Tag Archives: Nicki Minaj

Kanye’s Monster: Sexualizing Violence Against Women

I’m super slow to see music videos or even hear new music.  My radio is always on NPR.

But I recently got wind of Kanye’s (and Jay Z’s and Nicki Minaj’s, and Rick Ross’s, etc.) new Monster video.  Check it out here.  It’s absolutely horrendous – the entire video sexualizes violence against women and animalizes women (rendering them emotional uncontrollably).

Daphne Bramham from Vancouver Sun definitely has it right.  Thanks to Feminist Frequency for sharing the link.  I, for one, am tired of seeing women gang-raped in heroine chic fashion ads, or hearing about how “cool” rappers are for singing about dominating women sexually, or seeing the sexualized violence against women on Nip Tuck or vampire films.  Why do I have to be ok with violence against women just because I want to read a fashion magazine, or listen to rap, or turn on the television?

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Let’s label this depravity for what it is: misogyny

Rapper Kanye West’s monstrous new video is out of the bag, and it’s time to say enough to degradation and victimization of women

What’s entertaining about women in lingerie hanging by their necks on chains? What’s artful about images of drugged, unconscious women about to be sexually assaulted?

Nothing.

It’s misogyny, graphic and simple.

Instead of artistic expression, political and social commentator Zerlina Maxwell described Kanye West’s music video for Monster as “a rape scenario set to a soundtrack.”

Yet that’s not what many commentators are saying about the gruesome and degrading images in the rapper’s video, which has yet to be officially released even though it’s all over the Internet either in full or in part.

West has suggested that the video’s necrophilia and brutality are aimed at generating controversy and sales. Still, there’s a profusion of intellectualizing and rationalizing about the video.

Much of that commentary includes attempts to absolve African-American men from criticism of their misogynist lyrics and the grotesque images of violence perpetrated on white women because of the history of slavery and colonialism.

Among the most inflated and convoluted praise for depravity as art comes from progressives. Salon.com’s

Tracy Clark-Flory deliberately set aside the question of misogyny and wrote that the video “offers a fascinating Rorschach test of our current sexual culture.”

Writing on The Atlantic’s blog, Chris Jackson deflected the question of misogyny saying he couldn’t answer it given all the other examples in popular culture.

Instead he fatuously wrote: “Kanye is like [French Renaissance writer] Montaigne, who said of himself that he doesn’t record being, but passing … The most difficult and most intriguing aspect of Kanye as a rapper is that you never know whether he’s celebrating or satirizing an idea or doing both at the same time.”

However, it’s worth noting that Jackson’s Atlantic colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates disagrees.

Coates described the video as “boring racism, boring sexism that hearkens back to the black power macho of Amiri Baraka and Eldridge Cleaver at their worst … the work of a failed provocateur boorishly brandishing his ancient affects.”

Of course, Jackson was not wrong when he pointed out that degradation of women is nothing new in North American pop culture.

Twenty years ago, high fashion was awash with so-called heroin chic.

In 2005, contestants on the reality TV show America’s Next Top Model were forced to pose as victims of poisoning, drowning, stabbing, electrocution, organ harvesting and other kinds of violence.

The judges’ comments about how beautiful and wonderful the young women looked was almost more chilling than the photos.

Around the same time, shoemaker Jimmy Choo’s print ad showed a dead, white woman lying in a car trunk with legendary music producer Quincy Jones digging her grave in the desert.

Far from breaking new ground, West’s video only sinks to a deeper level of depravity, bringing the mainstream closer to what’s come to be known as torture porn.

It’s part of a growing social tolerance or numbness to violence against women. Kathleen Lahey describes it as “the remapping of male primacy onto contemporary culture.”

Lahey, a Queen’s University professor and expert in law and sexuality, has no doubt West’s video fits the definition of hate speech under Canadian criminal law, which makes it illegal to incite public hatred or advocate genocide of an identifiable group.

