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.”
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.
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.” 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.
However, the level of critical scrutiny applied to the photo was undeniably higher than Miley Cyrus’s revealing “Wrecking Ball” music video, Katy 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.”
“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.” 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.
 Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 29.
 Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen, 38.
 “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/.