Why You Should Care about the Nicki Minaj/Taylor Swift Feud

Hint: It’s not just about Bad Blood.

Obligatory song pun aside, a lot is at stake in the issues raised by Nicki Minaj on Twitter last night after Taylor Swift felt personally attacked by the rapper’s tweets.

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TL;DR: Minaj’s “Anaconda” music video was snubbed for the VMA Video of the Year award, which shattered previous YouTube and Vevo records. She was the record holder for the majority of the VMA judging period (7/31/14 to 7/1/2015) until Swift came along and released the “Bad Blood” music video at the end of May 2015.

Minaj was eloquent in her social commentary on the music industry. First, rap has always been considered as lesser than white pop, and nothing demonstrates this more than when Macklemore won Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar at the Grammys in 2014. Second, female rappers occupy an even lower music strata. Black women’s bodies are privileged in the music industry (see Miley Cyrus’s cringe-worthy VMA performance with Robin Thicke), but their minds and words are dismissed with a flagrant disregard for their lived experiences.

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And Minaj was then quick to point out the double standard of a music artist’s rights.

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I don’t think I need to provide any further examples of how the music industry, including the VMAs and the Grammys, are racist.

So now let’s chat about feminism, since Taylor Swift seemed so keen to bring it up last night. This isn’t the first time she’s thrown the female solidarity red card out when she feels like she’s being attacked (see Tina Fey and Amy Poehler). This seems to be her go-to response. Not to mention, it’s incredibly ironic that a woman who earned her way into the nominations for Video of the Year got there with a song and video that’s all about tearing another woman down.

Clearly, Taylor missed the complete point of 2013’s viral hashtag, #solidarityisforwhitewomen.

Feminism is about so much more than all women co-existing in peace and harmony, Taylor. Nicki was speaking her mind about the racism that’s rampant in the music industry. She was making completely valid point about how black women’s bodies are only used for specific purposes and not celebrated. What white women do with black women’s bodies dance moves, however, are always celebrated – once again, see Miley’s VMA performance or the horrific twerking in T.Swift’s own “Shake it Off.” Taylor responded to Minaj’s macro-criticisms by interpreting them on a micro-scale – something white people in general are prone to do when racism enters the conversation. “It’s not me! I love everyone! It’s everybody else!” Or, in Taylor’s case, she adds, “It’s the men!” Swift essentially epitomizes White Girl Feminism.

She swung at the ball and completely missed. White people – and I include myself in this, because years ago, before Women’s Studies classes and being in Mass Media Studies graduate program, I was this way too – go on the defensive when racism is brought up. Why? We are taught racism is bad, and some people feel by acknowledging our white privilege, that makes us bad. On the contrary. Acknowledging white privilege makes you a better, strong ally, as long as you are willing to listen and understand the issues. You’re only “bad” (and that’s such an oversimplication) if you don’t recognize the inequality that persists in the world and still live with colorblinders on.

So if Taylor really wanted to participate in “solidarity,” she could have used the moment as a platform to support Nicki’s points and recognize the problematic industry she is a part of. The fact is, we’re all living in a problematic world. In the case of Taylor, it’s okay to live in a problematic world, like what you do, and still be a supportive ally. Look at the great work Matt McGorry is doing to check his privilege, critique the media industry he is a part of, and use it for the better.

Personally, as a digital culture scholar, my research intersects at the corner of visual culture and feminist theory. So today, in the fallout of the Twitter War, I’ve been intrigued  by the way Nicki and Taylor have been visually represented by the mass media.

A couple of notable examples:

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They proceed to get even more disturbing.

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This particular frame is disconcerting, to say the least. Nicki’s chest-shoulder-head/taken straight-on approach is indicative of a mug shot, while white Taylor gloats and prances on, free.

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This may be the most disturbing one of all. The juxtaposition of Taylor mimicking a gun next to Nicki, who is holding her side like one would keep pressure on a wound is perplexing, to say the least. In the wake of the murders of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and many, many others, this set up is racist and horrific.

Overall, Nicki is blamed, attributed with crazy eyes, “resting bitch face,” and in a way that is generally concomitant to the stereotypical “angry black woman” archetype. Meanwhile, Taylor emerges as the innocent little doe, the angel of White Girl Feminism. How dare Nicki attack Taylor, who is largely viewed as America’s sweetheart? “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is a cliché, but it’s also a very powerful statement.

There is an image, and then there is what it represents. The quickest way I can explain this is through a powerful quote by a scholar I immensely respect, W.J.T Mitchell. He states, when summing up work done by Roland Barthes, “When people scoff at the idea of a magical relation between a picture and what it represents, ask them to take a photograph of their mother and cut out the eyes” (What do Pictures Want? 2005, p. 9). Essentially, there is a belief that whatever is done to an image is somehow also done to what it stands for.

