How Does Nicki Minaj Influence Black Girls? Ask Them.

Nicki Minaj is poised to make a splash with her sophomore album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, on April 3. After head-turning appearances at the Grammys and the NBA All-Star Game and with Madonna at the Super Bowl, followed by reports that she landed a multi-million dollar deal with Pepsi, she has emerged as the new “it girl” in American popular culture.

As such, Minaj has become a lightning rod for conversations about race, youth, girls and beauty standards. To some, her provocative videos–such as “Stupid Hoe,” which was reportedly banned by BET for its flashes of Minaj’s nearly bare behind–make her the poster child for the hypersexualization of black women in today’s pop. Others have called her out for perpetuating white beauty standards with her blond wigs, her Harajuku Barbie alter ego and her references to Marilyn Monroe. Ronda Racha Penrice of theGrio.com thinks that the juxtaposition of these images with Minaj’s famously large behind sends a negative double message to black girls: that white beauty icons like Monroe and Barbie are the standard even for black stars and that black female bodies are aberrant and indecent.

All too often, critics make the kneejerk assumption that black girls helplessly fall victim to these troubling messages. It’s true that Minaj embodies the contradictory and confusing media images with which black girls grapple. But those who bemoan popular culture’s negative effect on black girls rarely ask them what they think.

I have asked them. As an anthropologist and a professor of African American Studies, I spent over a decade conducting more than 60 interviews with Caribbean and African American girls between the ages of 12 and 21. I found that these girls are not blank slates who passively receive derogatory representations of black girls. Rather, they have opinions. They are critical of “ideal,” picture-perfect, typically light-skinned celebrities like Beyoncé. They favor “real” women like Mary J. Blige, who emphasize artistry and overcoming adversity.

I first interviewed “Amanda,” a second-generation Jamaican girl, when she was 15 years old. She was critical of Beyoncé and Tyra Banks for not projecting “natural beauty,” instead allying herself with Blige, Kelly Rowland, India.Arie and Alicia Keys, girl-next-door types known for talent rather than flaunting sexuality. When Minaj burst on the scene five years later, Amanda reflected:

Well, she is really good at marketing herself and selling her image. She’s good at selling records but I don’t think I’d go about it in the same way as her … because she uses sex to sell her image … the way she sells herself is not the way I was brought up to handle myself.

Amanda’s keenness is not atypical. Anthropologist Elizabeth Chin studied poor and working-class black girls in Connecticut and found 10-year-olds who asked why “you never see a fat Barbie” and proclaimed, “Barbie is a stereotype.”

Most of the girls in my study cast a jaundiced eye on excessively thin, airbrushed and unrealistic pop icons. At the same time, these girls also find power in celebrities like Beyoncé and Minaj, whose personal triumphs and in-your-face sexuality animate fans to at least imagine a world in which black girls’ bodies might be celebrated rather than demonized. Acerbic critics, they “call out” performers who don’t “keep it real,” but they simultaneously appropriate the artists’ empowering messages. When she was 15, Amanda favored former Destiny’s Child singer Kelly Rowland over her lighter-skinned, more famous bandmate Beyoncé: “Kelly Rowland—she is really for real. Beyoncé is fantasy.”

What “femininity” means is particularly complicated in the cases of performers like Minaj who have multi-ethnic backgrounds and must navigate at least two sets of gender ideals. Commentators have often glossed over Minaj’s Afro- Indo-Trinidadian ancestry, presenting her as “black.” But Minaj’s story is more complicated and it resonates with immigrant girls. Minaj was separated from her mother and raised by her grandmother in Trinidad for several years before reuniting with her parents in Queens, N.Y. Like Minaj, black American girls come from increasingly diverse ethnic backgrounds that include African American, Caribbean, Latin American and African ethnic groups. All have to reconcile their cultural upbringings with American notions of femininity.

