What Nicki Minaj Is (Or Isn’t) Doing For Feminism
Nicki Minaj is one of the most prominent pop-cultural figures in the world at the moment. She is the most successful female hip-hop artist of all time. Claiming her place in a niche carved out by Foxy Brown and Lil Kim, and subsequently occupied by artists like Eve, Mary J. Blige and M.I.A. Minaj has gone on to a level of commercial success that has outstripped many of her male rivals and thrust her onto the roster of mainstream heavyweights, an achievement previously inconceivable for a black, female rapper. Her lyrics focus on familiar tropes found within rap music: wealth, status, dissing, drugs, violence and sex. She also conforms to the vernacular and semantic field favoured by most male rap artists, with few of her songs failing to contain a f*ck, a n*gga, a hoe, a b*tch or a p*ssy.
Also, surprisingly enough, she claims to be a feminist and anti-sexist.
As more and more female artists come out in support of feminism, or claim membership of the movement, I was interested to see if an artist like Minaj, whose public image seems to be the antithesis of feminist values, and who has penned lyrics such as:
‘This dude named Michael used to ride motorcycles
Dick bigger than a tower, I ain’t talking about Eiffel’s
Real country ass nigga, let me play with his rifle
Pussy put his ass to sleep, now he calling me NyQuil’…
…‘I got girlies half naked that shit look like the grotto
How your waist anorexic and then your ass is colossal
Drop that ass make it boomerang
Take my belt off, bitch I’m Pootie Tang
Tippy tow tippy tay you gon’ get a tip today
Fuck that you gonna get some dick today’
Could actually lay viable claim to supporting feminism or women’s rights.
There is a body of people that would argue that Minaj’s obvious pride in her body, and her self-directed exploitation of her physique for dizzying commercial success are forms of empowerment. Minaj’s ass and ‘titties’ – such prominent and recurrent visual and lyrical features of her videos and music – are used in order to exert domination over men and manipulate them for her own ends, whether this be money, hierarchical power or sexual gratification.
In this sense she is inverting the genre pyramid; she is the one who objectifies men – frequently portraying them as little more than a means for inducing climax in her, and dismissing them if they are not excessively wealthy or endowed with supersized sexual organs. She seems acutely aware of the impact that her ample posterior and chest will have on men when she gyrates them, covers them in cream or shoves them in the general direction of a man’s crotch, and she uses this knowledge to disempower men by remaining aloof to their desires – unless it is on her terms. However, there is a sinister truth impeding any attempt to label Minaj’s projection of her sexuality and positive self-image as part of second wave feminism.
The first of these issues is the fact that success such as Minaj’s becomes merely an affirmation that one of the most prominent avenues of power open to women is one in which their bodies are used as the vehicles for their achievement. In essence this makes her little different to a Victoria’s Secret model, Playboy bunny, page 3 girl, or even, to a certain extent, an actress – whose roles, wealth, prominence and power are all defined by their adherence to social norms of physical beauty. Whilst I commend Minaj for celebrating a figure that falls well outside the cookie cutter shape of the mainstream, giving a (in some respects) positive role model to all of the BBW out there, she is nonetheless both indicative of a problem endemic of the aforementioned professions, and also victim to an immutable fact that curbs any hope of long-term success.
Firstly, Minaj is part of a wider cultural oppression that revolves around the overt sexualisation of women both in the media and also in general. It is a culture that increasingly pushes us to see women in only sexual terms, a culture that demands sub-softcore porn music videos that demean female artists, pushes teenage girls into taking naked selfies, and encourages women in positions of prestige or authority – actresses, musicians, television presenters even sportswomen – to undertake intimate and sexually provocative photo sessions with ‘men’s lifestyle magazines’ such as GQ, FHM or Front. Secondly, any woman who is only able to procure power or success through her physicality, be it her pretty face or voluptuous posterior, has not only been stunted in terms of the scope for her achievements, but is also a victim in waiting of the short termism of her career. The onset of time is inevitable, and as Radiohead once rightly mused ‘gravity always wins’. Nicki Minaj’s ass might be ‘pulling in the stacks’ for now, but it is unlikely that this very limited aspect of her being is going to be able to have the same spellbinding effect on men, or bring Minaj the same kind of pleasure, when she is fifty. And what will she be left with then? In a career, or a life, built on the power of a perishable weapon, surely a woman can only lose.