So by representing Nicki as the “angry black woman,” mass media attempt to re-present her and repackage her as an angry black woman. By representing her with crazy eyes, she is dismissed as crazy. By belittling her through an image, she herself is belittled. By having Taylor Swift point a gun at her…well, you get it.

Gender, race, class, religion, able-bodiedness, etc. etc. coalesce at interstices of media systems. Through today’s portrayal of Nicki Minaj, the mass media continue to Other her and make her less of a person, all because she is female. Furthermore, she is less of a female because she is a black female. This is exactly why intersectionality is crucial when being a critical consumer of media and in understanding systems of oppression.

Personally, I’m just hoping to see Kanye West steal the stage again if Taylor wins.

courtesy of top-img.com
courtesy of top-img.com

Nicki, we see what you were going for. Stay strong, and your fans love you.

courtesy of The Honesty Hour
courtesy of The Honesty Hour
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Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?

Yes.

My brilliant fellow Grady grad, Felicia Harris, recently wrote a wonderful post about her academic journey, and she’s inspired me (and I’ve finally given myself permission) to do the same.

My old cubicle. Such great memories at GMOA!
My old cubicle. Such great memories at GMOA!

A year ago at this time, I was in my final days of working as a bus operator/trainer for UGA’s Campus Transit System and working as a PR intern for the Georgia Museum of Art. I had a plan – I was entering my final year of my Master’s program in Mass Media Studies, and I was going to move to Atlanta when I graduated to practice PR. I knew I wanted a Ph.D., but I thought that was still several years away.

But as that Fall semester began, other things began to chip away at that plan. After working on a conference paper with my adviser, the wonderful Elli Lester Roushanzamir, and taking a class that introduced me to WJT Mitchell and image theory, I knew my plans had changed. Then, one week in January 2015 confirmed that – I had been accepted in the PhD program at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, and that conference paper had been accepted for presentation at the 2015 International Communication Association Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

That spring semester flew by. I wrote, edited, edited, edited some more, and then finally successfully defended my master’s thesis (with the help of my brilliant committee, Elli Lester Roushanzamir, Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, and Valerie Boyd). I came to learn myself just as I came to learn the theories of dramaturgy, digital literacy, and the social media phenomenon I dub “identity bending.” I got a tattoo as my present for these accomplishments. The quote “love the questions themselves” is forever marked on my left wrist as a reminder to the excitement I felt that week in January (those words are from Rainer Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” – be still with all that’s unresolved in your heart, and learn to love the questions themselves).

And then, I was off to Puerto Rico. I had never traveled alone, flown alone, booked a hotel alone, hailed a cab, etc. etc. I didn’t just step out of my comfort zone. I zoomed out of it, 500 mph across on ocean on a Boeing 757.

View from my balcony, San Juan, Puerto Rico
View from my balcony, San Juan, Puerto Rico

There, I presented original research entitled “Fear and Selfie-Loathing in America: Intersections of Image Theory, Feminist Theory, and Arm’s Length Self-Portraits,” and was awarded Top Student Paper, Popular Communication Division. I had the privilege to speak on a panel entitled Theorizing Digital Media’s Visual Imagery: Aesthetics, Abilities, and Motivations with brilliant scholars from Brigham Young, Annenberg Pennsylvania, the Queensland University of Technology, and Hebrew University-Jerusalem.

So what’s next?

In August, I begin my PhD at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, as well as my journey into my becoming a “Triple Dawg” (I’ve earned a Bachelors and a Masters from UGA). Broadly, I call myself a digital imagery scholar, as I’m fascinated by things such as selfies and memes. The paper I’m currently working on to submit to a conference early next year is about Slender Man and the feminization of digital spaces. After that, I already know another selfie paper is in the works. Memes and selfies have already evolved and changed so much just in the year since I began researching them, which makes it such an intriguing field. IMG_1499The way we visually represent society says so much about ideological norms and values. Images are never innocent, and they are never silent. They are screaming a thousand things, demanding to be studied, looked at, revered. They sit amidst a rocky terrain of gender, race, class, politics, religion, history, popular culture, and current events, not just in their content, but in their production.

Those who know me know that I view the academic and the personal as inextricably linked. As I came to learn theories, I came to learn myself. James Carey pushed me into the swimming pool. Stuart Hall encouraged me to think boldly. W.J.T. Mitchell showed me the world. bell hooks inspired me to roar.

I used to never believe I could be here. This was one of the best things I ever gave myself permission to do.