Just as we can’t paint black girls’ ethnic identities in broad strokes, we also should avoid blanket assumptions about the meaning of their interpretations of popular culture. Sasha and Malia Obama, for example, have African American, Kenyan and white American heritage, but we should not assume their famous affinity for Justin Bieber indicates a rejection of black heartthrobs, nor that their alternating straight and natural hairstyles signal a seesawing between acceptance and denial of mainstream beauty norms. Put simply, it’s more complicated than that. Minaj’s prismatic wigs similarly defy the easy categories of “black” or “white” hair. Like “the black girl” herself, Minaj is a complex figure who “flips” mainstream norms in a manner that often goes unrecognized.

The media’s oversimplification of Minaj is part of a larger tendency to pathologize and homogenize black girls, amplifying their problems while ignoring their diversity. Take Precious: In over a decade of researching urban black girls, I never met one girl with all of the problems embodied in the film’s pregnant, obese, illiterate, HIV positive, sexually and physically abused protagonist. While many girls have faced some of these issues, they are still canny, critical consumers of pop culture with distinct opinions. If we listen to the voices of black girls we might be surprised at what we will hear.

Photo of Nicki Minaj is from Flickr user CHRISTOPHER MACSURAK under Creative Commons 3.0.

Comments

  1. I’m just not really sure how Nicki Minaj is doing anything helpful or new for women of all colors. Her songs don’t seem to have a message beyond bragging about how fantastic she is, her videos are highly sexualised, and you can’t get away from the fact most of her ‘crazy’ outfits still manage to display some seriously gravity-defying cleavage. How does that challenge stereotypes of black women being hypersexual? How does Minaj writhing around in hotpants and having pink liquid poured over her heaving chest differ from the tiresome stereotype of the ‘video ho’ so regularly represented in sexist rap music videos? I just don’t understand what the fuss is about her. Take away the silly wigs and the outrageous outfits and you just have a marketing man’s dream with nothing useful or interesting to say.

    • A sexy woman being sexy does not mean she is not an empowering individual. Although Nicki Minaj uses sexiness as a tool to achieve popular appeal, she does so while empowering the female to appreciate and control sexual situations. For example, in Super Bass, when she has “pink liquid poured over her heaving chest,” she is clearly in control of that situation. She is not in a place of subservience, rather, she is the center of a respectful appreciation. The men have no ill will towards her, and they appear to be respectfully admiring her beauty, not gawking at her lady-parts (although who knows what was really going on in those boys’ heads!). Another example of empowered female sexuality is seen in the Beez in da Trap video – not only in her respectful camaraderie with the lady dancers – but in the scene where the ladies give lap dances to the men. In this scene, the women are in total control, and although the men seem to be clearly enjoying this, they are not making moves to touch the womyn or attempting to coerce them into doing anything besides what they are doing of their own free will. Nicki Minaj simply acknowledges that sex and sexiness are intrinsic to this life, and she is urging girls to take control of their sexuality.

      In response to Nicki’s rainbow (including blonde) wigs…
      I am a blonde-haired Asian, and I did not make this choice because I hate being Asian or think Asians are unattractive, rather, I see it as a purposeful subversion of hegemonic ideals of beauty and as staking a claim of Asian beauty within traditionally white normativities thereby demonstrating that beauty is not exclusively white. For me, by assuming an aesthetic only “allowed” if you are “white,” I seek to challenge ideas about what can be considered beautiful and call into question the idea of “natural” beauty in an oil-fueled consumerist world. As a person of color, having blonde hair announces that blondness aka whiteness is NOT *actually* special and allows people to more easily see that an Asian can be as pretty as a blond white girl, if only one’s brain paused long enough to see past her race.

      • Also, I think that Nicki Minaj has a lot of positive things to say, and if you can’t hear them, it must be because you’re not listening.

        For example, “I’m fightin’ for the girls that never thought they could win
        ‘Cause before they could begin you told ‘em it was the end
        But I am here to reverse the curse that they live in”. Or Girls Fall Like Dominoes – that’s a song entirely about girl power.

        She demonstrates, through her baller status, that women are capable of competing with men in a men’s world, and in fact, of doing it better.

