What Nicki Minaj’s Butt Tells Us About Society & Black Women’s Sexual Agency

It has been over a week since Nicki Minaj released the cover art for her new single “Anaconda” and everyone on the Internet lost their shit. Since then, many a meme has been created celebrating/mocking the infamous image of Nicki Minaj’s even more infamous derrière. Chuck Creekmur of AllHipHop.com penned an open letter to the rapper at Mommy Noire, asking Minaj to think about what her actions are telling little girls and boys about sex. This sparked thoughtful, critical responses from Jamilah Lemieux at Ebony and Mychal Denzel Smith at Feministing. Tea & Breakfast created a hilarious satire of male rappers supporting Nicki Minaj with their own risque poses. And earlier this week, Minaj postponed the release date of the single and released an alternative, more conservative cover image for the track.

All of this to say: It is 2014 and we still don’t know what to do with Black women’s bodies, bodily autonomy, and sexualities.

When I first saw the image, I will admit that I didn’t quite know what to do with it either. (And still don’t.) On one hand, I was both shocked and intrigued by how perfect Nicki Minaj’s backside really is. As someone who understands the clichéd, but all-pervasive truth that sex sells in America, I also recognized it as a genius, provocative marketing ploy for one of hip hop and pop music’s most successful artists. And of course, the socially just feminist within me both celebrated Nicki Minaj’s ability to showcase her own body… while denouncing the fact that we live in a misogynistic, patriarchal, capitalist society that expects women to showcase their bodies to promote themselves and their talents.

And really, that’s what it all comes down to. That’s why I am conflicted and upset.

Not only is it 2014 and we still don’t know what to do with Black women’s bodies, bodily autonomy, and sexualities… but ours is a culture where we will always question a (Black) woman’s intentions about what she does with her body and sexuality. First, because we are so infiltrated by patriarchy and sexism, we simply do not accept that a woman can be trusted to be the sole proprietor of her body. (See: Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling; the fuckery that is Congress’ attacks on women’s rights daily.) Second, because the United States of America has been making a monetary profit from the use and abuse of Black women’s bodies for centuries. (See: Two centuries of chattel slavery and rape.)

I’m not sure we will ever be able to accept that a woman—a Black woman—can do whatever she wants with her body. Because if and when she does, there will always be someone out there shaking their head, sucking their teeth, and commanding that she cover up and “respect herself.”

This is much easier than challenging and dismantling the damaging systems of oppression that first hypersexualize and objectify women… and then vilify them when they claim ownership of their bodies and enact their right to be sexual beings. It seems as though every time a Black female celebrity asserts her sexual agency, we have the same series of reactions: We are surprised and intrigued, which is so telling about our history. Some us will praise them for their openness, bravery, bad-bitch-ness. Some of us will become the arbiters of respectability politics. And then we’ll move on… until some other “fast” woman dares to position herself at the center of her own sexual experiences. We focus on the individual, instead of the systemic factors that are influencing her—economic, social, historical, cultural, and so forth.

We ask women to cover up. We ask women to be better—for themselves, for other women, for men, for children. We ask women to do and be what we do not ask of men. Nicki Minaj’s cover art for “Anaconda” is no different than the millions of images we already see in hip-hop, rock, and other forms of popular music. And having images of scantily women is also not new. What we bristle at is the audacity of Nicki Minaj to sell and make a profit from her own sexualized image. It is acceptable for men to do it. But if a woman does it, all hell breaks loose.

If we are not ready to break down those systems that limit women’s sexual agency and body autonomy, then what are women to do? Twiddle our thumbs? It makes sense that Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and other Black female celebrities to do what they’ve been doing: use the system of capitalism and patriarchy to their advantage. Instead of allowing someone else to make a profit from their bodies and their images… they should be the ones to do so. And yes, this is an unpopular opinion, I’m sure. But I think it’s one we have to accept, if only because as a community and culture, we are not willing to do the more difficult work of truly accepting that women are full human beings.

Y’all, we weren’t ready for Nicki’s “Anaconda.” And we ain’t ready for women to fully own and inhabit their bodies, their sexuality, their selves.

So until then, let there be cake.

Michelle Denise Jackson is a writer, performer, storyteller, and teaching artist living in Southern California. She is a graduate of NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She has performed in New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Washington D.C., and Southern California. For more of her wit and work, visit her website (michelledenisejackson.com) or follow her on Twitter (@MichelleJigga).

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