Monday, February 9, 2015

Culture Corner

Well, since this is my first post to this blog, I decided I'm going to write about a subject very close to my heart: Nicki Minaj. Nicki has blessedly dominated the hip-hop scene in recent years. She stands out among her peers by not only flaunting her extravagant, unapologetically obnoxious style and wearing her femininity like glittery pink battle armor, but also by being light-years more talented than her contemporaries. More than that, though, she's a feminist superstar.

If you're not familiar with her, her works, her image, and her identity, you might be laughing. Nicki Minaj? The woman who gave Drake a lap dance in Anaconda? You bet your comparatively inferior butt. I'm talking about the woman who stands for sexual empowerment, female empowerment, celebration of the self, and being unabashedly proud of who you are. Nicki Minaj is frequently criticized for being arrogant, even catching fire from other so-called feminists who aren't impressed by the way she loudly owns and flaunts so much of what is traditionally considered feminine. But Nicki is hardly the stereotype of oppressively limited feminine values; she's loud, vulgar, sexual, proud, and fully in control of who she is and what she wants. She celebrates a brand of self-expression that makes no effort to cater to the male gaze. In fact, in one of her music videos, she literally guns it down. (Warning for explicit lyrics).

But I'll talk about Anaconda, which is easy to talk about. Sir Mix-A-Lot's iconic original rhyme Baby Got Back was about the sexual objectification of women, and assigned value to them based on their bodies while presuming sexual interest in him. The tone is celebratory of a certain kind of body and loudly disapproving of other kinds, offering work-out advice to achieve the sort of body with which the rapper is personally interested in having sex. On the whole, it doesn't sound much like a conversation you'd want to have with a potential sexual partner. There's sexism in every branch of music, and this is how it manifests here: the idea that a woman's identity caters to male sexuality rather than to herself.

Nicki Minaj has never been shy about expressing her own sexuality. Many of her songs revolve around how desirable she knows she is, what kind of sex she wants, and the fact that she and her body are too good for you. She talks about men as if they are props to her own sexual gratification, the inverse of a common trope among male artists about women. In Anaconda, Nicki Minaj describes sexual relationships she has had with men that revolved around their money and what they bought her with it, all while dancing with a group of women with thick bodies in an echo of Sir Mix-A-Lot's original video. She and her dancers touch one another, make eye contact with the viewer, and put themselves on display on their own terms, allowing themselves to be seen as proudly sexual beings in what is essentially a jungle paradise completely devoid of men. Nicki even takes a banana, symbolic of I-wonder-what, and destroys it before throwing it away with a look of confrontational disregard. The only man who shows up in the whole video appears at the end, and sits in a chair, powerless and not permitted to touch, as Nicki dances around him, touching his chest, shoulders, and legs. As the song ends with her least attractive Nicki-brand laughter to date, she walks away from him in spite of his apparent distress. Her sexuality has nothing to do with him, her sex appeal isn't for him, her body is her own, and she owes him nothing. And, despite what our patriarchal culture might want to say to that, she's absolutely right.

Feminism doesn't really have a face—there are mothers who need feminism, trans women who need feminism, children who need feminism, gender-nonconforming men who need feminism, and so on. Nicki Minaj's feminism doesn't stop at sexual expression, far from it, but hers is a brand of self-love that the feminism scene desperately needed. Women are hypersexualized in our culture, there's no doubt, but there's a way to reclaim that sexuality. Own it, love yourself, be loud about what you want, and when the situation calls for it, just bat your eyelashes and send the dissenters flying.

(Sir Mix-A-Lot loves her song, of course. The hip-hop community tends to be supportive that way.)

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