Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, and Conversations On Race and Feminism

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Celebrity social media feuds are fuelled by a tendency to conflate fame with relevance, a desire to bolster one’s public image and instantaneous access to platforms for mass communication, all of which amounts to some poorly calculated PR moves and some bafflingly inarticulate 140 character sentences. If you would rather a more literal definition, a celebrity social media feud occurs when one famous person implicitly or explicitly questions the talent and credibility of another famous person in order to assert her/his own superiority. While I usually think of these feuds as the definition of vapid, the recent feud between Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift et al has been of interest to me because of the number of issues of social relevance that are related to it.

Minaj tweeted her dissatisfaction that her videos for “Anaconda” and “Feeling Myself” have been overlooking for Video of the Year at the MTV’s VMAs. She then tweeted, “If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year.” Swift took it as an implicit jab about the nomination of her video “Bad Blood” and responded by saying, “I’ve done nothing but love & support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot.” Minaj responded with, “Huh? Didn’t say a word about u” and the people of the internet did what they do best, react and hashtag. Meek Mill accused Drake of having a ghost writer, everyone was either inflamed or apathetic and as Rembert Browne of Grantland said, bloggers had to put on the hat that makes one actually care about these things.

I could make a point about how both of Minaj’s videos and Swift’s video are celebrations of celebrity rather than of talent. This would be followed by a comment that Beyoncé’s low budget and accessible video for “7/11” is remarkable only because Beyoncé has celebrity status and her world is inaccessible. I certainly wouldn’t be nominated for a VMA if I used my iPhone to film myself dancing on my balcony. More likely my neighbours would have me arrested for obscenity. I could make a point about celebrity but this isn’t the matter of most relevance. To focus on the celebrities involved in this feud is to obscure the larger issue at hand. What is of interest to me isn’t the Twitter feud between Minaj and Swift – though this is what the media largely chooses to focus on – but rather the social issues that their comments relate to.

On her tour for her most recent album, 1989, Swift traded her persona of the jilted lover for that of the best friend and her theme of heartbreak for one of female empowerment. Her “Bad Blood” video and her recent concerts are celebrations of her friendships – with Victoria’s Secret models, natch. Ironically, the “Bad Blood” song itself is about a female friendship turned sour, female enmity, actually, which is purportedly about a conflict between Swift and Katy Perry. Swift took Minaj’s comment as an expression of resentment from a female artist to a female artist. Given her best friend persona, Swift was quick to say that she has shown Minaj nothing but love and it was likely a man who took her nomination for video of the year, effectively suggesting that as a self-declared feminist her displays of female friendship placed her squarely in the right. Perry, purported target of the aforementioned Swift song, wrote a largely unintelligible tweet that essentially said the only effect of pitting women against each other is that a woman is torn down. This can be taken as a comment directed to Swift, who turned Minaj’s comment into an attack on another female’s art, or to Minaj who made the comment about female bodies or to the media that gleefully reported on the Minaj-Swift feud as an online celebrity catfight. And while Perry does have a point about how it is completely toxic to pit women against each other for sport and clickbait, she is largely missing Minaj’s point. (You were wondering when I was going to get to Minaj’s point, weren’t you?)

The main reason why Swift’s “Bad Blood” video has received so much recognition is because of the celebrities – or more specifically, the celebrity bodies – in it. The video features a cast of singers, actresses and models who play the part of assassins, plus Kendrick Lamar as the video’s featured rapper. The video features a lot of weapons and even more latex bondage wear. While the action of the video emphasizes female power, its main marketing point was female bodies.

Minaj’s “Anaconda” is a celebration of female sexuality and bodies, specifically women with bigger butts, which prominently features a sample from Sir Mix a Lot’s “Baby Got Back”. As Minaj says in the song’s outro, “Fuck the skinny bitches in the club / I wanna see all the fat ass bitches in the muthafuckin’ club.” When Minaj tweeted about the videos that celebrate women with slim bodies, she alluded to a tendency for the music industry (and North American society at large) to privilege not only white skin but bodies that conform to a normative image of whiteness.

