Nicki Minaj and the Crooked Room

In the first chapter of Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, she introduces the concept of the “crooked room.” This term comes from research studies in cognitive psychology on field dependence, which examines how humans perceive themselves to be vertical in a given space. Subjects were placed in a crooked chair in a crooked room and then asked to hold themselves upright. Results were mixed: some aligned themselves in relation to the crooked room, believing themselves to be upright, but some managed to position themselves truly upright despite their uneven surroundings. So it is, Harris-Perry says, for black women behaving in response to stereotypes. “To understand why black women’s public actions and political strategies sometimes seem tilted in ways that accommodate the degrading stereotypes about them, it is important to appreciate the structural constraints that influence their behavior. It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room.”[1]

Nicki Minaj, the most successful female rapper of all time, is a black woman constantly in the public eye whose ability to keep herself upright in a crooked room is extraordinary. She is outspoken and frank about the difficulties of being a woman in the recording industry. In her 2015 MTV documentary My Time Again, she is recorded talking to a friend, saying, “You have to be a beast. That’s the only way they respect you… When I’m assertive, I’m [perceived to be] a bitch. When a man is assertive, he’s a boss. He’s bossed up. No negative connotation behind “bossed up,” but lots of negative connotation behind being a bitch… When you’re a girl, you have to be, like, everything. You have to be dope at what you do but you have to be super sweet, and you have to be sexy and you have to be this, you have to be that, and you have to be nice. It’s like, I can’t be all those things at once. I’m a human being.” As Minaj demonstrates, the first step to standing aright in a crooked space is to recognize that it is crooked in the first place.

YAS KWEEN

Melissa Harris-Perry also discusses the power of affirmation through recognition in the public sphere. Being recognized for your true self and being praised and rewarded for it contributes a great deal to individual personal satisfaction. However, it is difficult for marginalized people to gain the recognition that every human strives for. Misrecognition is painful “not only to the psyche but also to the political self, the citizen self.”[2] It is taxing to maintain a sense of self-worth when it is not supported by society at large. For black women, this struggle is coupled with the constant, heightened scrutiny they are subjected to. Nicki Minaj is criticized for her aggressive self-advocacy and her overt sexuality, both of which are deemed more acceptable when enacted by white bodies. She responds to the public gaze in her 2014 single “Lookin’ Ass,” which rejects the importance of outside perceptions, especially male perceptions, for her self-worth. The music video consists of her alone in a desert and her reflection in the eyes of a male onlooker. At the end of the song, she picks up two machine guns and literally destroys the male gaze. A brief flash of fear registers in the onlooker’s eyes before he falls.

Minaj is perhaps best known for her single “Anaconda” off her 2014 album The Pinkprint. The album image accompanying the single garnered a great deal of controversy for being risqué. The image was called inappropriate, lewd, even pornographic.

MY ANACONDA DON'T
The album cover for Nicki Minaj’s 2014 single “Anaconda”

However, the level of critical scrutiny applied to the photo was undeniably higher than Miley Cyrus’s revealing “Wrecking Ball” music videoKaty Perry’s “California Gurls,” or Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” Minaj called out the racial double standard on her Instagram, where she posted pictures of white models showing the same amount of skin and captioned them “Acceptable,” while captioning her own image “Unacceptable.”

AcceptableAcceptableUnacceptable

“Anaconda” samples Sir Mix-a-Lot’s 1992 song “Baby Got Back,” which made waves when it was released due to its sexual content and because it celebrated the desirability of bodies outside the mainstream (albeit through an objectifying male lens). “Anaconda” continues that celebration, but renders the male gaze inconsequential. For example, the lyrics reference (and arguably objectify) two men, but ultimately the identities of those men don’t matter, because they are not the main characters of this story – Minaj and and her “fat ass bitches in the club” are.

