over the mic, but also over other marginalized subjects. His lyrics often display violent acts of contempt and loathing not just against women but also gay men, lesbians, and the transgendered community. For example, in the song, “Criminal,” Eminem says “My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge; That’ll stab you in the head whether you’re fag or lez; Or the homosex, hermaph, or a trans-a-vest….” Although Eminem claims that these are “just songs” and not representative of him in reality because, as he continues to insist, “that’s not me,” he has also repeatedly stated, as he did so infamously in his autobiography, Angry Blonde that “I don’t care about gay people. Just don’t bring that shit around me” (4). This statement reflects hatred that is directed toward marginalized communities and further amplifies the ways in which Eminem’s lyrics serve as free license for homophobia and gay bashing. In other words, what one says does matter. As Bakhtin instructed,

“Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated—overpopulated—with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process…” (77).

Therefore, Eminem’s demeaning portrayals and threats of violence cannot simply be cast off as the sole responsibility of the listener to believe that he doesn’t really mean what he says and that it is all a joke, not when it translates into actual violence and is seen within the larger framework of the systematic oppression of anyone perceived as deviating from traditional gender identities.

[26] Additionally, Eminem’s characterization of women as sexual objects to be exploited, objects that are also potentially dangerous and so must be treated with distrust, reinforces popular stereotypes that invite the continuous scrutiny of women’s actions and further suggests the necessity of strict discipline through violence. In several songs, such as the duet with Dr. Dre’ “Guilty Conscious,” Eminem’s alter egos are “forced” to abuse and in the final verses of “Guilty Conscious,” to kill the offending woman who is both object of desire and contempt. In another instance, the song, “Role Model,” has Eminem imploring his mother, “Mother…are you there? I love you; I never meant to hit you over the head with that shovel.” In addition, videos like that for his song, “Superman” (which appears as a bonus feature on the 8 Mile DVD) reveal the complicated shifts between self-aggrandizement and an antipathy for women that represents a deeply felt misogyny.

[27] Depicted in the video “Superman,” is a scantily clad woman with exaggerated features who is out to use her body to mine the fortune of Superman, one of Eminem’s many personae. As they begin to engage in physical intercourse, he realizes her true designs and forcefully throws her out of the room. With this follows lyrics that depict additional acts of violence threatening, “footprints all across you” and “two back hands” as an indication of physical abuse. Eminem repeats the insult, “bitch” throughout the song and claims that his scorned lover, and presumably all women that are seeking his fortune by use of their sexuality, “make [him] sick.” “Superman” further claims, through the symbolic representation of women as a homogeneous group (the video repeatedly jump-cuts to Eminem surrounded by a multitude of indistinguishable and lustful women who are groping at him) that women are unscrupulously self-serving and that “females lie…that’s what they do.” The implication is that his violence is a valid response designed to protect both his male virtue and his fortune. Consequently, these females become the repositories for Eminem’s frustration and malice.

[28] “Superman” explicitly references Eminem’s troubled relationship with ex-wife, Kim Mathers. In another infamous song by Eminem, entitled “Kim,” she becomes the victim of his explicit hatred and physical abuse as he locks her in a car trunk after threatening to “beat the shit out of [her]” if she moves. He is railing against her infidelity and is determined to meter out the punishment that he alleges she rightfully deserves. Eminem has defended his misogynist and homophobic rants by claiming, in Angry Blonde, that his lyrics represent his “true feelings…and [he] just needed an outlet to dumpthem in. [He] needed some type of persona… an excuse to let go of all this rage, this dark humor, the pain and the happiness…” (3, my emphasis). However, the function of Eminem’s “rap” is not simply to display anger. Rather it is a popular performance that further justifies violence and enables audiences to displace their own anger in a similar complex mix of self-centeredness and abjection that reinforces narratives of normative identity formation, especially around gender identity, and further exemplified in the portrayal of deviant and undisciplined women.