Despite all this, I still believe that there are many elements of Minaj’s videos within which there are some essentially feminist messages. Several of the scenes depicted within her songs portray her as having full ownership of her sexuality; it is not a possession or object controlled by men contrary to the archetypes of almost all male-penned rap music. Equally, rather than being a figure of sexual availability she is perhaps more a figure of sexual desire, a subtle distinction, but also one that leaves her in control and also counters the criticisms that suggest that the women who allow themselves to be figures of exploitation in male rap videos are tacitly complicit in rape and slut-shaming culture. In fact, in many of her videos, Minaj punishes men for believing it is their right to objectify her (shooting them or attacking them), most recently swiping away fellow rapper Drake’s hands in the video to Anaconda as he tried to turn the pleasure she was feeling at dancing in front of him into his own. Of course, we could simply say that all this encounter does is replicate the ‘look but don’t touch’ environment of a strip club, an environment that exists almost solely for the cheap gratification of men who come with the only purpose of objectifying women. It seems that with every potentially liberating message of Minaj’s, a paradox is contained.
Minaj also often dresses in clothing that accentuates areas of her body that women’s magazines – with their narrow parameters for beauty – would say she should keep covered; she is proud of her body and the power it makes her feel – just take the cover sleeve for Anaconda as an example. The recurrent motif – lyrical and visual – of men clambering over one another in states of insatiable sexual desire for Minaj does, albeit in a blatantly explicit manner, tell young women that you don’t have to be white, blond, blue-eyed and a size zero in order to feel sexy or appeal to men. However, the ability to contribute to positive self body image among women is part of a paradox that also sees them being limited and disempowered.
Minaj’s image is part of a wider cultural and paradigmatic shift in the field of gender. Thirty years ago, women’s magazines focused on aiding women in the pursuit of ‘beauty’ and ‘prettiness’, nowadays the buzzwords are ‘sexy’ and ‘hot’. This is before we even consider the idea of whether thae the parameter for beauty should be purely physical. Minaj’s cartoonish, sexualised-to-the-point-of-parody image and persona is endemic of a social and cultural pressure (driven by media and advertising) on women to turn themselves into hyper sexualised man-bait whose sole aim should be to be lusted after. Here are just a few choice cuts taken from front covers of Cosmopolitan to demonstrate what I mean:
‘Get in his head and get in his bed’
‘Get your sexiest body ever’
‘20 hot looks’
‘Make his sex wishes come true’
The cover headlines suggest a woman’s image and concept of her gender should be based on proving her desirability to a man and her ability to seem sexually ready and available. The clear intimation is that the height of a woman’s ambitions seems to be her ability to get laid, and even then to ensure that it is her partner, not her, who is the one who enjoys the encounter in order to maximise the chances of it happening again. Whilst Minaj is clear that it is her own pleasure that she seeks, she actively panders to commonly held male fantasies in the process of doing so, therefore becoming complicit in the problematic over sexualisation of women.
Minaj is not an easy person to classify, either within rap or in any other industry for that matter. On the plus side she seems to have little care about external perceptions of her, operating outside the boundaries of someone constrained by concern about their reputation. She is also a self made and determined artist who has made it to the top of a profession with a glass ceiling in it thick enough to repel gun fire, and in the process of doing so she has subverted the rap archetype of oppressive misogyny, inverting it and reappropriating it for herself (as opposed for other women). However, in much the same way that a shoulder padded, suit-wearing woman in the workplace has adopted her attire in order to project a masculine façade because she believes it means more professional respect and more equitable treatment, Minaj doesn’t represent a more empowered version of femininity, or feminism, it is something sadder.
It is the reconstitution of some of the worst elements of the actions and vernacular of men from within her field masquerading as something new and liberating.
Her subjugation of the opposite sex and the constant lyrical misandry of her music are perhaps the best examples of this; they are also an illustration of the misguided notion that feminism is about a marginalised sub group supplanting the dominant body and treating them with the same contempt and prejudice that they have been forced to unjustly suffer – in other words hypocritical and ironic vengeance. Ultimately, whilst she can be pleased with her personal accomplishments, be proud of a bounteous ass that is a product of her ethnic roots as well as a beacon of sexual attraction, and celebrate her commercial success, her retrograde example of how women can reach the top, her avaricious pursuit of wealth and the confused messages she sends out about gender relationships should preclude her from being a viable feminist role model.