Of course, the likelihood of prosecution is infinitesimal: The bleeding of American culture into Canada through old and new media makes it impossible.

In the past, social conservatives have succeeded in banning books, songs and videos and are now trying to censor both Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

Of course, they’ve never rushed to battle against misogyny.

Instead, they’ve more often been on the front lines blocking every attempt women make to gain equality.

(Besides, as we saw this week in Canada, sometimes bans are just stupid because laws, rules and regulations and their enforcers are too clumsy to deal with the nuances.)

It’s more laughable than laudatory that 26 years after Dire Straits released Money for Nothing, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council acted on a complaint and banned it because the lyrics include the word “faggot.”

When it comes to misogyny, women have few allies.

Misogyny just doesn’t register with social conservatives or progressives like attacks on other disadvantaged groups do. Imagine the uproar if a white, female “artist” depicted barely clothed, African-American men hanging from chains.

And don’t forget how the words “blood libel” were scarcely out of Sarah Palin’s mouth this week before she was widely (and rightly) excoriated for using a phrase that’s so highly offensive to Jews.

But misogyny as hate speech? It’s barely recognized and even more rarely protested.

There is an online petition seeking to block the commercial release of West’s monstrous video.

Yet regardless of its success, West’s Monster is already out of the bag.

What’s more important is what happens next.

Before we become so inured and desensitized to images of degradation, victimization and abuse of women, we need to say enough.

One way to do it would be to boycott the creators and purveyors of these images whether they are rap singers, television producers or shoemakers.

Because the only other option — tolerance — risks sinking our society more deeply into incivility, violence and inequality.

Here’s the website for the online petition.

dbramham@vancouversun.com

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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Ladies, gaga: What drag is doing for women

Wesley Morris, The Boston Globe

Maybe you’re shy, or a shut-in. Maybe you’re single and don’t want to be. Maybe all that truck driving, dog walking, kid raising, and company running has sapped your femininity.

You’re a woman, and whatever the reason, you long to feel sexy and glamorous for a change. A spa day usually does the trick. But this is a deeper, almost spiritual problem that no spa — or therapist or “Sex and the City” binge — can cure. You could turn to your girlfriends or your sisters or your stack of Sophie Kinsella books. Instead, you do something more drastic, something more unexpected.

You dress in drag.

That’s the premise of the drag queen RuPaul’s new show — “RuPaul’s Drag U.” It takes biological women who feel disconnected from themselves, and, under the tutelage of a bunch of professional male drag queens, gives them heels, a giant wig, and a drag name, like Saline Dion. They sashay down a runway. They lip synch. They dance. “I had no idea how much work went into being a woman,” says one contestant whose drag name was Kornisha Kardashian. At the end of the runway competition, a winner is selected. Everybody seems moved.

Even if you’ve been following the steady mainstreaming of gay culture, this premise may come as a perverse shock. Drag is the art of men borrowing — and often parodying — the archest and most extreme womanly characteristics. They razor-line their lips and give themselves giant hair as a kind of subversive theater. A woman, presumably, can do this whenever she feels like it. So it seems strange, not to say retrograde, for a woman to turn to a drag queen not simply to look like a woman but to feel like one.

But the women on “Drag U” may just be picking up on something in the culture. Female celebrities — think of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj — have all cheekily incorporated elements of drag into their personas. In their dramatic hair, dramatic costumes, dramatic makeup, dramatic drama, they’re biological women borrowing the drag-queen version of women. Two years ago, Beyoncé unveiled a draggy alter ego named Sasha Fierce — an amusing career move that becomes hilarious if you happen to think “Beyoncé” already sounded fabulously draggy. Mariah Carey’s nom de drag is Mimi, her dark, almost more appealing inner vamp. As for Lady Gaga, who was born Stephanie Germanotta — what really separates her from the drag veteran and “Drag U” judge Lady Bunny, besides a couple decades, a few crucial inches, and a chromosome?