[29] The film’s depiction of Rabbit’s mother, Stephanie, is a case in point and, again, presents noteworthy similarities to Eminem’s public and lyrical depiction of Debbie Mathers Briggs. We are introduced to Stephanie after Rabbit has broken up with his pregnant girlfriend, Janeane, another semi-autobiographical reference, in this instance to Eminem’s ex-wife, Kim. Rabbit needs a “place to crash” and so heads reluctantly, with his belongings stuffed in a trash bag, to his Mom’s trailer home. Again, the film works symbolically to call attention to the idea that he is, indeed, “trailer trash” so that the viewer already has a construct of what Rabbit will be “going home” to. True to stereotyped expectations, when Rabbit arrives at his mother’s trailer, he encounters her having sex with one of his former high school classmates, Greg Buehl. Stephanie’s naked back and blonde hair is the audience’s first introduction to her and it is all that we initially see—her face is turned away from the camera and the scene positions her, as in the “Superman” video, as an object of desire. Once discovered by Rabbit, Stephanie proceeds to scold him for intruding without knocking. While she expresses tenderness toward him and genuine concern for his well-being and current unfortunate circumstances—that is, his homelessness and departure from Janeane —she nevertheless, after Rabbit and Greg get into a physical tussle, is insistent that Rabbit does not “mess this up [for her].” Stephanie is referring to the romantic relationship with her new boyfriend, but she is also referring to, as we later find out, the settlement money that Greg is due to receive from a car accident. Rabbit takes great offense to his mother’s future plans and, throughout the film, suggests that her actions translate to neglect of her maternal duties. At one point, after Stephanie has received an eviction notice and insists that she “can’t let Greg find out,” Rabbit screams at her, “Mom, you gotta stop living your life like this! If you really cared about Lily you would get a job and quit fucking around.” It is in this way, from the beginning of the film, that Stephanie is portrayed, as one who is opportunistic, self-centered, and, most importantly, neglectful—her boyfriend and bingo games are clearly more important than her children.

[30] In From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism,” Patricia Hill Collins writes that:

In the politicized climate of late-twentieth-century America, the issue of which women are “real” mothers best suited for the tasks of reproducing both the American population and the alleged values of the U.S. nation-state takes on added importance…Within [the] intersecting meanings of “real,” binary thinking constructs certain groups of women of the right social class, race, and citizenship status as “real” mothers who are worthy and fit for the job. (55)

Given that Rabbit’s mother, Stephanie, is a single-woman, trailer occupant, and sexually promiscuous—at one point, she reveals details of her sex life with Greg to an embarrassed and disdainful Rabbit—she is indeed not fit for “real” motherhood. The film’s symbolism also works to substantiate this in the viewer’s mind as, in the scene where Rabbit first returns home, he opens the refrigerator to find that there is “no milk.” The absence of milk serves as further confirmation of Stephanie’s lack of maternal worthiness. Hence, the film portrays her much like “The Riches,” as a single-minded opportunist intent only on “striking it rich.” As such, she refuses to acknowledge her maternal responsibilities, or so the film has it. Rather her material success, her own escape from poverty by any means, is her sole motivation and focus.

[31] Yet and still, an analysis of the least noted symbolism in the film reveals a more complicated reading of Stephanie’s character. In one principal scene, Stephanie is painting her toenails and watching television. Although she spends much of the film in distress and despair, she also spends a great deal of time idle. Her economic disenfranchisement and unrealized hopes and dreams—her trailer—stands against the Horatio Alger American dream of prosperity gained by individual agency. So, she waits. A classic movie is playing. She looks up to pay attention to a scene from the 1959 version of the film,Imitation of Life, where the African American mother, Annie Johnson, is inquiring about the whereabouts of her daughter, Sarah Jane, who has been passing for white. The mother’s inquiries are met with a lack of recognition of the daughter’s name or presence because, in fact, she has changed her name and her identity. The mother is in disbelief, sure that her daughter should be, or has been, in this place. Stephanie’s gaze on this film mirrors our gaze on her, a mother who has lost her child—a child who has chosen to cross a border—a dangerous racial border, yet one which will yield some agency and power. The most powerful significance of this intertextual moment is that Annie Johnson is not only African American; she is a maid, a house servant. Her daughter doesn’t simply reject racial identification with her mother. She is rejecting her mother’s social status which is, of course, linked in important ways to her race. The film makes it very clear that blackness is equated with service and the inability to rise above or transgress social stagnation. The daughter witnesses the status of the family that her mother “serves” and longs for escape into the same higher and more valued status. Without this ascension, the daughter, Sarah Jane, believes that her life will be void of meaning and substance. The American dream cannot be realized if she does not break the racial and class ties that bind her to the marginalization represented by her mother’s darker skin and domestic occupation.