In its most obvious form, racism can be seen in a discriminatory preference for white skin over black. In its more subtle form, it can be seen in the privileging of certain skin tones, facial features and bodies. There is a long history of the music industry celebrating white artists over black artists. In the music industry, racism results in white artists receiving more accolades, money and recognition than black artists, and in the music of black artists being relegated to niche markets. It also results in white artists receiving recognition for their appropriation of black art forms while their sources of inspiration are largely overlooked. As Minaj said in another tweet, “Black women influence pop culture so much but are rarely rewarded for it.”

In The Racial Contract, Charles W. Mills writes that in looking at cases of discrimination, “one has to recognize it is not as excesses by individual racists but as an organic part of this political enterprise[1].” Part of this political enterprise is the covert racism that results in the privileging of some bodies over others. This can be more difficult to acknowledge than overt discrimination, to the extent that some white people are ignorant of their own white privilege. It’s hard to acknowledge one’s own privilege as a symptom of racism because for the privileged group, it is a fact of life and no longer feels like privilege. Swift missed Minaj’s point because she did not recognize that she referred to the covert racism that results in the privileging of Swift’s music over Minaj’s. Additionally, Swift was thinking in terms of an acknowledgement of female artistry without considering that black feminism seeks recognition for those who are black and female in an industry that largely recognizes white males.

The people of Twitter were quick to point out that Swift turned the conversation towards feminism while ignoring the racial issue that Minaj was trying to address. Swift reacted to the tweet because she truly thought she was being attacked and then made a misguided attempt to make things better with Minaj. I don’t think this was a conscious attempt to derail a conversation about black feminism that needs to take place. However, it was likely indicative of Swift’s inability to have this conversation. That the story of the Minaj-Swift feud largely turned away from racism in the music industry is indicative of the difficulty many people have with starting conversation about race, which is not to say that there weren’t people who were unwilling to start the conversation because of their own racism. Additionally, the fact that the Drake-Meek Mill feud that started on the same night has continued to be an object of some media fascination while the Minaj-Swift conversation has largely come to an end is indicative of a reluctance to start conversations about feminism.

To turn this piece back to its author, I decided to write about the Minaj-Swift feud and the social issues that intersect with it because I think it is necessary that we have more open, frank conversations about race and racism. Also, I think it is important that we are critical of the popular culture we consume and how it can relate to larger cultural issues. What was meant to be a relevant addition to an ongoing conversation comes a few weeks after the conversation has ended largely because I felt I was unqualified to talk about issues surrounding race and racism. While I have read a lot recently pertaining to black feminism, sociology and literary theory, I still feel like I don’t know enough to be starting this conversation. Ultimately, I decided to finish writing a piece that has been a few weeks in the making because of a round table conversation I read on Man Repeller called “We Need to Talk About Race.” The blog’s founder, Leandra Medine, said that she decided to start the conversation after she realized the racial aspect of the Minaj-Swift feud had been undiscussed on Man Repeller but she admitted she didn’t know how to approach the conversation as a white woman. Their guest writer, Ashley C. Ford said, “We like to think that when we’re silent, it’s because we’re having a different conversation or whatever, but a lot of times when you’re silent — especially in the situation with [Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj], people saw a white woman pitted against a black woman, the media did that — when you don’t mention it, what people hear in the silence is that you don’t consider this a necessary conversation to have.” I thought this was a necessary conversation to have and took it as a chance to apply some of what I have read. One major thing you learn in grad school is how little you know, so I know that my knowledge falls short when it comes to turning this into an academic conversation. However, as Ford said, it is necessary to start these conversations so we can learn from them and have more effective conversations about race and feminism in the future. With that in mind, I would love to read your thoughts and opinions about the Minaj-Swift feud and the issues surrounding it, and I would love to learn from those who have knowledge to share in conversations about race and feminism.

Song of the Day: Echo by Lurch & Chief

What, you wanted to hear more from Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift?

[1] Mills opens his book with the painfully true line, “White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today. And this omission is not accidental. Rather, it reflects the fact that standard textbooks and courses have for the most part been written and designed by whites, who take their racial privilege so much for granted that they do not even see it as political, as a form of domination.” A necessary explanation of his use of political enterprise, Mills uses the term to refer to white supremacy and ultimately racism as the unnamed systems that shape North American society.

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