RuPaul's Drag U

For decades, drag has exalted, luxuriated in, and caricatured certain ideas of how it seems to be a woman. It’s part tribute, part exploitation. Drag has used women. Now women, clearly, are using it back.

The reasons they’re doing it say something about what “femininity” has come to mean — and also what gay culture has come to mean. Whatever it is that some women feel they’ve lost touch with in the 40 or so years since the women’s movement, drag gives them a chance to rediscover it. They get something from drag that they don’t get from a normal makeover — it lets them perform womanliness, to try it on like a new outfit, but with the label still attached.

The benefits for women are clear. For gay culture, they might be less so. A woman in drag has the potential to change the whole point of drag. If Lady Gaga is so good at this sort of ironic gender theater — if “drag” is just something for anyone to try on — what’s left for the Lady Bunnys of the world?

Lady Bunny may have cause to worry. The history of drag would seem to give the impersonator the advantage over the impersonated. For centuries, cross-dressing was a way for men to capitalize on the social disadvantages of women — they couldn’t fight in combat, they couldn’t perform on stage. Trojan War myth has it that Achilles dressed like a woman to avoid his doomed military fate. Women, meanwhile, dressed as men to escape persecution, or overcome injustice — though it could catch up with them. One of the stated reasons for Joan of Arc’s being burned at the stake was that she wore men’s clothes.

Drag, as it arose in more recent gay culture, recognized a shared sense of persecution between women and gay men. Ostracized men found both refuge and kindred spirits in the glamour of classical Hollywood, theater, and opera. Drag always had a warm side, honoring the sort of strength of character that a boy might perceive in his mother. But it could also slide easily into harshness, especially when a queen overdoses on Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Crawford — no longer seeing women, but gargoyles. Drag queens use the term “bitch” as much as NWA ever did, and at some point, most performers seem to start channeling the high-class bullies on “Dynasty.” (There’s a similar, but separate, tradition of black comedians — Jamie Foxx, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Tyler Perry, all descendants of Flip Wilson — in either mammy or ghetto-fabulous drag.)

As much as it was about women, drag in this classic sense wasn’t for women. That seemed fair. It was the biological women who were the superstars. And not just the vintage ones — more modern stars like Bette Midler, Cher, and Madonna have conceded that their careers would be different without the support and makeup tips of queens. The impersonators, meanwhile, remained cult acts.

The turning point was the advent of RuPaul, who, by the way, was born with that name (his surname is Charles). In 1993, RuPaul released the hit single, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” whose video starred the singer, a very tall black man, walking down runways in bikinis, heels, and a lustrous blond wig. It was both a surreal and perfectly normal parody of fashion world flamboyance. RuPaul became the world’s most famous and perhaps most important drag queen. If he didn’t entirely normalize drag, he at least made it seem palatable by its relative ubiquity. By the 1990s, there were mainstream drag-queen movies — and perhaps the most domestic drag queen of all, Edna Turnblad, the housefrau in the movie-turned-musical-turned-movie “Hairspray,” always played by a man.

But even in its domestication, drag has retained a kind of power. You can see what a young female aspiring pop star might see in a very good drag queen — the same thing little boys, in the 1970s, saw in Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand: incandescence and strength. It takes guts for Stephanie Germanotta to fully inhabit Lady Gaga, with the surreal outfits and wigs. But as she’s admitted more than once, she’s doing this so all the other insecure girls out there don’t feel so much like freaks.

This is the motivating force of “RuPaul’s Drag U.” On each episode, three women arrive more or less as Edna Turnblad and hope to transform into Sasha Fierce. Each student is paired with a drag queen and shown the mechanics of good drag — how to tease hair, walk a runway, dance. The show is comical kitsch. Drag names and potential looks for each enrollee are chosen by a fake computer called The Dragulator. The instructors — the Henry Higginses of drag — make catty comments about one another and express exaggerated doubt about the likelihood of their pupils to “draguate.”

