The release of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” has been surrounded by as much hype as it has controversy. A glimpse at the comments on the YouTube video (now at 200 million views and counting) sees a disproportionate mix of either rap brilliance revelry, or outright racism and misogyny. The latter is too often at the dearth of creativity, and lacks any intelligent engagement with what Nicki and “Anaconda” represents: a manifestation of Nicki Minaj reclaiming otherwise commodified and hyper-sexualised bodies, and the appropriation of twerking laden in pop music over the last year (what up, Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea). It focuses on a nuanced representation of Black and Wom*n of Colour bodies, specifically within the framework of the White, Capitalist, Heteropatriarchal music industry that too often necessitates the objectification of the female body to achieve success. Nicki Minaj is decidedly sexy and exercises autonomy over her body and sexuality in a public sphere that persistently polices black wom*n’s expressions of sexuality.
Much of the commentary concerning “Anaconda” seems to be vested in deciding ‘is this empowering or not?’ and ‘Is this subversive or submissive?’ And further, ’Is Nicki Minaj a feminist?’ Such hostility and speculation reifies the ‘politics of respectability’ that Minaj’s work seeks to explicitly undermine. Respectability politics itself originated as cultural, sexual, domestic, employment and artistic ‘guidelines’ or ‘rules’ for racially marginalised groups to follow in an effort to be viewed as ‘human.’ These politics are dehumanising, along with being a justification for oppression. There’s a further gendered aspect here, in that the way sexism impacts White wom*n’s lives differs from the politics of respectability. While sexism in general includes domination and objectification for gender, it is not the same thing as the politics of respectability. It prescribes a morality that is specifically anti-black and sexist, and codifies how black wom*n and wom*n of colour should and shouldn’t ‘act.’ Specifically within hip-hop, it draws a binary between what is considered ‘conscientious’ or ‘progressive’ and ‘scandalous’ or ‘sex driven.’ It rigidly opposes sexuality with any form of political consciousness, as though a female rapper like Nicki Minaj cannot be afforded both. Wom*n of Colour – importantly and even more so, Black Wom*n – negotiate this along with a specific racialised double standard that has historically configured black and brown bodies as fetishised, excessive, sexually deviant or an awful combination of these.
This may seem irrelevant in a reading of “Anaconda,” but all the criticism of the video stems from a social pedagogy of racism and sexism that is constantly re-inscribed by music video culture and mainstream media. This is partly why it is ‘shocking’ or ‘controversial’ for someone like Nicki Minaj to be defiant and self-celebratory with her body, sexuality and her rapping. Investing in conservative respectability politics mitigates the subversive and radical potential of a work like “Anaconda” in forging Wom*n of Colour feminism and consciousness by unapologetically rejecting assigned gender roles and White codes of beauty.
However, “Anaconda” is not a lone case: Minaj has never fit into assigned gender and sexual roles demanded of wom*n in the mainstream pop or the hip-hop industry. She is a self-determined and self-made artist. She appropriates the language and fervour of her male counterparts (or, ‘flips the script’) as a subversive tool to call out sexism and interrogate the masculine-designation in the hip-hop arena; and challenge the male power vested in musical and cultural spaces at large (in “Lookin’ Ass,” she literally shoots down the male gaze). She sings about sexy wom*n, sleeping with different guys, being ahead of the game and has a disregard for authority and hegemony that is as much empowering as it is self-affirming.
One of the most noticeable elements of the video (okay, aside from all the butts) is the distinct lack of men. The song describes – even objectifies – male characters. Her boy-toy Troy and the dude named Michael do not appear in the video, aside from Drake, who is a mere prop (note: not a collaborator or featured artist). Throughout the lap dance she gives to Drake, she is in complete control, expressing autonomous sexual desire. It genuinely seems as though Drizzy had no idea what was coming, which adds to the beauty of it all. This is a gem of flippin’ the script, where Drake is in the background, an accessory, and mostly insignificant – a familiar trope often employed in male pop and hip-hop videos.
Nicki is not here to pander to the male gaze, nor the mainstream conservatism of White Feminism. “Anaconda” is an unabashed sex-positive statement about a woman being in control of her body and sexuality. The criticism centred on how the video submits to the male gaze, actually reprimands her for expressing herself with sexually charged images and videos; and are playing into the same dominant narratives about wom*n’s sexualities that perpetuate victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and the subordination of wom*n. It creates an unnecessary and unproductive binary between feminism and sexuality. Since when did the two become mutually exclusive?
“Anaconda” is an act of social media genius that simultaneously wields confrontational power and a conscientious aversion to respectability politics and patriarchy. Nicki Minaj is a feminist because she declares it through her work. Her refusal to be defined by narrow views of feminism and femininity commits to an ongoing dialogue of wom*n’s oppression and the potential of varied forms of resistance. She offers a spectrum for Wom*n of Colour sexuality in an otherwise dichotomous slut-virgin understanding of it. Whether you are into the song or not, surely there is an appreciation of the effusive cultural labour that Nicki enacts by presenting, confronting, pluralising, and empowering a myriad of female bodies and sexualities.