Eminem and Rihanna's song and video raise questions about domestic violence

Heated debate: One critic says that Eminem and Rihanna's duet glorifies abusive relationships.
Heated debate: One critic says that Eminem and Rihanna's duet glorifies abusive relationships. (Interscope Records Via Pr Newswire)
By Jocelyn Noveck
Tuesday, August 10, 2010

NEW YORK -- It is hard to forget the haunting photo that leaked out early last year: Pop star Rihanna, her elegant face bruised and battered after a violent assault by her then-boyfriend, R&B singer Chris Brown.

Now, she's appearing in something else shocking, though fictional: Rapper Eminem's chart-topping "Love the Way You Lie," a song and video that graphically detail a physically abusive relationship.

The debate has begun: Is the song a treatise against (or apology for) domestic violence or an irresponsible glorification of it? Or, is it something uncomfortable in between? And how to explain the role of Rihanna, who has said that she aims to help young people learn the lessons of her ordeal?

One thing is not in question: The song is a hit, sitting atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart. And well before the edgy video debuted Thursday, the lyrics were enough to get attention.

"Just gonna stand there and watch me burn," Rihanna sings repeatedly, to a catchy tune. "But that's all right, because I like the way it hurts."

Eminem makes it clear what the fire imagery's about. "If she ever tries to [expletive] leave me again," he raps late in the song, "I'ma tie her to the bed and set this house on fire."

In between, there's talk of love being wonderful, until it isn't. Suddenly there's pushing, pulling, clawing, biting: "Throw 'em down, pin 'em. So lost in the moments when you're in 'em."

The girl, depicted in the video by actress Megan Fox, tries to leave. The guy, played by actor Dominic Monaghan, promises it won't happen again. But then he admits he's lying: "I apologize, even though I know it's lies."

Rihanna wasn't available for comment on the song, her publicist said. But the 22-year-old singer, who last year won a Glamour Woman of the Year award, partly for her stand on domestic violence, has been quoted saying the song "was something that needed to be done and the way [Eminem] did it was so clever. He pretty much just broke down the cycle of domestic violence."

Eminem, known for his turbulent relationship with ex-wife Kim Mathers -- in his song, "Kim," he fantasized about murdering her -- has said that he enlisted Rihanna because she was the perfect person to pull the song off.

But can it be a teaching tool? That depends on the context in which young people see and hear it, says Marjorie Gilberg, executive director of Break the Cycle, which works to end teen violence. "The danger is that pop culture defines our social norms," Gilberg says. "We don't want the message of this song to be that this kind of relationship is acceptable. So this song has to be viewed in the context of real information from adults, like parents and teachers."

In the song, Eminem sings: "But your temper's just as bad as mine is/You're the same as me." And the video shows the couple hitting each other.

"That's a classic line of an abusive man," says Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. "You're as bad as me, so it's okay. The fact is, it's only 2-year-olds and violent men who use violence to get what they want." O'Neill thinks Rihanna is trying to make a contribution to fighting domestic violence -- it's just that in this song, she's unwittingly glorifying it.

"She's narrating the story, and she's not judging it," O'Neill says. "And so she may not intend to be glorifying it, but she is."

-- Associated Press

© 2010 The Washington Post Company