thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Barbie Girls: Lil’ Kim, Nicki Minaj, and Mattel

In gender, girl culture, race on February 3, 2012 at 7:26 am

Sarah Todd

Since Azealia Banks’ 2011 breakout hit  “212” captured my heart, mind, soul, and dancing feet, I’ve been reading up on the 20-year-old rapper and soon-to-be superstar. Almost every interviewer asks Banks about Nicki Minaj, which gets old fast for her, you, me, and the bourgeoisie. (With the possible addition of our lady Rye-Rye, they are the only two black female rappers currently generating major mainstream buzz. They also went to the same “Fame” high school in NYC. Ergo, endless comparisons.)

But one comment Banks made about Minaj in an interview with GQ UK stuck out to me:

It could just be that we were both inspired by Lil’ Kim. She did her thing with it, but I was kind of going to do a little bit of that same thing, with the characters, the pink and the Barbies. I wrote a song called “Barbie S***”. I was thinking “I’m going be black Barbie, that’s going to be my thing.” Then all of a sudden she [released it]! I was like, “F***! Did she have someone on my MySpace page? Is someone watching my Twitter? This is way too coincidental!”

The characters, the pink, the Barbie: was it really such a coincidence? I’m not so sure. As Banks notes, Lil’ Kim rapped about being “Black Barbie dressed in Bulgari” back in the early double-0s. There’s a French rapper who goes by the name Black Barbie. Atlanta rapper Diamond calls herself “black Barbie” too. All signs point to the fact that Barbie’s big in the hip-hop world.

This common denominator set my mind whirring. What is it about Barbie–as a name, image, and persona–that appeals to these rappers? And what, exactly, does claiming a black Barbie identity mean in the context of hip-hop culture? For the purposes of this post, I’ll limit myself to talking about how Minaj and Lil’ Kim–who also happen to be two of my favorite rappers–use Barbie to represent and challenge mainstream standards of beauty and femininity.

For decades, Barbie’s blond hair, blue eyes, wasp-thin waist and improbable curves have embodied American culture’s ludicrous yet deeply harmful beauty standards. These beauty standards are grounded in racist notions that associate whiteness with virtue and loveliness. When Mattel debuted black Barbies in the late 1960s, the dolls were essentially replicas of the original white Barbie with darker skin. Barbie’s idealized Anglo-Saxon facial features remained the same: a barely-there nose and rosebud mouth. The company would not update the doll’s features for another forty years. When they did, the Europeanized look of the new black Barbies remained problematic to some.

Given this history, the lure of Barbie for black female rappers might seem to reflect an internalization of white beauty standards. Barbie embodies the European appearance that dominant American culture tells women they should want; black Barbie, as a doll and a concept, symbolizes many of those same ideals. By claiming the label of Barbie or black Barbie, rappers like Lil’ Kim and Minaj can signal that they have a mainstream (read: “white-people-approved”) beauty.

Given Lil’ Kim’s own remarks about her physical insecurities, it’s hard not to read this 2011 promotional photograph as tapping into Barbie’s white aesthetics. Even the pink Mattel-style sticker in the corner hints at her beauty’s commercial appeal. In a Newsweek interview with Allison Samuels, she discussed how her blonde hair, blue contacts, breast implants, and rumored nose job and skin-lightening treatments all stemmed from the cultural feedback that she received about her appearance.

“‘I have low self-esteem and I always have,” she says. ‘Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know, the long-hair type. Really beautiful women that left me thinking, ‘How I can I compete with that?’ Being a regular black girl wasn’t good enough.’ And the implants? ‘That surgery was the most pain I’ve ever been in my life,’ says Kim. ‘But people made such a big deal about it. White women get them every day. It was to make me look the way I wanted to look. It’s my body.’”

On one hand, this quote lends credence to the argument that the Barbie label appeals to Lil’ Kim (and perhaps other black female rappers as well) because the doll represents “European-looking,” “long-haired” beauty and femininity. On the other hand, Lil’ Kim makes the valid argument that her body is her own, and she has a right to do with it as she pleases. This is certainly true. However, it also seems unlikely that she would have chosen to make these specific changes if she lived in a culture that sent more positive messages to African-American women.

Yet perhaps Kim’s clearly altered appearance is part of the photograph’s point. Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj frequently challenge the idea of natural beauty in their self-presentations. They don over-the-top costumes and brightly colored wigs that show they’re playing with their appearance–much as young girls might play with their dolls. In so doing, they make the labor of beauty visible and weird. Barbie may appeal to them because she, too, stands for a particularly artificial and constructed kind of beauty. After all, she’s a doll whose measurements would prevent her from walking upright if she were real.