    • Shauna Strathmann says:

      I think Nicki is actually just doing it her own way. I totally respect her because she fights for what she believes in and encourages girls of all races and ages to do the same. You know the saying: “don’t judge a book by it’s cover”? This rule definitely applies here. You are basing your opinion on her image and two songs. I am only 12 years old and yet I am willing to bet that you that you looked for (possibly) the least empowering songs of hers. If you would actually listen to ‘Fly’ or ‘Freedom’, you would see that you have been looking at the parts, not the whole.

  2. I myself am not a fan of Nicki Minaj, but I appreciate her style. She may not conform to the standards of girl next door black beauty but I don’t feel like she is a barbie either.

    Although she maybe focusing on sex a little too much, I believe she is creating her own unique style.

    I believe that she is a black feminist in that she is not conforming to any certain type of beauty standards.
    In my opinion she is inventing her own unique style.

  3. This article is excellent as it dovetails with my own thoughts on race and identity. I am of mixed race–brown enough to be “other,” white enough to “pass” in certain circles. The ancestry that makes my skin brown is not a part of my cultural identity, but the human desire to define and categorize often puts me in the situation of explaining to people why my skin is brown. I imagine a future where being brown like me doesn’t require an explanation and where blond hair is not the ideal beauty–an ideal that is definitely perpetuated by the media.
    Defining “natural” beauty can be tricky, though, because there are plenty of non-white people born with blond or red hair. What then? What if Beyonce and Nicki, if they’re even thinking about it all that much, are really emulating other women of color born with naturally blond hair when they don a blond wig? Is it fair to assume Beyonce and Nicki and others like them are really trying to emulate a white woman, or are they simply reinventing themselves in order to stay current in the rotation?

  4. I like the discussion around this and the views of the young black people. I’d also like to hear more about what all mainstream people think (from all ethnicities) about current pop culture and whether they also look at it similarly to your interviewees.
    I don’t care what colour Minaj is, but she and others like Gaga are trying to make their mark in a hyper-sexualised world that keeps telling them that sex sells. The whole industry is like this right down to the radios that promote the music and so we keep buying what we hear as it sounds fun, but are we really buying into the images and lyrics?
    Nicki Minaj gave some strong opinions when she met little Sophia and Rosie on Ellen DeGeneres’ show by telling them over and over that they should finish school and stay in school. But when it comes to her music, the advice she’ll be getting is that opinion doesn’t sell.
    So in spite of the fact that we get fantastic singers like Adele and Jennifer Hudson who make their mark and become very famous whilst big, the pressure on them to ‘downsize’ and become ‘sexier’ is huge.
    Our young girls (I have two teens) are navigating this and I constantly have the communication line open for them to discuss and analyse what they’re seeing. They both love youtube and are constantly finding new singers and discussing them, which I love as they find some really different people from wide backgrounds and looks. I hope that helps them in their growth and forming of their identity.

  5. Susan G. says:

    I really appreciate your attention to what the girls think. It sounds like many recognize that racial and gender identities are constructed and performed and that this can be empowering and even artistic. With their varying hair styles, girls like Sasha and Malia represent their right to choose and change their self-image instead of being locked into fixed places by rigid social standards. More power to them!

  6. Excellent post. Although I have to admit I’ve never sat all the way through a single one of Minaj’s music videos. :)

    I’m certainly with you on the diversity of black communities. I was just talking to a friend today about how I wish we saw more of that diversity represented on the screen. I think there’s more investment in representing an essential blackness against an equally essentially whiteness on TV, than there is in showing the beautiful variations in black cultures.

  7. I agree with Catherine Scott.But as a Black woman,I’m sick of people calling everyone “multi-ethnic”.Black is Black. Deal with it!Nicki Minaj does NOT do any favors for us ripping off Lady Gaga,wearing blue contact lenses,blonde wigs,and being vulgar.

  8. Carina Ray says:

    A brilliant piece, by a brilliant scholar that gives voice to the critical gaze of young black women, instead of uncritically gazing at them! Bravo, Ms. for publishing such a substantive article!

