A Sheep in Designer Clothes: Nicki Minaj and her Pseudo Sexual Empowerment

I don’t listen to Nicki Minaj’s music, though with the repetitive nature of today’s hip hop radio stations and her popularity among some of my closest friends, I can’t say that I have never heard it. What originally made me not take her seriously were two very specific things:  her outlandish costumes in the beginning of her career which ended after her stint on American Idol, pop culture icon of the squeaky clean image; and the weird Yabba-Dabba-Doo voices she’d insert into her verses. I just want to hear an MC rhyme, so weird yanky voices are just distraction. Catchy, maybe, but in my opinion, just like the crazy outfits, completely unnecessary.

But this isn’t about Nicki Minaj’s skills on the mic or her wardrobe failures. In September 2014, social media sites blew up in response to a tweet Nicki Minaj made about being denied to speak at her alma mater, Fiorello H. La Guardia High School, a specialized public high school in Manhattan that focuses on the performing arts. The tweet read, “I wanted to go back to my HS and speak to the students but the new principal declined. No need for me to inspire them, I guess. Smh [Shaking My Head].” The official response was that she was denied because she’d have an MTV film crew with her and the principal didn’t want students filmed, but shortly after this, Hempstead High School in Hempstead, NY made an official request to have her speak there.

Articles about how Nicki Minaj was wronged or how the principal of LaGuardia got it right soon sprouted on Facebook feeds. I sat with it for a long time, spoke to someone about it, and she referred me to an article that spoke to Nicki Minaj’s feminist leanings.  Let me point out that I initially agreed with the principal of La Guardia High School. I thought, what could this woman possibly teach these young people? How is she a good role model for young women? For young women of color? How dare she imply that she is an inspiration to youth!

And then I read the article my friend recommended.

Let’s go back. Let’s go way back. Let’s examine briefly how black female sexuality has been historically exploited and how early on, black female musical artists have used subversive methods to reclaim this sexuality. During chattel slavery, black female sexuality was merely a commodity. Their sexuality was bought and sold, their bodies violated for profit and for the whims of their white owners. The rape and forced breeding of black women during chattel slavery were all reinforced by various stereotypes, including that of the Jezebel, which implied that all black women were promiscuous and had insatiable sexual appetites, thus relieving their white owners from blame. Black women had no say about their sexuality, let alone about sexual desire.  They literally had no voice and no control over their own bodies.

Fast forward to Lucille Bogan’s  1935 “Shave ‘Em Dry” song or Bessie Smith’s  1931 “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl,”  that through either explicit or metaphorical lyrics about sex, have been said to be attempts at reclaiming sexulaity. Farther down in musical history, female sexuality in early hip hop is also interesting.  During the mid to late 1980’s, artists like Queen Latifah and MC Lyte used hip hop to emphasize topics like partying, safe sex, Afrocentrism,  and women’s issues. With the corporatization of hip hop, the images of black female sexuality shifted and there was a greater sexual dialogue that was happening, as can be seen in songs like Salt-N-Pepa’s 1993 “None of Your Business.” Lil Kim’s 1996 solo album “Hardcore” displayed a dramatic shift in hip hop, emulating the raunch of Lucille Bogan and other female blues singers in her explicit lyrics.

I give you this little history lesson to create some sort of foundation, some sort of understanding of Nicki Minaj. First, she represents this musical history.  Her lyrics and overall physical appearance do, indeed, reference it as well.  However, it also reveals that with the corporatization of hip hop came the exploitation of something that historically became a subversive method of expression and reclamation. The article I read in regards to Nicki Minaj as feminist made actual valid points on how her image and her lyrics are assertively recognizing her own sexuality and made me think of Lucille Bogan and Bessie Smith and the shifts in black female sexuality in hip hop. In fact, as I read the article, I checked myself on my own judgments of Nicki Minaj because I so often wave the free-female-sexuality flag. How can I judge this woman and her depictions of herself or her sexuality through her music yet also say that female sexuality has too long been repressed and suppressed?

“Carmen,” the writer of the article, “Nicki Minaj’s Feminism Isn’t About Your Comfort Zone:  ‘Anaconda’ and Respectability Politics,” on autostraddle.com , directly calls out feminists who critique Nicki Minaj when she writes:  “When feminists honor Minaj’s feminist lyrics, as they did with “Anaconda,” and then admonish her for expressing herself with sexually charged images and videos, they are playing into the same dominant narratives about women’s sexualities that perpetuate victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and the subordination of women.”

Despite the fact that she refers to Nicki Minaj as a “bad bitch,” a term of pseudo-female empowerment that I see a million things wrong with, for the most part, I completely agree with everything that “Carmen” writes. Still in all, I remain in agreement with the principal of La Guardia High School.

Here’s why.

