Why Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift Are Not the Same
It never fails. You mention the privilege of white people and they respond by noting how black people do racial things too so…But, the truth is: we’re black. White people are not. Pretending as if historical context means nothing here is disingenuous. Likewise, comparing Taylor Swift’s antics to Nicki Minaj’s new video “Anaconda” – while tempting and personally gratifying to many white people – is false equivalency and shameless straw grasping. In this case, race matters. Vitally.
I recently wrote an article explaining that Taylor Swift’s cultural appropriation video for “Shake it Off” is problematic. I called it racist. I stand by that claim. Any video which intentionally frames certain dance styles (which are performed, produced, choreographed, and funded by all races of people) as “white” or “black” or “urban” or whatever is problematic. This isn’t the same as my claim that the Beatles were technically “white people music.” The Beatles actually were all white people, they worked with white producers and artists, and they targeted white audiences. Ballet, however, has been performed by many people of color. Yet, in Taylor Swift’s video, there is intentional framing to exclude women of color from the ballet scene dangerously reinforcing social norms that black bodies cannot be associated with more refined, urbane, and traditional facets of American culture.
Now, when Taylor Swift scuttles around awkwardly mocking black women’s bodies, she is appropriating. This means she doesn’t belong to the racial, social, or sub-group she is attempting to embody. Instead, she is playing on some of the most polarizing and limiting aspects of said subgroup for entertainment purposes. In essence, she is “wearing blackness” to make a point about how absurd it would be for her to “act black.” Meanwhile, she is pigeonholing black women’s bodies as if we are incapable of performing lead for the American Ballet Theater (cough Misty Copeland cough).
Nicki Minaj, while I have continuously criticized her inauthentic body imaging and her intentional framing as the one-dimensional Hottentot Venus, has the right do whatever the hell she wants with her body. In her new video “Anaconda,” she spends pretty much the entire time half (or two-thirds) nekkid. Like, cheeks everywhere. I think she looks great and it is her prerogative to do so. Comparing her personal sexuality choices to the appropriation parade Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, or Miley Cyrus put on every few months has nothing to do with personal identity. In fact, each of them is visually “acting black” for fun.
Where Swift is putting on a costume, Minaj is being the woman she wakes up to be each morning. Where Swift jokingly hunches her shoulders and attempts to shake what she lacks for a backside, Minaj simply moves with the natural fluidity inborn in her DNA. Where Swift, Perry, and Cyrus emulate, Minaj simply is. She doesn’t have to pretend to be anything because she isn’t acting like anyone else. While she is certainly the provocateur and her one-dimensionality can be problematic for young girls with less sexual agency than she has, she has every right to flaunt her assets as she chooses.
What this is certainly not about though is the fact that Nicki Minaj owns her sexuality. Googling “Cher butt” or “Madonna breasts” or “Sports Illustrated swimsuit” proves that there are plenty of hyper-sexualized white women who do too. Check out this cover of 2014 Sports Illustrated cover where Nina Agdal, Chrissy Teigen, and Lily Aldrige posed basically naked with the backsides directly in the camera’s lens. It is only when a black woman does it that it becomes a problem to the white mainstream.
The only criticism I maintain for artists like Rihanna and Minaj (not so much Beyoncé anymore) is that embodying the stereotype isn’t necessarily the straightest path to defeating it. I’m sure these women have depth and character beyond their stage presences, but it is the lack of true and complete public self that endangers young black women and girls seeking reflections of themselves in the world. Frankly, blonde hair and “British” accents don’t really do that.
I may catch heat for saying that and I don’t personally care. We all know that young women look upwards and outwards when traversing adolescence. We have all done it. This isn’t me saying these women should raise other people’s children. But, Minaj, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Swift, Perry, and Cyrus are all brands now. Becoming a mega-star means synergy of sorts. Sometimes the images, sounds, and trends these women create are completely inescapable. So, there is a bit of accountability there. How that manifests in terms of business choices, body image decisions, and music content is debatable but the accountability is there nonetheless.
No matter what our individual estimations about these young women’s bodies and visual decision-making, it is very clear Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift are not the same. Implying Swift’s whiteness and inherent privilege are wiped away because she likes to pretend she is socially awkward is a cop out. It is yet another tool of white supremacy to assert that Swift has a right to masquerade as black women because black women exist.
Our existence isn’t a good enough reason to caricature our bodies, our features, our fashion choices or our womanhood. When white artists and audiences begin to understand this, they might find they’d rather just make money being their plain old selves like the rest of us.
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