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.
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.
And Minaj was then quick to point out the double standard of a music artist’s rights.
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:
They proceed to get even more disturbing.
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.
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.
Nicki, we see what you were going for. Stay strong, and your fans love you.