From my first viewing of Nicki Minaj and Cassie’s new video for “The Boys,” I was in love – and I was pretty sure that this was the pop cultural artifact I had been waiting for in order to unload the thoughts about third wave feminism that have been building in my mind over the past few weeks.
In this case, when I say “third wave feminism,” I’m talking about the way that women now are wrestling to navigate femininity and masculinity, cultural power and identity, in a time when choices are greater and there are competing visions of what it means to be a fully actualized woman. We’re now at a point where (as this blog aptly demonstrates) women are interested in reclaiming conventional forms of femininity with pride, whether that’s crafting, sporting cute skirts, wearing makeup, or becoming moms. We believe and assert that we shouldn’t have to be tough, aggressive, and otherwise conventionally masculine in order to be taken seriously as smart and thoughtful people. At the same time, we recognize that patriarchal norms endure. The victories that second wave feminism won relied on strategic masculinization: breaking into male-dominated arenas of cultural power required women to prove that they could play by the rules and then start thinking about transforming institutions from within.
But now, should women act like tough men to succeed in a still-patriarchal world or attempt to change this world? Women live in a tension between conventional masculinities and femininities. The ideal empowered feminist today will be simultaneously tough and sexy; able to strut in high heels or suavely sport a suit; able to roll her sleeves up and duke it out or able to let her hair down and laugh with the girls. These contradictory imperatives also create tension in her relationships to others, both men and women. If she is heterosexual, she is supposed to simultaneously attract men and be their equal, existing in the resonant state between at-work pal and sex object, one-of-the-guys and bombshell. Her relationships with women are equally fraught: she is supposed to be their sister in solidarity and their competition. Somehow, she is supposed to attract every guy, even theirs, and yet remain best friends with everyone. Somehow, she is supposed to beat women at work and then listen to their secrets over drinks, to beat men at work but then soften herself at home. Impress the guys but don’t intimidate them. Beat the women but then befriend them. Such conflicting mandates!
What I love about “The Boys” is the way it playfully captures these tensions. I’ve talked before about how Nicki’s highly successful career has involved the exact kind of high-wire act I described above. She made a name for herself by out-rapping guys and girls alike, by stealing the show from rap’s biggest names (“Monster,” hello?) and by dissing the other ladies as unable to keep up. At the same time, she’s taken the hip-hop mandate for women to become super-sexualized “black Barbies” to such a parodic extreme that it breaks down, becoming its own mockery (Phoebe argued this once with me in regards to the “Starships” video that I hated, but now I have become convinced that she is right, even if I still hate that video, haha). But many of her early successes were big-name features on men’s songs. While she’s collaborated with other women, those aren’t the songs that define her as a serious artist, as more than a pop star. They’re not “Monster” (with Kanye and Jay-Z), “Hello Good Morning” (with Rick Ross and Diddy), “Turn Me On” (with David Guetta), “All I Do Is Win” (with every rapper ever making records right now), “Knockout” (with Lil Wayne). And while Pink Friday was a mega-hit, it a) featured a lot of collaborations with male artists, such as Eminem and Kanye; and b) seemed split between more tough, conventional raps and more poppy songs for radio play. This album wrestles with the gender dichotomies of the music industry: for her to be a serious rapper, she has to rap like a man, but for her to be a mega-star, she has to sing like a girl. Continue reading