Condemning a romanticized narrative of abuse – particularly in pop culture and songs – is crucial to eliminate violence against women
When I was 12, one of my favourite songs was Love the Way You Lie by Eminem and Rihanna: I used to be able to rap the entire lyrics by heart, to the extent that I significantly improved my English that way. Rihanna’s soft vocals and the catchy beat of the chorus made the song reach number one ranking in several charts and go platinum in many countries, becoming Eminem’s best-selling single ever. Only listening to Love the Way You Lie years later, I realize how problematic it is for a song about domestic violence to become so viral even while saying “if she ever tries to fucking leave again/ I’mma tie her to the bed and set this house on fire” and “just gonna stand there and watch me burn? Well, that’s alright, because I like the way it hurts”.
Eminem’s lyrics reflect how our society still harbours dangerous views regarding romance and excuses toxic behaviours under the guise of love. On the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which falls on the 25th of November, and amidst the dramatic increase in cases of domestic violence which occurred worldwide since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, we need to reconsider how we talk about domestic abuse in our society, and we must reflect on the potentially harmful effects of such a narrative. In particular, pop culture and music bear a significant role in shaping the way people, especially the youth, perceive particular topics; therefore, songs romanticizing and condoning intimate partner violence may be far more detrimental than we realize.
Love the Way You Lie is not the only song that portrays domestic violence in a problematic way. Several other artists have been accused of romanticizing as well as commercializing domestic violence, making money on songs with potentially dangerous messages. Countless examples can be found: even what is perhaps the most famous band in the world, the Beatles, in their song Run for Your Life, sing “I’d rather see you dead, little girl / Than to be with another man” and “Catch you with another man / That’s the end, little girl”, portraying jealousy and possessiveness as romantic behaviours. Much closer to present days, another example of an artist romanticizing domestic violence is the singer Lana del Rey, extremely famous among young people; “I can hear sirens, sirens / He hit me and it felt like a kiss” say the lyrics of her song Ultraviolence.
These songs, by depicting toxic relationships through rose-coloured glasses and portraying intimate violence as something emerging out of love, convey the message that abusive relationships are acceptable if not that violence can be a manifestation of true love. This sugarcoating of domestic violence can have the effect of justifying unjustifiable acts, with potentially dangerous real-life consequences, such as instigating violent behaviours in men. Recent research carried out by Elon University has in fact indicated that college students who listen to hip-hop and rap music with misogynistic lyrics – such as derogatory and objectifying depictions of women, and references to violence or rape – tend to display more misogynistic thinking and to condone intimate partner violence. In a world in which, according to the World Health Organisation, almost 1 out of 3 women who have been in a relationship reports having been subjected to some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner, such narratives should not be accepted, neither in music nor in other forms of art. Another potential harmful consequence of romanticizing violence is that abused women might find comfort and solace in such a narrative as well as a means of excusing their abusers, which might be a factor contributing to the large number of women remaining in abusive relationships and to the fact that the huge majority of cases of domestic violence still remains unreported.
Despite the points that have been discussed, one could argue that singing about controversial topics can be a way to raise awareness about such issues, and carry out a social and political critique. In particular, defenders of hip-hop and of rap claim that the violent nature of these styles emerges from the violent settings from which this music originates, as a way to express the anger and the frustration of marginalised communities as well as to raise awareness about the context of poverty and violence that such communities endure. By channelling this dissatisfaction into their songs, hip-hop and rap artists use music as a means of expression and vent: however, there can be ways to raise awareness about an issue without necessarily glorifying and romanticizing violence. An example of this is Tupac’s song Keep Ya Head Up, in which the singer addresses domestic violence without romanticizing it. With his lyrics: “forgive but don’t forget, girl keep your head up / And when he tells you you ain’t nuttin’ don’t believe him / And if he can’t learn to love you, you should leave him”, Tupac manages to portray the harsh reality and the violent context from which he came without risking to incite harmful behaviours. In this way, not only does he manage to raise awareness about domestic violence and rape, but he also manages to convey an empowering message to women victims of violence.
To fully eliminate violence against women, a cultural change in the way intimate abuse is perceived and portrayed is necessary, and pop culture and music have a primary role in this. As important as it is for art to serve as a means of expression without censorship and limitations, artists should be mindful of music’s potential to significantly influence listeners’ attitudes towards specific topics. Romanticizing domestic violence can have dramatic real-world outcomes: therefore, artists have an ethical and moral responsibility towards society to remain aware of the possible harmful consequences of their work. And we ourselves, as listeners and consumers, have a responsibility to reflect on the messages conveyed by the songs we listen to and to condemn artists that spread harmful content.