The result is something much more sophisticated than a makeover show. The creation of a persona is a collaborative process that starts with the person beneath. Several of the women say they’re afraid of their bodies and hide them under baggy pants and shirts. Others say they feel more equal to a man when they dress like one. They offer personal histories of fatigue, sexual abuse, and crippling self-consciousness. The instructors address their problems with the seriousness of a counselor, if not with the wisdom of one. And as the drag queens build them into something new, it’s interesting watching the women stand up for themselves. When a student doesn’t like a look, she says so. If she’s feeling compromised or uncomfortable, she’ll mention that, too. The high point isn’t the runway show at the end but the one-on-one meeting RuPaul has with each contestant, in which he discusses not only their drag goals, but often their life goals. It’s obvious that he recognizes some of himself in these women. He’s feels their pain, because, in some way, he’s been there.

The women, in turn, say they’re truly transformed by the experience. To a viewer, it feels different from the average public makeover you see on a show like Oprah Winfrey’s. It’s not just a new haircut or a smaller waistline these women are getting, but — perhaps oddly — a new appreciation of their innate womanliness. They’re extracting someone who already lived within them — what the drag queens call their inner diva. It’s like going all the way to Oz to realize you were in Kansas all along.

“Inner diva” sounds jokey, but it gets to the heart of what makes drag matter. A meek woman is allowed to taste strength by turning her femaleness into theater. Drag is not about sex, in other words: It’s about power.

Sex, in this stylized world, is a subject but rarely pursued as a goal. It’s not something you have, but something you flaunt, mock, and subvert. This distinguishes the draggy modern pop star from, say, Madonna, who toyed with gender and the possible limits of femininity but who, in her prime, also embodied real carnality and seduction. Her progeny are just playing with identity. They want to look like drag queens.

For real women, of course, drag also has its limits. If you want to seem approachably sexy, the wig and costumes must eventually go. As a case in point, the second video from Katy Perry’s new record, “Teenage Dream,” which came out Tuesday, puts her in a car with a cute guy. She looks very much like her dragless self — like a young woman — and her prize isn’t some stagey, Gaga-esque encounter among surreal plastic orbs. It’s the real thing: a trip to a motel, where her jeans are unzipped.

When that real connection happens — when the woman realizes her femininity as something more real than theatrical — the drag queens are nowhere in sight. And this might be the insidious downside of the entire enterprise, at least for the gay men who are sharing their beauty tips. As with “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” — an even more wildly successful TV application of gay savvy to straight relationships — gays are coming awfully close to lifestyle maids and butlers. They’re the cultural help, the people you see only when you need their services. After so many years of empowering so many straight people, you have to wonder: Who’s going to empower them?

Wesley Morris is a film critic for the Globe. E-mail wmorris@globe.com.

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Beyonce, Gaga, and Katy Perry in Drag

This NPR (are you even surprised?) article on the not-so-subtle relationship between drag and pop stars brings up a lot of interesting points:

  • It gets at my subtle uneasiness for Lady Gaga.  I mean, don’t get me wrong – Lady Gaga rocks my socks off.  Her concerts are fantastic and so is her “platform” of gay rights and love, but some times I want more than just connecting with her larger than life character.
  • It gets at a bit of my research! (Don’t know?  Read my about me.) As far as music is concerned, we are at the core of the mid-70s with the rise of spunky glam rock with just a dash of punk’s volatility.

Labelle with multiple personalities beside Beyonce as Sasha Fierce.

Dragtastic Elton John circa mid-70s next to Stephanie Germanotta as Lady Gaga.