Nicki Minaj’s physical and sexual image is often critiqued as a modern Hottentot image for the white male gaze. “Carmen” discusses in her article how black women are often critiqued for expressing their sexuality and their bodies and how Nicki Minaj is a perfect example of the complex contradictions that some feminists have. Yet, the reality is that Nicki Minaj didn’t always look like that. In fact, she admits to altering her body. So, though Nicki Minaj attempts to assert black female sexuality through her physicality, she only does so by conforming to the exaggerated white-hetero-male gaze of what women of color should look like.

Furthermore, her video “Anaconda,” despite lyrics that represent assertive black female sexuality is also done through this very specific gaze. In conjunction with constant images of her and other dancers twerking, there are countless sexual innuendos in the imagery of the video. The lyrics are explicit and the video matches that sentiment. I am not one to judge a big booty, in fact, I think her body, altered or not altered, is fantastic, and her sexual assertiveness is straight up, cool beans with me. I support that, the sexual empowerment of women everywhere, the dismantling of patriarchal binaries that define female sexuality. I am ALL for that.

But I am also a thirty year old woman who hasn’t been a virgin in fifteen years, who can interpret Nicki Minaj’s image and intentions with completely different eyes. Again, I don’t even particularly listen to her music. My point is that we have to recognize that her image and her videos are seen by young women of color, young women who have not come into their own sexuality, much less navigated it as a woman of color. Let me also remind all of you that the suppression of female sexuality and that of the sexuality of a woman of color can be analyzed as two totally separate concepts.  Now, I’m not naïve to think teenagers aren’t aware of their sexuality. But being aware of your sexuality is not the same as understanding it.  That’s apples and oranges. Tell me not. I know it was for me. A nut ain’t the same as the tree, baby.

Furthermore, feminism, or at least the kind of feminism I follow, is not about the exchange of control or turning the tables on the boys, it is about being on equal footing with men, it is about having healthy, safe and productive sexual experiences where, yes, all facets of one’s sexuality can be explored. Being sexually assertive is beautiful and right on and I won’t take that away from her. But these young women, coming into their own sexuality, only see Nicki Minaj’s overtly sexual depictions of black female sexuality; only see her assertiveness as a way to gain something, not as a way to empower themselves.

THAT is the distinction.

I’ve heard arguments that Nicki Minaj is manipulating these exploitations for her benefit, using them to gain financial and commercial success. In their eyes, making a dollar by exploiting oneself is justified. I disagree. As a black woman, assertive in her sexuality and image yet only doing so by conforming to the standards of beauty and sexuality created by a white-hetero-male gaze, what exactly is Nicki Minaj telling our young women of color? That to succeed, to reach the pinnacle of success that one must abide by and conform to the hegemonic gaze? That by creating an image that essentially exploits their bodies and sexuality under the guise of sexual assertiveness that they will be showered with designer shit and an overflowing bank account? That to sell an image, they have to quite frankly, “sell” themselves? Do you see where I am getting at here? The idea that the ends justify the means is merely sugarcoating the reality that this is just another form of exploitation, using what once was a subversive method of sexual reclamation to exploit women of color once more.

Pay attention.

I don’t think that Nicki Minaj should speak at any high school much less her alma mater, attended by black and brown youth. Believe me when I say she is not there to inspire those students but would be there  merely for entertainment. Another form of Bojangling, a Bamboozled version of sexual assertiveness.

Let me be clear…to my readers, my critics, and to “Carmen” of Autostraddle. This is not a judgment on her sexual assertiveness or her sexual image. In fact, I applaud her for that. I pass no judgment on her overtly sexual lyrics and often defend them by referencing the musical history that she is a part of. Let me also be very clear that this is not about her skills as an MC, her style, or anything about who Nicki Minaj is personally. C’mon…I don’t know the woman. Let’s not miss the point.

Because my point is this.

I hold Nicki Minaj accountable for those very same things I admire in her when it comes to young people. I am a grown woman who can analyze and interpret and decipher these types of things, even if I can also bop my head and twerk away to “Anaconda.” Without underestimating our youth, I don’t think the majority of Nicki Minaj’s fans tend to do this. She has an impact on the youth that cannot be denied. And if I applaud her, I must also be able to didactically critique her. The image she created was created for a gaze that doesn’t empower our women, least of all our women of color…least of all our YOUNG women of color. It was created to exaggerate the images of women of color, to manipulate and perpetuate all the stereotypes about black female sexuality.

She need not be teaching students how to perpetuate that shit is all I am saying. Great lyrical skills aside, fabulously altered physique aside, “bad bitch-boss-barbie” bullshit aside….She’s not a revolutionary for women’s sexuality, let alone black women’s sexuality, by conforming to the white male gaze or perpetuating…fuck it…exaggerating stereotypes, she is just a sheep and I don’t want a sheep encouraging a group of potential revolutionaries to go “Baaa” in designer clothes.



One thought on “A Sheep in Designer Clothes: Nicki Minaj and her Pseudo Sexual Empowerment

  1. Wow, your piece is so on the money! (No pun intended) Very well written, a cogent view of the symbolism that artist presents and a strong critique of the shadow aspect of said symbolism.

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