[32] Likewise, Stephanie is portrayed as a failure because she has not realized the American dream and further she has not lived up to her inheritance of whiteness. If whiteness equals a superior cultural and social position, especially for white females, and a purity that extends to privilege within the social hierarchy, then Stephanie has failed miserably on all fronts. As Collins points out, “…when it comes to passing on national culture, raising academically and economically productive citizens, and being symbols of the nation, working-class White women remain less ‘fit’ for motherhood” (From Black Power to Hip Hop, 65). Stephanie’s “fitness” for idealized white motherhood is disallowed by her subjugated social class status. Additionally, by way of the film reference to Imitation of Life, Stephanie’s failure to perform “idealized motherhood” is also equated with a racial subjugation. As Collins also argues, “Race intersects with class to such a degree in the United States that race often stands as proxy for class” (From Black Power to Hip Hop, 181). Rabbit, in fact, embraces and adopts this proxy as a strategy for a reverse “passing.” However, he does not “pass” as black. Rather, he passes as “authentic” and as the rugged individualist who succeeds despite his class oppression and despite his mother’s failure to perform her traditional white maternal role.

[33] In his final rap battle, Rabbit exclaims, “I am white. I am a fuckin’ bum. I do live in the trailer with my mom.” By virtue of this confession, he ingratiates himself to the “313” audience (“313” represents the area code for the Detroit urban ghetto) by encoding a rejection of middle-class acceptability. This rejection allows him to subvert the expectations for a traditional Alger-esque rise from poverty. In the same way, the verses proceeding Rabbit’s admission of his class background expose Papa Doc, his nemesis, as someone who is, in fact, not authentic—and not a real “gangsta”— because he went to a “private school” and his real name is Clarence. Clarence, more importantly, lacks authenticity within the “313,” as Rabbit further reveals, because he “lives at home with his parents and Clarence’s parents have a real good marriage.” This revelation, along with Rabbit’s possessive claim to “white- trash authenticity,” provides the final blow that renders Papa Doc silent. The conspicuous allusion to François Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc,” the notoriously oppressive President of Haiti from 1957 until his death in 1971, is transparent. The oppressive leader of “the free world,” as Papa Doc’s “crew” has been known throughout the film, has been dethroned. Rabbit is now free from the fear that Papa Doc will expose his “white trailer” social class status; he has trumped Papa Doc by embracing his “white trailer” identity. Rabbit has also, and more crucially, achieved the approval and acceptance of the rap and “313” community.

[34] Rabbit has thus “passed” as authentic by appropriating African American expressive culture, inclusive of but not limited to the vernacular, thereby entering into a cultural discourse that allows him to turn his marginalized identity from a social taboo to a source of power and agency. As a result, at the end of the film, Rabbit’s social class is transgressed, not through transformation of the systems or structures that have created and enabled his class oppression, but by turning away from the location of class—from everyone and everything that is representative of his class struggle. The final verse of his championship rap exclaims, “fuck a trailer…fuck everybody…I’m a piece of white trash and I say it proudly…fuck this battle…I don’t wanna win.” After gaining the approval of the community that once rejected him, the final scene shows him walking away from “The Shelter,” and his friends, including Future. While he tells his friends that he is “going back to work” (he literally has to finish a shift that is being temporarily covered by a co-worker), the camera fixes on Rabbit’s solitary walk down the alley as the instrumental introduction to the film’s theme song, “Lose Yourself,” plays and he ostensibly walks away from all that has tied him to the margins, including his mother and the trailer. He can now fully embrace his claim to possessive individualism. The disconnection and disunity is now complete as Rabbit walks away from “Future” and away from the community that has, at least partially, formed him. He has achieved redemption and no longer needs the black bodies that have served in his awakening. Now, only Marshall matters.