  • But why women?  This article doesn’t get out how the glam rock seen is remembered for its male performance artists: Freddie Mercury from Queen, David Bowie, Elton John, Kiss….  Yet now, when male singers take on a character, it’s generally one that epitomizes masculinity – talking about slappin’ bitches and doing hos.
  • And why now?  I think it’s due to the rise of MTV (origin in the mid-70s) and our ADHD need to be constantly surprised and entertained.  Take for example, the latest glam pop craze mentioned in the article – Nicki Minaj.  On her recent mixtape, Beam Me Up Scotty, she introduced herself as a plethora of people (read below).  She already has split personalities and she hasn’t even released an album.

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Pop Personae: Why Do Some Women Perform in Character?

Zoe Chace

(Embedded links are from Chace)

There are some pop stars right now who look a lot like drag queens — Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, Katy Perry, even Ke$ha. I went to an apartment full of pillows and animal prints to ask an expert why this is so. It’s the home of Bebe Zahara Benet, winner of the first season of the glitter-drenched reality show Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Is there anything in particular about these pop stars that reminds Bebe of her colleagues? She opens her eyes wide and stares at me.

“You mean everything they wear?!” she says, laughing. “That’s my answer. Everything they wear — everything they wear on that stage is drag.” It’s the wigs. It’s the coats. It’s the dresses that look like lampshades made of lollipops. It’s the velvet stilettos that somehow resemble Slinkys.

“When you do the art form of drag, you can be whatever or whoever you want to be, and you can say whatever you want to say,” explains Benet. “I think a lot of these female artists have noticed that it’s powerful. They can use it as a platform to express themselves, even if that’s not who they are in their daily lives. They found that secret.”

Beyonce becomes Sasha Fierce when she performs. Katy Perry puts on a bright blue wig to walk the red carpet. And Stephanie Germanotta, better known as Lady Gaga, wears sunglasses made of cigarettes and sells out stadiums.

Gaga does a lot of interviews (though she declined NPR’s request for one) — and in every one, she says some version of this:

“I want to create a space for my fans where they can feel free and they can celebrate because I didn’t fit in in high school, and I felt like a freak.  So I like to create this atmosphere for my fans where they feel like they have a freak in me to hang out with, and they don’t feel alone!”

That was on Ellen last May. And this year she said the same thing to journalist Toure, on his web show On the Record with Fuse. Her fans are indeed flying their freak flags — by the millions.

“I definitely relate to her because I don’t fit in at school either,” says Katharine Weiss, from outside “The Monster Ball”, as Lady Gaga’s current tour is called, in St. Louis, Missouri. “But, her, as a person, just helps me get through.” Weiss is wearing an “I Heart Lady GayGay” T-shirt. Her friend, Sam Mandry, is wearing an outfit that he describes as “an homage to her outfit at the V Festival in England,” and he’s carrying a “disco stick, as always.” Mandry says Lady Gaga is “creating this space so that people can feel free and dress how they want and be how they want, and it’s like, we’re all crazy because of her.” Seeing the hairbows and leotards on parade outside the venue, I have to agree with that assessment.

Gaga has started calling her fans “monsters.” 18-year-old Darnell Purt is one of those them. He just graduated high school in Brooklyn.

“We’re all monsters,” he says. “Like, if they think that I’m a monster because I’m bi, or I’m a hermaphrodite, or I dress funny, or I’m gay-friendly, then we’re all monsters. We’re all crazy monsters.”

When it comes to creating outsized personas, there’s someone going toe to toe with Gaga’s monster brand. Here’s how she introduced herself on one of her songs on a recent mixtape, Beam Me Up Scotty:

“I’m Nicki Minaj; Nicki Lewinski; Nicki the Ninja; Nicki the Boss; Nicki the Harajuku Barbie.”

Nicki Minaj the Rapper hasn’t even released her first album. But if you listen to pop radio you can’t escape her. It sounds as though she’s guesting on every song this summer. What makes Minaj stand out — besides her supply of Lil Kim wigs and burlesque outfits — is her bottomless closet of characters. In one song alone, she’s Jamaican, she’s Queens, she’s British. Not to mention childlike, gangster, valley girl. Recently she introduced a new character to the mix, whom she named “Roman Zolanski.” 22-year old Britney Ross really connects with Roman.

