Ever since Nicki Minaj posted the cover art for her new single in late July, I’ve been trying to finish a piece about the “Anaconda” controversy. Each time I had to push the project back, I feared that I had lost the relevancy so important to writing about popular culture. But sadly, there has been no lack of opportunity to reflect on issues involving women’s agency over the display of their own bodies.
Last week, unrepentant hackers posted stolen photos (real and photoshopped) of Jennifer Lawrence, Jill Scott, Kirsten Dunst, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and other female celebrities. The response was depressing if not surprising: mixed in with thoughtful critique, there were plenty of arguments about (men’s) free speech and (women’s) responsibility to protect themselves from exploitation by never, ever taking a photo of themselves or, ideally, never ever taking their clothes off outside of a private dressing bunker equipped with magnets to destroy photographic film and digital storage systems. It was a painful swirl of arguments that, to me, boiled down to a couple of confusing prescriptions for women: first, your body should never ever be publicly visible, so make sure that doesn’t happen; two, expect that men will do everything they can to make your body visible and be prepared to defend yourself; third, if your body should become visible, you will be held morally responsible, whether you chose to display your body or had your body displayed against your will.
This incident merely provides the most recent evidence that how we respond to the sexual objectification of women’s bodies is mostly about who is controlling the display. When women’s bodies are put on display by others, particularly men, we respond as though it is unfortunate but unavoidable. In the same way as victim blaming, this rhetoric figures the sexual desire of men as boundless and the moral responsibility of prevention as belonging to women. The female body is figured here as terribly powerful and terribly vulnerable, capable of short-circuiting men’s ability to act rationally or compassionately. The only way to deal with this power and vulnerability is through fear and containment. Wear long skirts when you go out and make sure your photos are inaccessible to hackers. Men don’t seem to be held culturally responsible for choosing to display women’s bodies when women fail to contain them.
If, on the other hand, women choose to put their own bodies on display, they are still culpable, still guilty of failing to contain and protect. While our culture demands that women take responsibility for hiding their bodies, it also practices a constant objectification that equates power with sexualization. Our culture demands access to women’s bodies, then blames women for capitalizing on this demand.
The fury over Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” cover and the widespread apologetics practiced for nude photo hackers are thus part of the same story. They are part of a story about the female body, power, and control. In this story, women can be virtuous or victims, but they can’t be agents. Women can be exploited or they can be vigilant, but they can’t be resistant voices. Women’s bodies can become symbols of the power and desire of men, but they can never have an independent existence. Men can display women’s bodies and, even if it is tasteless, it is inevitable, boys being boys, the right of free speech in America. Women cannot display their own bodies without being dismissed as talentless sellouts or failed role models.
Consider the difference in response to “Anaconda” and the hacked photos. When Minaj released an album cover that showed her sporting only Air Jordans and a bubble-gum pink G-string/sports bra combo — an image which co-opted conventions from iconic hip hop covers like 2 Live Crew’s aptly named As Nasty As They Wanna Be – Minaj was accused of failing her potential as a strong female role model or was accused of banking on sexual shock in lieu of actual talent. The outrage seemed odd to me, given Minaj’s long history of parodic, outrageous personas and given the career-long fascination that has surrounded her butt.
Athena G. Csuti best expressed why I found the outrage puzzling: “it’s not as though our culture isn’t already heavily saturated with images [of] people’s rear ends . . .So what is this really about? Exploitation? Her race? The fact that she’s doing it herself for her own single?” Minaj made a similar point with images, posting photos of models’ butts with the tagline “acceptable” and reposting her own cover with the caption “unacceptable.” It was difficult to take the hip-hop community’s moral indignation seriously, in a world full of Sports Illustrated covers–in a world that survived Cisqo’s “The Thong Song” and Nelly’s “Tip Drill.” And now it’s particularly difficult to take this moral indignation seriously in an Internet culture that can turn around and defend the theft, distribution, and viewing of private nude photographs.
But that’s where Csuti’s questions are illuminating: the trouble isn’t Minaj’s visible butt, but rather, the fact that she chose to display her own body in support of her own single. She abandoned her socially ascribed role of defender, so we can’t simultaneously admire her body and pity her as a victim. She also abandoned the cultural role of supporter, a woman who uses her sexuality to forward the career or power of a central man. She co-opts the power and danger of the visible female body and makes it her own.
