Unsurprisingly the revelation of the cover artwork for Nicki Minaj’s upcoming single “Anaconda” was met with shock, debate, and criticism. The picture itself is relatively simple: it features Nicki Minaj crouched down looking over her shoulder. She just happens to be wearing a thong that shows her enviable cheeks. But it’s not as though our culture isn’t already heavily saturated with images people’s rear ends. In fact it’s at the point where white people like Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, and Jen Selter have insinuated an ownership over a ‘trend’, without acknowledging that their cultural appropriation reflects a very specific type of oppression. People of colour have been aggressively categorized as Other in a multitude of ways for centuries, and having body types that differ from idealized white bodies continues to be a massive part of that. So what is this really about? Exploitation? Her race? The fact that she’s doing it herself for her own single? All of the above.
One of the most visible reactions is concern over a perceived exploitation. It’s easy for people to distance themselves from her lived experiences by questioning whether or not she’s crossed a line, or talking about how it’s all part of the act to sell records. It is true that her career has involved personas, sexy Instagram photos, and boundary pushing lyrics. Yet that doesn’t mean Nicki Minaj isn’t an authentic part of Onika Maraj. While there’s no way for anyone to know her motivations, it’s outright sexist for critics to ignore her agency. The worry people express over Minaj neglects the possibility that a woman is capable of showing her body for her own pleasure and enjoyment. Even when she is given the benefit of the doubt, her actions are analyzed with skepticism and hesitancy. This continues to occur despite the fact that Minaj has demonstrated awareness of gender in the music industry. Nearly as soon as the gossip popped up she shut it down.
And her response can’t be overlooked. On her Instagram she shared photos of various magazine covers and photoshoots that featured thin white women in thongs. Not only she is highlighting the hypocrisy of what is ‘acceptable’, she’s giving plain evidence of the racial politics that determine which bodies are appropriate and which ones are too much. Minaj is asserting her own confidence and sexuality, but she’s also speaking to other women. With one photograph she is promoting the beauty and power of her black body and demanding respect.
When controversies like this arise I always think of Missy Elliot’s song “Work It”. I listened to Under Construction countless times as a teenager, and without realizing it Miss became a role model for me. The specific line that comes to mind is “Ain’t no shame ladies do your thang / Just make sure you’re ahead of the game”. We all live in a system that constantly subjugates women in more ways than we can count. Society is dominated by the omnipresent ‘Madonna-Whore’ complex that criticizes women for being too slutty one minute and too prudish the next. We just can’t win. As a result there’s always going to be a negotiation between conforming to the norms and rebelling against them. What that looks like for each individual person varies; we all have different paths to empowerment. Nicki Minaj is working the system and enjoying it.
This also speaks to me on a personal level. As a curvy woman of colour I have been treated differently than my white friends for my body. Even the ones who are curvier than I am. Even if we’re wearing the same types of clothes. Since I was a teenager and people realized that I have a sizeable booty, and even more so when my upper half caught up in adulthood, I have been made uncomfortably aware of my distinct appearance. The behaviour I’ve encountered has had a noticeable and sometimes even overt racialized connotation. But like Minaj (and as I’ve written about before), I’m happy to express myself by showing some skin. This summer I’ve been most at home in crop tops and high waist shorts or tank tops and short skirts. I don’t believe I should have to change the way I dress to make other people more comfortable, and I certainly can’t do anything about the how my body looks in the clothes I like. I’m not the problem in this scenario, and neither is Minaj. Seeing powerful women like her stand up for the way they choose to represent themselves is necessary and inspiring. Even more so because the bodies of women of colour are being erased as much (if not more) as they’re being embraced.
People tend to applaud actors for refraining from nude scenes in film, or talk about the ‘elegance’ that comes from a more conservative style. The implication here is that some bodies are wrong, and that there is a ‘right’ way to share and dress them. When we praise some women for their choices and shame others for doing the opposite, we are failing all women.
My article was quoted in a ThinkProgress piece! I love that site so this is a big deal to me.