I’m no Beyonce fan. I don’t try to hide it. I ain’t scared of Beyhive, Bey-lievers, Bey-bies, or whatever they wanna call themselves. I like her voice, she’s incredibly talented, and I admire her business acumen, but I don’t appreciate a large portion of her lyrical content or her image. Neither am I a fan of Ms Minaj.I could add Katy Perry and Lady Gaga to this list, and everything I say applies to them too, but I’m more interested in Beyonce and Nicki Minaj because of how their images relate to black women specifically. Also, if I talk about Katy Perry I’d get myself into a fit of annoyance about cultural appropriation and how her and Miley Cyrus use black women’s bodies as conduits for their success without having any respect for those bodies, or their experiences – and that’s a really, really long post. (And please don’t get me started on folks trying to claim that Beyonce is not black because her Mum is a light skinned Creole woman, because #ijustcant. Could she have been a legitimate extra in 12 years a Slave? End of discussion).
Anywho, Ms Minaj has released a song entitled Anaconda, with accompanying video, and both song and video are pretty much about sex – more specifically about the magical sex appeal of Nicki’s rear end and its ability to obtain cars, shoes etc from men. I quote:
“Oh my gosh, look at her butt
Oh my gosh, look at her butt
Oh my gosh, look at her butt”.
That was legitimately the most innocuous line I could find in the whole song. Oh, and perhaps “This dude named Michael used to ride motorcycles..”.
As usual, this has precipitated lots of conversations over the internet about feminism, female sexuality, media portrayal and all that good stuff.
There is an argument that goes a little bit like this:
1) Women have historically not been ‘allowed’ to be overtly sexual or sexually demanding in a similar way to men. (Due to patriarchy often practiced by religion and wider society in general).
2)Nicki Minaj and Beyonce are being subversive by being overtly sexual in a way that was previously denied women.
3) Therefore, Nicki Minaj and Beyonce are asserting their right to defy standards imposed on them by male supremacy and are acting progressively. They are feminists.
4)Also, they’re both curvy so they’re pushing back against mainstream standards of beauty.
I don’t deny that there are elements of both artists approach that are progressive for women in some respect. I suppose the fact that they are both so successful in their field arguably automatically makes them progressive. It does beg the question of whether bad representation is better than no representation at all though?
Additionally, I’m not buying the idea that for black women specifically, the idea of us being overtly sexual is anything new. There’s a reason why the majority of the Caribbean and African Americans have stray white ancestry. It’s not because of some 19th century style Kim + Kanye interracial love fest. Black women have consistently been characterised in recent history (past 400 years or so), as passionate, overtly sexual and as a means of sexual pleasure for white men. Both white and black women have been oppressed historically by white men, but the coupling of racism and sexism meant that black women until recent years (post segregation in America, and probably slightly earlier in most the Caribbean) couldn’t even have the protection of their husbands to prevent the abuse of their bodies sexually. As in, if a white man wanted his way with a black woman, the fact that she was married made no difference – in fact one of the ways of emasculating black men during slavery would be to rape black women. It was a not so subtle reminder to black men that they weren’t really men, because they couldn’t even protect their women.
One of the ways this behaviour was justified was by promoting the idea that black women were ‘hot’ that and they ‘wanted it’, and that therefore, sleeping with them wasn’t really rape. So Nicki Minaj rapping “oh my gosh, look at her butt”, in reference to herself doesn’t strike me as radical. It’s just more of the same old stuff. Society has been looking at our butts for quite a while and at the same time denying us our personhood.(By the way, celebrating curviness is nothing new in black culture – we’ve never largely ascribed to the mainstream idea of skinny = beautiful, so nothing revolutionary there either – it’s just that white folk have begun to notice our celebration of it).
Even if we remove race from the equation, we still live in a misogynistic society where sexism is very much rampant so I’m not sure that any woman in popular media who is overtly sexual can claim that it’s entirely her own choosing. If we live in an environment where women’s bodies are still seen as commodities, where sex sells, where the majority of big business is owned and managed by men, where the directors in the porn industry are largely men, where media images are controlled by rich white men, do you honestly think you can rise to the top economically purely on your own terms? I just don’t believe that’s possible.
I’ll have a bet that a lot of the people watching the Anaconda video are teenage boys. I’ll also have a bet that although most of Beyonce’s fan base are women, part of the reason so many women emulate her is because her sexuality is ‘male approved’. I’ve heard it said that we overestimate the effect Beyonce has on young teenage girls, but I actually think we underestimate it. We underestimate how powerful images are in conditioning the minds of young people. We underestimate how many boys will listen to Anaconda who won’t decipher the video and realise the fact that it IS a group of women in a jungle, alone, outside of the ‘male gaze’, and so perhaps Minaj is trying to make a statement about women ‘owning’ their sexuality. What they’ll see is half naked women twerking. What they’ll internalise is women being available for their sexual pleasure. What teenage girls will see when Beyonce is writhing on stage scantily clad as Jay Z poses next to her, calm and collected spitting “eat the cake Anna Mae” (a reference to Ike’s abuse of Tina Turner), is that men appreciate that. They won’t necessarily read female empowerment into it.
Why should we sift through all the negativity and rubbish to try and cling to the straws of goodness? Can’t we just admit that two light skinned black women with straight blonde hair being sexual objects is the same old, same old? Can’t we just admit that in 2014, a half naked woman sells more records than a fully clothed one and that really, the most subversive act would be singing about sex in a hijab, not a thong?
What do you think guys?