The music video seems to take place in a world inhabited almost exclusively by women, who move their bodies for themselves and for each other. There is only one man in the video, the rapper Drake, who receives a lap dance from Minaj. However, the lap dance is “an act of seduction, not submission.”[3]  Drake is not allowed to move or touch Minaj at all, but simply watch while she grinds and gyrates. At the end of the scene, he reaches up a hand to touch her, but she slaps it away, then turns and walks off. Her body is her own, and he enacts no agency over it whatsoever. In a crooked room of misogynoir and respectability politics, she has control over herself, her body, and her actions. She remains upright.[4]

PREACH

[1] Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 29.

[2] Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen, 38.

[3] “Nicki Minaj’s Feminism Isn’t About Your Comfort Zone: On “Anaconda” and Respectability Politics,” last modified August 25, 2014, http://www.autostraddle.com/nicki-minajs-feminism-isnt-about-your-comfort-zone-on-anaconda-and-respectability-politics-251866/.

[4] For further reading on Nicki Minaj and feminism, check out these links.

14 thoughts on “Nicki Minaj and the Crooked Room

  1. YES!!!! Miranda, thank you for bringing to light the importance of Nicki Minaj. I have liked her ever since she slayed her verse on “Monster” (no pun intended.) It might seem that she is perpetuating stereotypes if you only see images of her in the media, but her music is powerful and shows women that you can be strong, sexy, smart, and a boss.

    “She on a diet but her pockets eatin’ cheesecake.”

  2. Miranda I’m so happy you pointed to Nicki Minaj as someone in charge of her own sexual expression and freedom. Her lyrics usually point to women as strong, and powerful. They’re in charge of their own finances and sexuality.

    “I must have about a milli on me right now
    And I ain’t talkin’ about that Lil Wayne record
    I’m still the highest sellin’ female rapper, for the record
    Man, this is 65 million singles sold
    I ain’t gotta compete with a single soul”

  3. I know next to nothing about Nicki Minaj, but you present a very compelling case that she has managed to stand upright in a crooked room and remain true to who she is. I have to admit her music still doesn’t appeal to me, but I can admire her for being assertive and standing up to stereotypes.

  4. I know even less about Nicki Minaj than Emily, but am impressed by her willingness to take these stances in a very public way. Miranda you said, “the first step to standing upright in a crooked space is to recognize that it is crooked in the first place”, hopefully Nicki is inspiring the next wave of entertainers and the next generations of young women to be assertive and take ownership of how they want to present themselves without fear of public outcry.

    1. Noah, this is exactly what I was thinking when I read Miranda’s post. While I know a little about Nicki Minaj, and respect her for the confident and powerful women she is, the most compelling thing about this post for me was about being able to recognize that you are in a crooked room. This is the first, and most important, step in the process. If you conform to the room you perpetuate the issue.

  5. It goes without saying that Nicki Minaj is an incredibly talented and strong woman, and that makes her an excellent role model for young girls of all races to look up to. However, I don’t quite see how she isn’t also promoting the Jezebel stereotype as well. Isn’t it possible to stand up straight in a crooked room without showing off inappropriate amounts of ones body and singing crude lyrics? This a concern for all female and male singers and the role they have as idols for young adults. I think our performers have to think about the images they put out into the world and the influences they will have on future generations.

  6. Cailtin, you make a great point about Nicki Minaj potentially promoting the Jezebel stereotype. I think that it comes down to how it is perceived. Everyone has difference in perception. When she released the Anaconda video, a father penned an open letter to Nicki. The letter: http://madamenoire.com/452410/allhiphop-owner-pens-open-letter-to-nicki-minaj/ Her response: http://madamenoire.com/490114/shut-stupid-bye-dad-nicki-minaj-responds-anaconda-open-letter/

    In end, Nicki owns her entire being and won’t back down. I think the influences she created social commentary. We already see that with her Anaconda video. As Nicki said in her interview, her lap dance with Drake was an act of seduction. She was in control of her autonomy. She does stand upright in a crooked room. Her lyrics from Fly shows that:

    Everybody wanna try to box me in
    Suffocating every time it locks me in
    Painting their own pictures then they crop me in
    But I will remain where the top begins
    Cause I am not a word, I am not a line
    I am not a girl that can ever be defined

