Rap superstar Marshal Mathers, known best by his stage name “Eminem,” has always pushed the envelope, lyrically and aesthetically. His songs – typically laden with the same types of language that we have become accustomed to hearing in today’s top rap and R&B hits – have gained tremendous popularity, appealing to the same themes of greed, misogyny, and (yes) homophobia that characterize much of urban music and culture.
His recent release of the single, Rap God, has been met with much deserved criticism from the public, especially from LGBT equality advocates who object to not only his language and use of the words “faggot” and “gay” in very derogatory ways, but also the song’s depictions of violence against those Eminem labels “faggots.”
My initial impulse with this post was to examine the offending lyrics in detail, but on reconsideration, I would prefer not to give any more attention to them than they’ve already received. In fact, the lyrics by themselves – while disturbing and offensive – are not nearly as dangerous as the implications of Mr. Mathers’ defense of his song.
In an interview with Rolling Stone published this week, Mathers makes several assertions about his choice to use anti-gay slurs in his new releases, including “Rap God.” I would like to interrogate the apologetics of Mathers’ defense of “faggot” and “gay-looking” in the song individually.
“I never really equated those words [to actually mean homosexual].”
Meaning is not something that an individual can arbitrarily change, and the commonly accepted meaning of words like “faggot” and “gay” is attributable to homosexuals – specifically, homosexual men. While this is an important point, it’s not the most important point when it comes to Mathers’ defense of his use of homophobic slurs in “Rap God.” More concerning is his assertion that, by using the word “faggot,”
“It was more like calling someone a bitch or a punk or asshole.”
Certainly, this is the common attribution made on elementary playgrounds and in high school locker rooms. This is the dangerous part of the word “faggot” in the American lexicon; it divorces the meaning of the word from homosexuals in some ways, but draws on the negative associations and stereotypes that we hold about homosexuals and reinscribes them on individuals who do not identify as LGBT in any way.
As Dr. Ken Corbett observes,
“Whether momentary or lasting, whether diffuse or specifically linked with homosexuality, faggot = loser. Faggot expels the anxiety of loss; the loss is projected into another and thereby kept from consciousness. Faggot operates as a projectile. Faggot is something to be caught, absorbed, or deflected.”
Dr. Corbett cites a New York Times interview with classmates of the Columbine shooters in which the students confirm that slurs like “faggot” were commonly used agains the two gunmen. These are words with great power, and that power is not emancipatory, but rather repressive in the gravest of ways.
When Mathers’ states that his lyrical choices should not be seen as directed – negatively or otherwise – at the LGBT community, he is fooling himself. They have consequences for LGBT individuals, for kids who listen to his lyrics, and for urban culture more broadly.
When words like gay, faggot, homo and others are used negatively, even when there is an agreement that the meaning is disjointed from sexual orientation, those negative associations have been shown to negatively affect perceptions of gay people.
Nicholas & Skinner’s 2012 article, “‘That’s So Gay!’ Priming the General Negative Usage of the Word Gay Increases Implicit Anti-Gay Bias” illustrates this point clearly. Researchers separated a group of undergraduates and showed them a vignette of a character complaining about her cell phone malfunctioning. Half of the group saw a vignette using the word “gay” as a descriptor for the malfunction, while the other half had the word replaced by “lame” or “stupid.”
After having been presented the vignette, the students were asked to take the “Implicit Association Test” (or IAT) – a tool developed by social scientists at Harvard that measures unconscious social attitudes based on word and symbol association.
Results of the IAT in this experiment clearly demonstrated the central claim of Nicholas & Skinner’s study, that “exposure to the general negative usage of ‘gay’ activates an implicit association between gay people and negative evaluations.”
Regardless of what Mathers’ intends in using homophobic slurs that he chooses to incorporate into his songs, he does harm to the LGBT community. He adds fuel to the fire when it comes to the prevailing attitudes toward homosexuals in the hip hop and urban culture. His “personal views” are those that he unfurls on stage, not ones that he whispers quietly after being confronted by the public and the news media. As Mathers stated to Rolling Stone,
“The real me sitting here right now talking to you has no issues with gay, straight, transgender, at all.”
For the vast majority of the media-consuming public, your onstage persona is who you are as an artist, and musician, and an individual.
“I’ve been doing this shit for, what, 14 years now? And I think people know my personal stance on things and the personas that I create in my music. And if someone doesn’t understand that by now, I don’t think there’s anything I can do to change their mind about it.”
We’re not the ones who need to have our minds changed, sir. You are.
Corbett, K. (2008). Faggot = loser. Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 2, 3-28.
Nicolas, G. & Skinner, A. L. (2012). That’s so gay! Priming the general negative usage of the word gay increases implicit anti-gay bias. The Journal of Social Psychology, 152, 654-658.
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