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.
Time and again, though, Nicki gloriously pulls off parodic pink fantasies that manage to do both: that let Nicki exult in her rapper prowess and that showcase addictive pop hooks. I think “The Boys” might be the best double-edged performance of this type yet, because it moves beyond a single woman struggling alone to hip-hop glory and instead shows us two women together, both rapping about their prowess and building solidarity around romantic failure. Thus, this video keeps what I love about hip-hop: the transitive swagger that Sarah has described before. But it also imagines the possibility of shared female relationships where both women swagger and excel. I have wrestled with how, for many women rappers, tapping into swagger can lead to a problematic emphasis on sexual competition. In a song like “Stupid $&#,” there’s a nasty dismissiveness towards other women but also an exhilarating escape – a insistence that others “hating” on you is not because you’re flawed. I think it’s an important escape for women, who are still socially pressured to be nice above all (and where, as Chelsea has written, most female artists still situate their identity in relationship to romance).
But if there’s something third wave feminism is recognizing as lacking, it’s the kind of female solidarity that second wave feminism was better at generating, if in limited forms. While third wave feminism has had liberating potential for women by advocating that they take control over their sexuality, the resulting drive to be the predominant sexual object puts women into competition with all other woman and suggests that sexual prowess should trump loyalty towards women. (Again, I’m using a heterosexual framework, because I feel like that framework predominates in hip-hop explorations of sexuality and power). Now, I’m not talking about advancing some simplistic “chicks over dicks” mentality or some stereotypical feminist man-hating– but I want to recover a sense of loyalty and having each others’ backs to go along with individual fierceness. As Nicki rapped in “I’m the Best,” “the top is lonely.” That’s why she hopes someone is “coming for her,” ready to give her some competition.
While “The Boys” doesn’t offer us any solutions to these problems of third-wave feminism, it does play with all of these difficulties in a fresh way. From the opening, we’re in a candy-pink land that looks straight out of a Barbie playhouse and that is reminiscent of both “Super Bass” (with that hilarious pink fountain) and “Stupid $&#” (with its oversized, childhood snacks and neon-pastel palette). But whereas “Super Bass” was an ode to a dreamy dude and “Stupid #*$” was a throwdown against cheeky female competition, “The Boys” puts itself somewhere in the middle, building a rapport between its two female stars. Nicki and Cassie both move in and out of variously feminine outfits: always pastel and shiny, but at times appearing tom-boyish in suspenders and at times appearing as exaggerations of feminine norms – Nicki in her gingham dress and Cassie in her pin-up swimsuit. Their outfits sometimes meld these norms: think Cassie in a blue blazer, looking like a thug, but with her breasts half hanging out. And the men of this video are not equal competitors or objects of desire, but foolish props to be defeated in dance-offs, to be laughed at as they paint each others’ faces, or to be mowed down with fire. The meaningful interactions we see are between women. These women are talking about their professional chops and their relationships. These women are comforting each other and then just having a good time. In other words, “The Boys” imagines an exaggerated version of a idealized female world, but it’s something like the world I inhabit with good friends, where desire for The One doesn’t trump our ability to have fun and where we combat romantic frustration together by highlighting each others’ strengths (“I don’t even brake when I’m backing up,” Nicki brags, “I just swerve on a $&#*% if he acting up,” vocalizing a kind of gutsy ability to dodge hurt and keep grinding that is a refreshing counter to broken-down love songs of longing). In other words, it’s a world where women have romantic desire but aren’t entirely defined or broken by it; where women have competition but don’t need to dismiss all other women to succeed.