I’m not trying to argue in support of the ongoing sexual objectification of female bodies in American mainstream media. Feminist defenders of agency and moral defenders of modesty alike share a valid point when they question the continuing cultural equation of sexuality with power. But I do want to recognize that we live in a culture already steeped in objectifying, sexualized images. Power in our culture often is distributed to the beautiful and the sexy. Women who seek power and visibility in this culture cannot avoid wrestling with the complex balancing acts that result. And I’m not just talking about celebrities; Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth laid out the competing demands that sex appeal and appropriateness place upon all professional women. Given that cultural mess, why shouldn’t some women attempt to subvert sexist exploitation for their own purposes, using the vulnerable visibility of their bodies to satirize a rigged game?
That, in fact, is exactly what Minaj’s video for “Anaconda” does. By sampling Sir Mix-A-lot’s “Baby Got Back,” “Anaconda” co-opts the voice of male exploitation and laughingly asserts her own dominance. The video talks back to the hypersexualized stereotypes of black women perpetuated by hip hop culture (and American culture more generally), the stereotypes that actually reproduce the impossible cultural demands of modesty and display, the pressure to be “a lady in the streets but a freak in the bed.”
“Anaconda” reproduces the squad of four big-bottomed dancers from “Baby Got Back,” right down to the line of women bending over and patting each others’ butts. But Sir Mix-A-Lot’s ideal women served primarily as background, their real bodies interchangeable with a landscape of literally objectified butts, from the tiny butts jiggling in the air to the giant, plastic butt on which Sir Mix-A-Lot stood. In contrast, Minaj’s crew dominates a jungle world devoid of men (aside from a hapless Drake at the video’s conclusion). While men and their “anacondas” are the alleged targets of her sexual prowess, their voices and faces are absent.
In their absence, Minaj steers us through a series of stereotypical sexual fantasies and music video conventions: a lush jungle full of twerking women, a booty-camp workout scene, some steamy shots in a hot spring, and the much-decried, uncomfortable lap dance Minaj performs on Drake. But the video’s sleight-of-hand destabilizes those fantasies. The opening shots brilliantly combine cultural tropes that otherize black women and that have been appropriated by white culture, mixing ratchet twerking in with exotic jungle settings. The workout T-shirts read “Look at Her Butt” and the choreographed dances feature hot pink fanny packs (get it??) wiggling on the dancer’s hips. When Minaj begins spraying whipped cream across a skimpy maid’s outfit and suggestively biting a banana, the fantasy ends when she chops the banana up and tosses it aside. And when she begins her lap dance for Drake, he alternates between looking like a contemplative philosopher and cringing uncomfortably, while she gazes knowingly at the camera. In case you were still taking things seriously, at this point, the track disintegrates into maniacal laughter and trills.
Perhaps most brilliantly of all, “Anaconda” exposes the contradictory expectations assigned to black female bodies. “Baby Got Back” was meant as a tribute to black female beauty, a counter to an oppressive Cosmo culture of thinness and asexuality, and in this way, Sir Mix-A-Lot pitched his song as being a celebration of black femininity. But the song really only pitted two groups of judges against each other: white women, who scorn black women (the white girls who open the track by condemning a voluptuous black women for looking like “some rap guy’s girlfriend” ), and black men, who find black women sexually desirable. “Anaconda” literally sets these voices at war with each other with its two samples and forces us to hear the cacaphony: “Oh my God! Look at her butt!” the women chant over and over again, while Sir Mix-A-Lot pipes up, “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun!”
Both reactions ultimately rely on a definition of black female bodies as particularly excessive. That is, the black female body is viewed as inherently prone to failing the difficult dance of modesty and display required by inconsistent cultural expectations. As Molly Lambert explained in her reading of “Anaconda,” that notion of excess lies at the heart of ongoing white appropriations of twerking and ratchet culture. The same week that Minaj released “Anaconda,” Taylor Swift (surprise entrant into the “twerking video” category) released the video for “Shake it Off,” which features a slapsticky Swift fumbling her way through a number of contemporary dance forms and pantomiming amused shock at a crew of jean-clad, twerking women. The video is funny, as dance critic Brian Seibert insists, in its casting of Swift as a heroic, klutzy Lucille Ball figure. However, the video also pitches us right back into the troubling conversation about race and twerking that has been going on since Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance last year. Funny or not, by contrasting a giggling Taylor Swift with wiggling, faceless black butts, this video uses oversexualized blackness as the foil for Taylor Swift’s wholesome free spirit. Sure, the joke is intended to be on Swift herself; the twerking is meant to mock her inability to be “sexy” according to cultural stereotypes. But, as Molly Lambert explains, “the fact that the white pop stars so constantly use black women’s bodies to make that joke is an issue.”
