*Editor’s Note: The author of this essay originally approached me for permission to cite one of my pieces in her college paper. After I read the final draft, I immediately asked to republish it here because it does an excellent job of distilling the very ideas about Nicki Minaj's brand of feminism that I have been espousing for some time now. In light of last night's MTV VMA's and the continued racist framing of Nicki Minaj as a "savage" and "angry" black woman threatening the purity and safety of white female celebrities like Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus, I thought it was timely to remind people that Nicki Minaj's praxis may be sexual and it may be loud and it may not be polite, but it is still a feminist expression for her to assert her right to protect herself from racism, sexism and misogynoir in the industry, even and especially when it is perpetuated by other women. It is a fantastic read, and I can't wait to read more from her.
Nicki Minaj is a lot of things: the highest selling female rapper of all time, an artist in the midst of a world-tour for her latest album, The Pinkprint, and most importantly, an icon for women everywhere. On August 19, 2014, Nicki Minaj released the music video for the song “Anaconda” and soon the internet exploded. The video garnered immediate critique for being hypersexual, all while stacking up nearly 500,000,000 views on Youtube. But to women all over, the video, like many Nicki Minaj videos before it, was empowering and profoundly feminist. Through the course of Minaj’s career, her overt sexuality has given her the perfect platform to subvert the male stares it beckons. Nicki Minaj feminism is dependent on overt sexuality as a device to subvert the male gaze and achieve ultimate sexual empowerment.
The music video for “Anaconda” is one that celebrates the same body-type Sir Mix-a-Lot praised in the rather unambiguously titled classic, “I Like Big Butts:” curvy derrieres and itty-bitty waists. Nicki twerks on and around other women who all share with her curvy physique, but makes it clear that her sexuality is a mechanism via which she achieves empowerment, and not a device solely used for attracting the male gaze. The first way in which she does this comes in the fact that no men appear in the video (besides Drake, but we’ll get to that later). Historically (and still to this day), many male rappers have been inclined to feature women dancing on and around them in their music videos. They objectify them, and seemingly treat them as toys for pleasure, easily disposable and replaceable. In “Anaconda,” however, Nicki flips the script on that trope. While the women featured around her, next to her, under and over her, are all dancing and shaking in similar fashion to videos that are ultimately degrading, because Nicki Minaj joins in, she effectively reclaims a position used by male rappers to objectify. Nicki not only joins her dancers, she leads and encourages them in a way that can only empower them. Instead of becoming objects to a male rapper’s desires, Nicki allows herself and the women around her to take charge of their own sexualities, shaking and dancing together, autonomously for themselves.
Even further than that, Nicki and company dance for an audience made up hugely in part, by women. The idea that women dancing (erotically) for themselves and for other women in an attempt to gain back some control of their sexuality isn’t new to feminism. ML Johnson argues that these sort of spaces can give way to “heterosexuality without heterosexism,” and that women experiencing these spaces can explore a world that enjoys “less restrictive gender roles." In the context of “Anaconda,” Nicki Minaj and her dancers seem to do just that, simply by taking control of how they express themselves sexually, and without a male present on screen. And, “while the centrality of the display of sexual attractiveness is generic, and, as such, not in itself raced or gendered, the specific ways in which sexual attractiveness is articulated in the pop music video is, however, mediated through and determined by common-sense notions of appropriate gendered and raced behavior.
Though it could be argued that Nicki subscribes to some of the gendered and more specifically raced constructions of sexuality assigned to her as a black woman, she instead uses those constructions to embrace the aspects of that sexuality that she chooses. While on one hand she spends most of the video twerking and subsequently subscribing to some of the stereotypical ideas of black female sexuality, she does so in a way that is on her terms, and not under the rule of the stereotypes themselves. Because Nicki is front and center in the video, and in control of an environment she has created for herself, she is not confined to follow the gendered and raced tropes of sexuality so readily applied to black female bodies. She can and will twerk, but on her own terms, and for the purpose of encouraging women to embrace their curves and strive for the same sexual autonomy she embodies on screen. And while Nicki Minaj, outside of the world constructed in “Anaconda,” may become an object of the male gaze (from behind the computer screen), Shay Lee argues that such a viewpoint is a limited consideration of the feminist work done by black divas. In his book, Erotic Revolutionaries, Lee explains that “rather than portraying sexy black divas of popular culture as victims or mere objects of the male gaze, [he] depicts them as feminists who create new scripts and carve out new space for female sexual subjectivity by exerting distinctive brands of sexual empowerment”. By deciding for herself how she expresses her sexuality, whether or not Nicki becomes objectified by the viewer becomes irrelevant, as she has “transgressed those borders and created new space with sexual discourse, sensuality, and erotic artistry.”