    1. Matt, thanks for posting the link to part of that Nicki interview. For those who didn’t click, this is what she said regarding the Anaconda photo:

      “The artwork was not premeditated. I was shooting the “Anaconda” video and I had my photographer there taking pictures. When I was about to shoot my next scene, I asked to see the pictures he’d taken. He went through five or six and that one came up, and I was like, “[Gasps.] Oh my God. Yo, that picture is crazy!” What made me excited about it was that people hadn’t seen me do a picture like that in years. The reason why I stopped taking pictures like that was because I needed to prove myself. I needed for people to take me seriously. I needed for people to respect my craft. I’ve proven that I’m an MC. I’m a writer; I’m the real deal, so if I want to take sexy pictures, I can. I’m at the level in my career and in my life now where I can do whatever the hell I want to.”

  7. I struggled with the post, like Caitlin, because I had just read about the stereotypes of the Jezebel and how they are over-sexualized. My thought process went a little like this: “Does that mean that Nicki should be ultra-conservative to counter that stereotype? But then wouldn’t that be overpowering her personal rights and wants?” In the end I think that Nicki is a unique example of someone who is all herself, no apologies, and whether or not you agree with her it should be celebrated, not criticized. She is not changing the way she dresses or acts, but asking everyone to think differently about it. That takes courage.

  8. I hear all of your points, but Nicki is still very controversial for me. A lot of her behavior I find to be…over the top. You can express sexuality without being boarder-line pornographic. Her presentation does not make me want to respect her more, but rather vexes me that women are continuously degrading themselves in music videos (women of ALL color are). I agree that Nicki is definitely assertive and bold, but I feel that she pushes the envelop just to be controversial. I also wonder if she is really being herself, or if she is stripping down just to get more viewers. Again, I think it’s great that she is confident, but I feel that she is more feeding off of the stereotype rather than developing her own stance.

  9. I felt similarly to Sammy and Matt. I’m not sure if she is promoting the Jezebel stereotype; I don’t think I know enough about her or the music genre to reach a decision, and I think that’s something that is a matter of personal perception. I do admire her though, for expressing herself through her music and eloquently defending herself.

  10. LOVE LOVE LOVE!! Thank you Miranda for posting this excellent blog post. I can understand others’ hesitations about Nicki and promoting stereotypes. But to call her pornographic is definitely making a value judgement based on a very particular societal perspective. I think the main issue is autonomy. The stereotypes of the black women described in this reading are often perpetuated by others who use the image of a black woman in a certain way. However, Nicki is entirely in charge of her own image and is very conscious about what she is putting out in the world. Although other people may not care for her image, music, or personality, she’s made incredible steps to claim her own image and sexuality. Also question for the class: What is the responsibility of black entertainers to defy stereotypes?

  11. I agree with both sides. I feel like Nicki Minaj is trying to be assertive in a crooked room, or society. The overt sexuality that she demonstrates is similar to other artists and she is a woman of her time. It is very difficult to be successful in the entertainment business and women often promote a Jezebel stereotype in order to get bigger fans. However, Miranda’s post makes many great comments about how marginalized women are trying to fight oppression and have courage in presenting themselves however they want. I think that women can find other ways to represent their strength and fight oppression without showing too much skin. Black women have many stereotypes and issues to face in society and how they go about it shows the difficulty there is in fighting marginalization.

  12. Miranda, I feel as if you have captured Nicki Minaj’s story perfectly. I love Nicki’s work. She is assertive, oversexual, and pushes the boundaries. I feel as if she not only rejects stereotypes but embraces them as well. While her place in the black community is controversial, I know friends who do not listen to her music because she is too much of a Jezebel and other’s who love her because she embraces her sexuality. Minaj is working to stand straight in a crooked room because she has received a ton of heat for her sexual music videos compared to white artist. I find it quite funny because Nicki Minaj is no Beyonce.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s