by Hanna Nicholls
“Contrary to misguided notions of gender equality, women do not and will not seize power and create self-love and self-esteem through violent acts.” – bell hooks, “Moving Beyond Pain.”
The above quote is from bell hooks’ critique of Beyonce’s 2016 visual album Lemonade, in which she demonstrates that Beyonce’s representation of feminism shows that “women gaining the freedom to be like men can be seen as powerful,” but is unrealistic because it negates women’s lived experiences in navigating patriarchal structures, nor is it critical of patriarchy.
hooks’ assessment is useful when looking at contemporary musicians and artists, particularly in rap music, where violence is a means and source of power. Rap and hip-hop are genres dominated by male artists, and violence is often an overarching theme that occurs as a result of real-life oppression in a world built on racism and class systems. Since its move into mainstream media during the ‘80s, rap has become a vehicle for social and political critique, and artists have created a platform that is critical of the violence and disenfranchisement that continues to be faced at the hands of white-oppressors, and for that, the genre is rightly celebrated.
Female rappers, however, encounter complex barriers when trying to break into the industry. Lauryn Hill, Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim, Eve, Remy Ma, Nicki Minaj, Azealia Banks and Cardi B are several of many successful female rappers who have broken barriers to become successful and critically acclaimed artists in rap and hip-hop. These artists, and artists like them, continue to represent voices for women, particularly women of colour, that lay outside victimhood narratives, and instead, represent power for women in an industry and world dominated by masculine discourses.
Similar to the work of their male counterparts, violence is often depicted in female rapper’s music. But the violence is packaged in a way that is glamorized, sexualized, eroticized, and is often aimed at other women. Feminist critic and theorist Kate Millett argues that “one of the chief effects of class within patriarchy is to set one woman against another” (Sexual Politics, 38), which we continually see in the lyrics of female rap artists.
Nicki Minaj’s recent single “Barbie Tingz” is an example of such discourses. Throughout the song, Minaj references cutting, drugging and raping another woman who is situated as her rival. Minaj uses violence and aggression as a way to assert her dominance and superiority over other women, which is cemented through her self-asserted, but male-driven, sexual value. This may seem powerful, but it perpetuates a long history of misogyny and gendered speaking that situates masculinity and masculine values as powerful and the only way of achieving such power.
The glamorization and romanticization of sexual accessibility, as seen through sexually exploitative images, is also rampant throughout “Barbie Tingz.” As one of the ways in which Minaj claims and seizes power, this glamorization and romanticization teaches women that power is achieved through their sexual accessibility to men – a dangerous message because it privileges male sexuality over female sexuality, and it represents a history of sexualized female bodies, particularly black female bodies, which hooks outlines and deconstructs in her essay “Selling Hot Pussy: Representations of Black Female Sexuality in the Cultural Marketplace.” Although Minaj has helped to diversify and bring female voices to the mainstream cultural landscape where women of colour, are unequally represented, it is within this marketplace that Minaj has built a career on the exploitation and sexualization of her body for economic gain, which affords her a privilege and safety that isn’t accessible to women outside of this position.
This is particularly harmful because mass-media, the platform in which artists like Nicki Minaj operate, has created an unprecedented ability to reach and influence large and diverse audiences. “Barbie Tingz,” which was released on YouTube on May 4th, already has over 33 million views. Throughout the song, Minaj’s sense of power is only realized in relation to men and what patriarchal society deems powerful. Because we live in a patriarchal culture, Minaj does seem powerful, strictly because she reflects the male Self back: she embodies masculine violence and misogyny towards other women – realized most importantly in the form of rape and sexual violence – and she embodies a sexuality that is constructed by the male gaze and the sexualization of black female bodies. But this type of power for women is not real; it’s a fantasy feminism that situates masculinity as the dominant force within society, which reasserts women as The Second Sex.
As hooks diligently points out in “Moving Beyond Pain,” this narrative “does not call for an end to patriarchal domination,” but instead, perpetuates it. Despite Minaj’s positive contributions to a male-dominated industry, the misogynistic undertones and sexual exploitation of black female bodies that are continually part of her music and image represent a culture that is deeply rooted in a problematic history of white patriarchal culture that serves as a reminder of how pervasive patriarchal oppression continues to be; an oppressive culture that must be continually resisted.