In today’s class, we watched the music video for “Love the Way You Lie” by Eminem, featuring Rihanna. Megan Fox, an actress/model who frequently appears in men’s magazines, plays the recognizably stereotypical battered woman in this four minute melodrama. Her unkempt hair falls into her face and whips around and she spits and hits. She is dressed in short cut-off jeans, a faded grey tank-top, and old military boots. Her partner has only a pair of baggy gym shorts on and bares a shaved head and tattoos. The cluttered home with an old beige couch and dimly lit hallways, the bar fight, and making out on lawn chairs behind an avenue of billboards drinking Stoly’s vodka straight from the bottle—it all scream small-town white-trash.
She hits him after finding a phone number written on his hand. Physically unfazed but angry and provoked, he hits back and the cycle of violence begins. After the fight, sorry and shameful, he returns with a sad ragged teddy bear as a condolence. He promises to never hit her again—a promise they both know is a lie. Sure enough, the young couple “fall back into the same patter, the same routine,” until the song trails off with an image of their house burning to the ground. Megan Fox, apparently still inside, tied to the bed, sings longingly for her violent partner, “just gonna stand there and watch me burn, that’s alright because I like the way it hurts, just gonna stand there and hear me cry, that’s alright because I love the way you lie.” The class exhales, sits back, and heavy discussion ensues…
The use of art to explore issues like domestic violence is relatively new in today’s society. Indeed, art can bring awareness and call attention to difficult matters, like violence against women, in a palpable and constructive way. Art has also been used as a healing/coping tool for domestic violence victims who need to transform these atrocious experiences before confronting them. For instance, “The Heart of Women” project provides a creative outlet for domestic violence victims who share their stories, not with words, but with oils and canvases. One women expresses: “I didn’t just throw paint up there, I threw my tears my sweat, my pain,” she said. “It brings out so much. The beatings I took, the rapes I had to endure, the lies, the betrayal… the pain.”
While art can be healing for the artists, and enlightening for consumers, students in our Feminist Legal Theory class were skeptical of the educational capacity of Eminem’s video. Some students argued that teenagers and young adults, who are the target audience for MTV, are less able to discern what we perceived as the underlying message of the video—that the cycle of violence is a dangerous trap, seemingly romantic, but ultimately deadly. As one classmate pointed out, it is far too easy to get caught up in the beautiful faces, the sexy images, and the melody, and miss the more subtle messages about class, gender, sexism, and violence. Given what we have learned about the powerful influence of media on body image, gender roles, masculinity, and femininity, it is worthwhile to take a moment to examine the ways in which popular media guides identity formation in young adults.
Research has found that many teens draw heavily from media images as they navigate the road to self-discovery and identification. For instance, one 18 year-old explains, “Yeah, I feel like even though I disagree with a lot of things that are on TV, it still does affect me. It's kind of like what you see on TV, you kind of assume is normal, you know? You see this sit-com of like the normal family, and they are doing things, they are kind of saying that this type of like behavior is normal. . . It's kind of like when you are little and you see your parents, they are kind of like this model of like what you are supposed to do. So, you like copy that, whether consciously or not. So it's kind of like that.”
But teenagers are not automatons who receive input and generate output devoid of volition. Jeanne Rogge Steele, professor of Journalism at Ohio University, suggests that the influence of media on teenage sexuality involves a more complicated process of selection, evaluation, application, and incorporation/resistance. Not surprisingly, middle and high-school students are searching out images and story-lines that resonate with their lives. Ethnicity, gender, and class all affect how teens select and interact with a range of media options and alternatives. Relevantly, the participants in Steele’s study viewed a music video and participated in an open discussion. The findings from the discussion were two-fold: first, there was a tendency in groups to adjust perceptions to move towards a uniform understanding of the video, and second, it was apparent that some teens misunderstood the producer-intended meaning of the video. Thus, the take-away for us is that art may not be the most effective way to inform teenagers about domestic violence. It is too easy to miss the punch-line. Perhaps more effective would be to use explicit, clear statements from role-models who have gained credibility with young people.