Return to Syllabus   Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378

Watts, E. K. (2005). Border patrolling and "passing" in Eminem's 8 Mile. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 22(3), 186-206.

Note: These comments are not designed to "summarize" the reading. Rather, they are available to highlight key ideas that will emerge in our classroom discussion. As always, it's best to read the original text to gain full value from the course.

Watts examines various personae created by Marshall Mathers (aka Eminem, aka “Rabbit” in 8 Mile), and the singer’s efforts to establish his identity as a hip-hop performer. To be sure, these efforts were bound to face resistance: “As a white artist, Mathers has had to contend with the racial bias associated with performing in a traditionally urban African American musical genre” (p. 188). To this struggle, Eminem offers his semi-biographical film, 8 Mile in which he appears “as both racially distinctive and as possessing universal commercial appeal” (p. 189). Watts develops this thesis, first, by exploring the study of whiteness in America.

To Watts, whiteness studies provides a means to interrogate a subject position that has previously escaped criticism. The word “position” is critical, indicating the use of geography as a metaphor within these studies. From this perspective, whiteness becomes powerful, not because of its position but because of its lack of position. Thus, whiteness is centered but invisible: “Signifying a spatial relation to ‘others’ who are positioned as satellites of a white world. These definitions mark the boundaries of racial geography” (p. 190). Watts then turns to the role of myth in the construction of whiteness, suggesting that the white “spirit” must overcome its “dark elements” in order to “transcend the limitations of the flesh” (p. 191). This mythic struggle emerges from the perception of a continual threat to white “purity.”: “And so, master narratives that pursue mythic whiteness often pit white men against feminized dark forces from within and without the white body as tests of immanent manhood” (p. 191). Following this review, Watts argues that some mythic narratives mark a transition from a subject who is “‘discursively black’ and potentially white” (p. 192) - setting up his analysis of 8 Mile.

This analysis identifies key images and scenes of dialogue to illustrate what Watts describes as Rabbit’s transformation from fragmented submersion into blackness to his final, triumphant assertion of whiteness. Initially, Watts illustrates Rabbit’s status as a “white negro” by noting to character’s feminized position when he “chokes” at a battle: “The film has now dramatized the injury to white masculinity as a form of sexual dysfunction” (p. 193). Both he and his microphone hang limp at the end of the scene, suffering from performance anxiety (p. 194). Worse yet are Rabbit’s encounters with women.

Watts describes how Rabbit is further confronted with “dark white women” who also must be overcome. Initially. Rabbit’s mother depicts the fallen women who causes or exacerbates the hero’s impotence. Later, Rabbit’s “dark lover” must also be confronted. Not too surprisingly, “[s]urrounded by beautiful black women, this discursively dark white man only has eyes for a discursively dark white women” (p. 196). But, eventually, she is revealed as merely an instigator to “mythic white masculinity” by her flaws, not her virtues (p. 197). At this point, Watts turns more directly to the problem of Rabbit “passing” as a black man.

This analysis focuses here on Rabbit’s camaraderie with a (largely) black cast of friends, comparing that crew (the 313rd) with a more clearly archetypal sign of “dangerous” blackness, the Free World. This group represents how “Black power has run amok; it is abusive, hegemonic, and oppressive” (p. 199). Of course, such a threat must be faced - in the battle that marks the film’s crescendo. In this battle, Rabbit faces marginalization as a white guy who inappropriately crosses the “mile” to occupy black space. In response, Rabbit enacts the mythic notion that (even) a rapper should be judged by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin. Moreover, he affirms his value as “white trash” in a manner that stabilizes his identity, even as “The Free World is vanquished as white-like” for having a leader from the suburbs (p. 202). Ultimately, Rabbit departs the scene. After all, “at the film’s end . . . the color line must be maintained in order for his passing to be heroic” (p. 202). Watts concludes with a comment about how 8 Mile, despite its supposed affection for black culture seems to imply that some things - like economic disadvantage for African Americans - should never change.

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