It would be, like, so totally white male of me to purport that Nicki Minaj’s overt displays of black sexuality are problematic in the same way that Miley Cyrus’s choices to capitalize on black female sexuality are. Because they’re not. But is your appreciation of Nicki Minaj’s work problematic? It probably is. I’m talking to you—the white frat boy satirically twerking to the song, I’m talking to you—the Asian frat boy (no)homo-erotically receiving the white frat boy’s ass vibrations, and I’m even talking to you—the socially conscious, queer Tumblr user who occasionally devotes a few minutes everyday to making a progressive feminist Facebook post.
Now the problem I have with the video—and the reason why your viewership of it is probably colonization of black female sexuality—is not an inherent one, but rather one that derives from a pervasive societal tendency to sexualize black (and POC more generally) bodies. You’re acting as colonizers because you’re taking and using what’s not yours in a perpetually abusive and hurtful fashion.
In Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992), bell hooks argues that representation of black female bodies in popular culture “rarely subvert or critique images of black female sexuality which were part of the cultural apparatus of 19th-century racism and which still shape perceptions today.” hooks emphasizes that even in the absence of overt racialism, images and associations can continue to perpetuate attitudes originating from a time when black female (and male!) bodies were commodities subjugated and available to white men. Cough, the era of the peculiar institution, cough, slavery, cough.
hooks traces this beyond American slavery to the European tradition of objectifying the other. She discusses Sarah Bartmann—a Khoikhoi woman unfortunately dubbed and forced to tour by white society as “the Hottentot Venus.” Bartmann was exhibited nude during the early 19th century as a freak show commodity. Even after she died, her body and specifically her genitalia were displayed and available for public viewing. Her buttocks, in particular, were the subject of much white wonder, and it was rumored that her genitalia possessed mystical healing powers. While nobody is claiming that Nicki Minaj’s ass is going to cure cancer, we need to ask ourselves if our appreciation is rooted in the same problematic ideas that our European forefathers had toward Sarah Bartmann. Are we appreciating her music and its accompanying visuals for the empowerment it manifests, or at heart are we fascinated and enraptured by an image that bears an uncanny resemblance to the fetishized buttocks of Sarah Bartmann? If we are doing the latter, we need to rethink our actions because we are accepting and participating in a tradition that objectifies and continues to label as “other” black sexuality.
Not all media featuring black bodies falls in this category. As hooks notes, the E.U. song “Da Butt” (1988) as featured in Spike Lee’s film School Daze features brazen, proud black butts—they are “not the still bodies of the female slave made to appear as mannequin.” But is it possible to argue that Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” falls in this same category? Unfortunately, it likely does not fall in this same category. Throughout the video, shots of bodies—with little regard to faces or character—abound. The video seems to treat its black female stars as animals—creatures without human agency. They are literally in a jungle—animalistic, exotic, pressed against each other like lionesses in a herd. Even as they do a (highly sexualized) yoga routine, it feels that we’re not watching other humans—but erotic creatures engaging in a deviant activity unfamiliar to our own sensibilities. It’s not the yoga of your enlightened new-age white person (and it’s certainly not the yoga of the original religious practitioners of yoga)—it’s a sexual and otherized presentation.
But I don’t want to critique “Anaconda” too harshly, because it’s sexy. And I find it really sexy. And I’m guessing Nicki does, too. And she should be able to revel in what she finds sexy. And even if what she finds sexy might be the consequence of a problematic system, she has agency and should be able to express her sexuality. Therefore, it’s up to us as a society to educate ourselves and explore why we’re celebrating her work.
So feel free to watch “Anaconda.” And feel free to enjoy it. But challenge yourself to think critically about why you enjoy it.