“Lose Yourself”: Individualism versus Collective Responsibility

[35] 8 Mile‘s final message decidedly rests on the dominant narrative of self-sufficiency and independence, corroborated when Rabbit tells Future, “I think I just kinda need to do my own thing man, you know?” and Future replies with approval “Yeah, I think I do.” This is supported, as well, in an earlier scene in the film when Rabbit’s mother asks him about recording his record demo with Wink, an aspiring rap promoter, and he replies that he’s going to “do it on [his] own” to which Stephanie smiles and says, “I think that’s the best way.” It is in this vein that 8 Mile engages in a dangerous disregard for the political possibilities that are historically at the center of both hip-hop and African American expressive culture. The film’s many references to this tradition are therefore misappropriated and serve only to reinforce the myth of meritocracy. Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do the Right Thing, is one among several significant African American expressive symbols referenced in 8 Mile. About mid-way through the film, Eminem and his friends decide to burn down an abandoned house where a little girl was raped by a crack addict. His friend, and politicized archetype, named Frederick Douglass, implores the group of friends to act. Cheddar Bob convinces Rabbit that he should care about the rape because “what if that girl was his little sister.” While this prompts Rabbit to agree to participate in burning down the abandoned building, the film’s characters mostly make fun of Frederick Douglass’s political rhetoric around racial and class disparity as one character, in another scene, tells Douglass to “shut your preachin’ ass up.” The film, as a result, lacks the political consciousness that underlies Lee’s Do The Right Thing as well as the legacy of Frederick Douglass, both of which insist that we critically examine not only our individual roles and choices (and lack of choice) but that we extend our analysis to the broader society.

[36] Frederick Douglass, in his abolitionist speech of 1852, “What to the Slave is The Fourth of July,” does not ask what to me is the fourth of July. Instead, he insists that all Northerners and Southerners, indeed all Americans, must take account of the systemic suffering perpetuated by slavery:

Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.

It is this absence of critical awareness in the film 8 Mile that presents a disturbing portrait of African American oral traditions, of hip hop and rap music, as well as of African American expressive culture in general, not to mention the film’s problematic portrayal of poverty, urban life, and purported white “trailer” identity.

[37] Eminem, in discussing the film’s theme song, “Lose Yourself,” says that the title refers to the passion for hip hop music and culture and the ability to focus all your energy into the music and to tune everything else out—heckling audiences, the trailer, a far less than “ideal” mother, and your own marginalization. You close your eyes and you “lose yourself” to the lyrics. Unfortunately, this inwardness seems to lead to disconnection rather than connection. Yet, African American poetics is founded on precisely the connection between who “I” am and how “I” fit within the larger society and the inextricable quest to transform that society—who “we” are and how “we” will survive and subsequently transgress and transform the systems of oppression that bind us all.

[38] Alice Walker’s concept of “Womanism” is useful in understanding the importance of self-creation and self-possessiveness where progressive practices that maintain what bell hooks has called “precious ties to community” are equally taken into account. In the essay, “Saving the Life That Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life,” Walker writes, “In [my mother’s story] I gathered up the historical and psychological threads of the life my ancestors lived…I had that wonderful feeling writers get sometimes, not very often, of being with a great many people, ancient spirits, all very happy to see me consulting and acknowledging them, and eager to let me know, through the joy of their presence, that indeed, I am not alone” (32). This is as important a value as self-awareness and self-creation—that is, selfhood. And it is also contrary to the persistent popularity of liberal individualism, as practiced by Eminem and expressed in the recent debates over the April 2007 former popular radio host, Imus’s, racist and sexist comments directed toward the Rutger’s women’s basketball team. Both public icons’ vexed representations of identity demonstrate the difficulty with possessive individualism and claims to independence and freedom above and against unity and collectivity. Ultimately, then, Eminem’s popularity can be understood as the popular embracing of implied racial stereotypes and more discernible gender stereotypes, especially dominant constructs of womanhood and manhood, that correspond to the assumed privilege afforded him by liberal individualism.

[39] Finally, Bill Clinton, by way of his neo-liberal welfare reform policies and Eminem, by way of his identification with black masculinist forms of abjection and misogyny, miss the real point of black political and expressive practices and history. It is, in the end, to transform society, not simply to comment upon it. And it is this transformation that has everything to do with collective freedom and not merely individual progress. We can no longer allow the hyper-emphasis on individual freedom through materialism and the obsessive focus on individualism’s “declaration of independence” to continue to hijack the longer and more inclusive vision of civil rights and other progressive political and social movements such as hip-hop.


I would like to thank Chingling Wo, Theresa Alfaro-Velcamp, Leilani Nishime, and Robert Train for their comments and contributions to this essay. I dedicate this essay to the Sonoma State University English Student Association.

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