  9. Much of the NWA either doesn’t `get’ Nicki or choose to see her as an airhead who “selling out” for fame and fortune. It’s understandable. Fake boobs. Fake butt. A rather liberal use of make-up. The wigs. Airs and affected accents. But, there’s a catch. With a sort of ‘it’s-mine-’cause-I-bought-it’ posturing, Minaj is unapologetically artificial. How’s that `fake’? Taking in her lyrics makes it impossible to have her up as just some affected dummy. Don’t believe the hype. Don’t dare believe that Minaj isn’t a real emcee or that as a story-teller she’s incapable of the kinds of allusions that brought chilling dimension to Ready to Die.

    http://blackonpurpose.blogspot.com/2012/02/do-yall-really-listen-to-music-nicki.html

  10. This article presents much needed discussion about the complexity of black female identity in America. Nicki Minaj may well be a contemporary version of the bold and sassy classical blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s who dared to challenge conventional codes of womanhood.

  11. Amy Bucknam says:

    This article brilliantly highlights the fact that black women and girls in America today are assumed to be subject to the social stereotypes imposed on them, when in reality many are just as critical of our culture. Whether or not Nicki Minaj is a positive female figure in American pop culture has been debated on my college campus, specifically within feminist-based discussions. This piece brings to light the other end of that discussion – how the female audience reacts to her, and as Ms. LaBennett pointed out, they seem to be aware of her unique identity. Excellent article written by a great female academic.

  12. Tinisha says:

    I think that Nicki Minaj sends a message to all women that there bodies are playgrounds to say the least. Here plastic parts were for her own economical gain, and everything about her is over done. If she is embodying all of her ethnicities, she has done so in a way that makes her appear comical. I enjoy styles from different cultures, but I think that putting them all together would make for a fashion nightmare. How can she be taken seriously with a body like a Cintar that was created in a hospital? I look forward to seeing celebrities like get old.

  13. I really enjoyed this article! As an aspiring female rapper myself, who once demonstrated the overly sexual and stereotypical black rap woman in my music, I believe that hop-hop/rap is an important part of black culture in America. Therefore, I think the messages that the genre uses are being implemented by its listeners, especially young black kids who are trying to find their identities. I think rap plays a big part in the poor education of black people, high pregnancy rate and crime. So to counteract this, I’ve taken a different approach with my music. I think Nicki Minaj, with all the fame she has, is a thorn in the black community’s flesh. For one, she’s fake from head to toe. I know that many other girls get weaves, contacts, false nails, etc., but to go as far as to get butt implants! I naturally have a gigantic butt and in the spirit of sarah baartman, do we really need this kind of depiction of black women on a world platform? I could go on and on but regardless of what I say, she will still be famous and the young girls she appeals to with her Barbie alter ego, suffers in the mix.

  14. Katrina says:

    How is Lady Gaga influential to white girls??? Seriously is this an article?

  15. I am not even going to talk about the body distortion and plastic parts. Have you listened to her lyrics. Nappy headed ho? Nigger monkey? Pulling dildo’s out on stage in front of kids? Please do All of your research before you go defending someone who is doing far more damage than good to our girls.

  16. Nicki Minaj never seases to amaze me, I’m a 34 year old open minded women, with many life experience. I have just had a little girl. To think that she is going to grow up watching Nicki as a role model scares me to death. Nicki’ s music is labelled as “soft porn” e.g. beez in the trap, in the music industry. This song has been aired mid-day on music channels. Her lyrics in her song “high school” are not what any little girl should be singing along too. Any responsible mother would be mortified to hear such a thing. She’s a young lads perverted dream, NOT a role model for our young girls. Please for the sake of our innocent little children, get her off our screens. Or stick her on the “adult” xxx channel where she belongs.

  17. i think that nicki minaj is a wonderful women! i think she raps great and she is dope. but then again i think that nicki is very sexual and talk about how big this and that is and playing with this and that. I myself wouldn’t allow my child to listen to Nicki Minaj because majority of her songs are Rated R! Not Trying to hate but She is really really sexual but i say go nicki because thats how she get what she got. But Let me be clear, Nicki minaj’s music isnt all about sex but alot of her songs are . im a nicki fan all the way but when its time to keep it real , imma do so and this is how i feel. her music is for 15 years and older.

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