But in “Anaconda,” Minaj reclaims her body, refusing to let it be either the object of mockery or the signifier of male power. If Swift’s twerking humor relies on the supposed hilarity of black women’s bodies, Minaj’s humor relies on pushing stereotypical expectations of black femininity to their limits. After all, the kind of derision vocalized by Sir Mix-A-Lot’s white fallgirls and implicit in appropriations of twerking isn’t just about physical excesses. It’s about signified sexual and cultural excesses, the assumption that the kinds of women who have big butts are the kinds of women who bank on their sexuality. While Minaj’s song describes her exchanging her desirable body for fashion, drugs, and money, the final joke is that Minaj isn’t some “rap guy’s girlfriend.” She’s the rapper herself. In rapping about the stereotypes of black women, she renders them ridiculous. She takes on and performs hypersexualization and objectification, forcing us to see how uncomfortable the roles are and hence how impossible the expectations. Should we be laughing at black women’s bodies or at the weird world created by a culture that simultaneously rewards and condemns big butts (specifically) and female sexualization (more generally)? If Taylor Swift is the Lucille Ball of twerking, Nicki Minaj is its Steven Colbert, whose extreme persona hides a powerful critique.
In the end, Minaj exposes both female detractors who envy her and male admirers who reduce her to an object; she exposes them as equally unable to see her as an active subject because they are finally afraid of her power. The sexualized female body is powerful, and that power is only culturally imaginable if it is contained by a patriarchal system, one that equates display with exchange. Female bodies are the reward for male success. “Anaconda” mocks an extreme version of this equation: Balmain for sexual favors.
But that same rhetoric lies at the back of the celebrity photo hacks, as well as the conversations we’ve had about entitlement and sexuality in the aftermath of the Santa Barbara shootings. It is the culturally powerful idea that male success deserves a reward in female sexuality, whether that is access to nude photos, a girlfriend, or sexual favors. The culturally terrifying implication behind “Anaconda” is its fundamental refusal to play by those familiar rules. Minaj gets money when she wants and she shows her body when she wants. What is truly excessive isn’t her body but her power. The danger isn’t that seeing her body will ruin our moral fabric, but rather that her body is functioning outside of a controlling system.
Lest you think I exaggerate the threatening implications of Minaj’s agency of display, consider the more explicit formulation of threat forwarded in another recent Minaj video, “Lookin’ Ass.”
Whereas “Anaconda” playfully condemns male sexuality and fantasy, “Lookin’ Ass” does so violently, literally annihilating the male gaze. In this video, the camera frequently focuses on a pair of male eyes in which Minaj’s body is reflected. The camera then moves between shots of male eyes, her writhing body, and her lips, which rap with fury about how she refuses to give any of her power to men that don’t live up to her talent. While “Anaconda” bouncily described exchanging sexual favors for Alexander McQueen, “Lookin’ Ass” insists that Minaj can supply for herself. The video ends by undermining her sexual objectification as neatly as her lyrics undercut her subservience to male economic dominance: she pulls out a pair of guns and fires into the air. We see the male eyes go wide. The beautiful object has become a dangerous threat. The fetishized combination of power and sexuality turns out to be intimidating, the physical embodiment of male fantasy and the inheritor of traditionally male success. Whereas “Anaconda” invites us to look at her butt and then laughs at us when we do, “Lookin’ Ass” snarlingly demands that we STOP looking at her ass and then deconstructs a system where women are expected to trade the display of their bodies for economic rewards.
Minaj’s power and danger have always come from her refusal to play by neatly gendered rules. Like many female rappers before her, she had to dance the line between rapper and “rap guy’s girlfriend,” simultaneously embodying lyrical mastery and sexual wish fulfillment. Jay-Z can proclaim himself the best rapper alive, but Trina has to name herself “the best ass in the game.” Missy Elliot, paragon of rap virtue for Minaj haters, famously invited men to her couch when their own girlfriends were reluctant. And Salt n’ Pepa promised to show us, not moral empowerment, but how to “become number one in the hot body show.”
Within that world, Minaj’s willingness to bare her body certainly has given her a kind of power, and we can see her as a participant in a system that makes women’s bodies objects, to trade and display. However, along with embodying conventional rap fantasies about female hypersexuality, Minaj has also threatened gender boundaries and norms of behavior with her variety of rap personas. She went from saying, “You can be the king but watch the queen conquer” to proclaiming “In this very moment I’m king.” Her oscillation between satire, seduction, and aggression should point, not to some flaw in her particular character or career path, but at the impossibilities of a system that clings to impossibly contradictory demands about women and their bodies. While we don’t have to celebrate a culture where women’s power is often bound up with their sexual objectification, we certainly should question a culture that condemns women who use their own bodies for their own power more harshly than it judges men who define power in terms of their right or ability to use women’s bodies.