This next seriously feminist aspect of “Anaconda,” comes a bit later, during a sequence where Nicki Minaj does a handful of sexual things, as she rotates around an island in the Kitchen. All of these things are often stereotypical ways in which women attract the male gaze in media. For example, spraying whip cream all over her chest, wearing a sexy maid costume, and finally, deep-throating a banana. But actually, if you continue to watch the video, the scene where Minaj deep-throats the banana soon evolves into a moment of pure Nicki Minaj feminism. Everything about the mise-en-scene of the shot indicates that Nicki is baiting the male gaze. First of all she’s in a kitchen, the room designated (by misogynists) as a woman’s place. She’s wearing a sexy maid outfit, placing herself directly into the world of male sexual fantasy, and signaling (to the male gaze) that she’s potentially going to have sex with you AND clean up after you! And finally, she deep-throats a banana, indicating in the most overt way possible, that she knows (the male gaze is) you’re watching, and she knows how to please (the male gaze) you. But that’s just the beginning of Nicki Minaj feminism, for just as she’s wrapped her mouth around the banana, she cuts it in half. And the face that follows is one made up of pursed lips and a clenched jaw. So is Minaj alluding to the mutilation of male genitals?
That wouldn’t be a very feminist insinuation, and luckily that’s not at all what is happening in this scene. To look at the scene literally, yes, she chops in half the object being compared to the male genitalia. But looking at this scene in terms of what’s being asserted on a much deeper level, one can find the pot of Nicki Minaj feminism at the end of sexually-enticing rainbow. Nicki attracts the male gaze with all of the aforementioned sexual actions, one of which involves deep-throating a banana. But once she has that attention? She immediately lets the viewer know that this display of sexuality has not been for the male gaze. What seems like a normal addition to a long-winded display of sexual euphemisms has actually been deemed completely out of place in the world of “Anaconda.” The face at the end of the sequence is a reminder that says “Oh, you thought all of this was for male attention? Shame on you.”
This brings us to the final sequence of “Anaconda” that embodies Nicki Minaj Feminism. The scene involves a lap dance given by Nicki to fellow rap star and label-mate, Drake. Though the terms of a lap dance can be interpreted as being for the person being danced on, Nicki makes it clear that the dance is not for Drake, just like the rest of the music video isn’t for the male gaze. Just as Drake gets a little too comfortable being danced on, he touches her butt, only to be swatted away. After that, Minaj exits stage right, signaling that Drake has crossed the line and misinterpreted her expression of sexuality. In an article published to The University Wire, Paul Thomson contended that Minaj performs the lap dance “on her own terms: not to get the man, not against her will, but because she knows her body and the power it holds.” Such reclamation over the black female body must be acknowledged as inherently different from a white woman’s expression of sexual agency in popular music. Historically, black women became contextualized as “animalistically hypersexed bodies, accessible for scrutiny and pleasure,” while conversely, white women were constructed as “civilized and restrained,” and as “fragile bodies in need of protection from the sexual.”
Because of the way this history has been constructed by the dominant people in power, black women are automatically deemed sexual in a way that white women are not. And when this ideology is applied to the world of popular music, black women continue to take the hit. As previously written by Cate Young, the author of BattyMamzelle, “to say that black woman being sexual or expressing sexuality in public is automatically “exploiting themselves,” is to deny them agency.” So, for Nicki Minaj to assert her own sexual agency, and to do so in a world she has created for herself, she challenges both the barriers set for women, and the racial stereotypes that suffocate specifically black women. And in order to achieve such, Nicki Minaj feminism recognizes that the overt expression of sexuality must be understood in terms of these barriers.
Though she frequently speaks and acts on feminist terms, Nicki herself has shied away from the term feminism. In an interview with Vogue, Nicki said, “I feel like certain words can box you in. I think of myself as a woman who wants other women to be bosses and to be strong and to be go-getters.” Such an answer from a black female rapper comes as no surprise, as documented by Tricia Rose following multiple interviews with rapper MC Lyte, and Salt (from Salt N Pepa) and Queen Latifah. She says, “for these women rappers, and many other black women, feminism is the label for members of a white woman’s social movement, which has no concrete link to black women or the black community”. So, Nicki is not alone in the feeling of being “boxed in” by the term “feminism,” but nevertheless continues to challenge the ideals of patriarchy and racial stereotyping through her artistry.
The best example of Nicki Minaj feminism comes again in the form of her music video for the song, “Lookin Ass,” where she literally shoots the male gaze. The video features distinct shots of her butt, while she raps “stop lookin’ at my ass.” The juxtaposition may seem ironic, but, just like “Anaconda,” is actually quite simple. By showing off her butt while simultaneously demanding that you stop looking at it, she asserts that her display of sexuality is not simply for consumption, and that those who mistake it for such, will be figuratively shot in the face. Once more, Nicki proves that her brand of feminism is dependent on being overtly sexual, while also acknowledging her place in the world of pop as a black woman. Such overt sexuality attracts the male gaze in the way media has trained it to, but Nicki’s feminism not only prepares for that, it expects it. Nicki’s sexual agency comes to ultimate fruition when the male gaze falls under her spell, for it is then that she asserts her message: her body, her sexuality, is not for you.
Melissa McDougall is a student at the University of Michigan, studying Screen Arts & Cultures, African American Studies, and French Language. She is also an intersectional feminist with a passion for uncovering and discussing the societal realities that influence how popular culture is presented, and how we consume and interpret it. Find her on twitter at @mcdouugz.