Minaj’s Pink Friday cover art deploys exaggerated Barbie imagery in order to call attention to the artificiality of her appearance. One outstretched leg, shiny as plastic, is more than double the length of her torso. She has no arms, and her breasts are thrust so high they cover her collarbone. These out-of-whack proportions and missing limbs communicate the impossibility of the femininity she embodies. Meanwhile, her vacant expression—eyes wide and dull, pink lips in an expressionless pout—suggests not a doll come to life but a life-size doll, revealing the non-transferable nature of the Barbie ideal.

The cover art of the album perfectly captures Minaj’s approach to gender and beauty as performance. As Lisa Lewis wrote of Madonna, Minaj “engages with and hyperbolizes the discourse of femininity.” Appropriating the Barbie image, and taking it to its logical extreme, may actually be a way of subverting white beauty ideals.

It’s also worth noting that both Lil’ Kim and Minaj use Barbie as a means of allying themselves with girls and girl culture. In Barbie’s world, clothes, exciting careers, and Malibu dream houses take precedence over Ken, who is doomed to be a helmet-haired afterthought. Since boys who play with dolls tend to get stigmatized in our culture, Barbie has traditionally been a toy that girls play with by themselves or with other girls. When Lil’ Kim and Minaj call themselves Barbie, they’re appealing to a female fanbase. Minaj also calls her fans Barbz and Ken Barbz, which has the effect of both de-fanging some of Barbie’s harmful elements (if everyone’s a Barbie, then everyone’s beautiful) and empowering Minaj (she names her fans after herself).

However, Barbie functions as only one component of the rappers’ images–as a counterpoint to Nicki’s rage-filled Roman or Kim’s tough, hardcore persona. Women who rap are in an odd gendered space to begin with, given that rap music has historically been very male, and sometimes very misogynistic. To carve out a place for themselves in the hip-hop scene, as CNN pop culture critic Toure pointed out, they are often forced to choose between the personas of “tomboys or boy toys.” Both identities define women by their relationships to men and masculinity. Lil’ Kim and Minaj include elements of each in their personality repertoires.

When the rappers include Barbie in their personae toolkits, they create a third identity–beyond swaggering tomboy and sexual boy toy–intended to reach girls and women. But as they incorporate personas that involve different performances of gender, they upset rigid definitions of how women in hip-hop are supposed to behave. Take the dual parts Minaj plays in the music video “Monster.” She’s both a vampire dominatrix, growling and howling, and a Barbie-esque girl with a high-pitched voice and white wedding dress. By fracturing herself in two, Minaj shows that either neither one is the real her–or else both of them are. Similarly, Lil’ Kim is both a woman who calls herself Barbie and a woman who raps about going to jail and identifying with Malcolm X. These ladies are complex.

Ultimately, the very qualities that make Barbie problematic may be the same features that make her ripe for hip-hop appropriation. When Lil’ Kim and Minaj take on Barbie, they’re modeling themselves after the doll, but they’re also trying to make her over in their own images. What’s more, I think it’s working.

The Nicki Minaj special-edition Barbie doll

  1. I was mulling over all your thoughtful, well-written points when Lil Wayne’s “Knockout” started playing on my Grooveshark playlist. Have you seen the video? It’s especially interesting to me after your analysis, because Nicki is at her most Barbie-like (neon sherbert colored wig; ridiculous shoes) and yet she does not seem coded as Caucasian at all in this video (hip hop booty galore). Also, her persona in this video seems to include all 3 of the multiple possibilities you lay out above: super sex-toy; crazy, angry rapper thug; feminine Barbie. The fact that we are in a Barbie-like boxing world is fascinating too! And her rap in that song is amazing to watch, because she looks so Barbie-feminine and yet I would rank this rap as one of her angriest and awesome-est. And I don’t know exactly what to make of Lil Wayne’s opening lines either – “Hey Barbie, are you into black men? Hey Barbie, I can be your black Ken.” That’s all.

  2. Interesting, Melissa! I’ll have to check out the video. Also, I just ran across this article from The Grio that casts a more critical eye on Nicki Minaj’s performance of Barbie:

    Good counterpoints, too.

  3. […] just like gender can. We see this playful fluctuation in the Black Barbie phenomenon that Sarah Todd describes, when rappers like Lil Kim and Nicki Minaj alternate between “black” and […]

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