Monday, 31 August 2015

#MileyWhatsGood?: Nicki Minaj Destroys The Male Gaze Via Overt Sexual Expression


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 andprofoundly 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" [3]. 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 [3].