“Have you ever noticed,” Britney asked me on the phone from her car in Chicago, “when Nicki puts on an English accent in interviews? That’s Roman.  When Roman comes out, that’s when all the voices and all the crazy styles start to come out.”

Ross loves Nicki’s alter egos so much, she’s been going to a club just outside the city, Secrets, and performing as Nicki Minaj for over a year.

“Sometimes I’m shy,” Britney says. “But when Roman — or Nicki — comes on, that just goes out the window. I don’t think about it anymore, I just do it.  That’s why I like Roman. That’s why I like being Roman.” Minaj’s almost cartoonish shape-shifting grabs her fans and hooks them. They get involved and start to tell stories.

Take 20-year old Naquasha Baker — a self-appointed expert on Nicki Minaj.  She’s been closely following the rapper’s career since her first mix tape — which was years ago, even though Minaj is just blowing up on the radio now.  Baker is a friend of Darnell Purt’s, the Lady Gaga fan in Brooklyn.

“Her father was mad abusive,” Baker tells me. “He would drink all the time.  And then to get away from her life, she would pretend that she was somebody else. So that she didn’t have to deal with the issues and the problems that her family were having. I think that’s where she gets that Harajuku Barbie thing from. In real life, that’s what people do [to get out of a bad situation], they pretend they are somebody else.”

This story is backed up by an interview Minaj gave to The Fader magazine (though she, too, declined NPR’s request for one). Baker read it because she reads everything about Minaj.

Just like Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj has named her followers. She calls them her “Barbies” and she has an army of them on Facebook and Twitter. On Facebook, Nicki Minaj imitator Britney Ross goes by “Britney Lil’Bee Zolanski”.

This generation really gets alter egos. They also have a personal stash of identities for different situations — they’re constantly deploying different versions of themselves online: one for Facebook, one for Twitter, one for going out at night. Darnell Purt’s alter ego is called Lord Glam.

“When I’m Lord Glam,” says Purt, “dancing in the club or performing in front of people, it’s a different kind of rush, it’s a different feeling. I have more confidence. It’s like Beyonce with Sasha Fierce. I kind of relate to her because I know there’s two sides. When I walk down the street, people are like, ‘Oh, Lady Gaga!’ Which is cool.” Because of Lady Gaga’s ubiquity, Lord Glam has a place in the world he maybe didn’t have before.

This is a modern phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean it’s new, says Judith Halberstam, who teaches media studies at the University of Southern California.

“Look back at the 19th century at people like Oscar Wilde,” she suggests. “Oscar Wilde may well be one of the early people who created a public persona for himself and then was happy, when called upon, to perform this role of the glib dandy who was full of one-liners.”

Instead of spinning around helplessly in a media cycle devoted to his outlandish behavior, Wilde grabbed the steering wheel. Halberstam says the British punk band The Sex Pistols did much the same thing in 1976, when they upended a live television show by lobbing expletives at the host. Halberstam sees this as a seminal moment, where a band used a created persona to manipulate their media coverage.

“It marked a new era in the way that performers were going to interact with the supposedly neutral machine that was just there to capture them,” she says.

The artists found the controls for the machine, and started feeding it images of their own creation. David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust, an extra-terrestrial version of his glam rocker self. In the ’80s, cross-dressing disco queen Grace Jones satirized popular images of black women whenever she stepped in front of a camera. Rapper Lil Kim showed up on MTV in the ’90s wearing a pink wig and matching stilettos as if to say, “You want sexy? I’ll give you a very explicit sexy, and see if you can handle it.”

Is this empowering or exploitative? For women, it can be a fine line. These musicians frequently have all-male management teams, who often push a female singer to be provocative to get exposure quickly. And the women’s images, for better or worse, directly affect the fans who follow them.

These days, that power is almost immediate. There are so many platforms for exposure, an artist’s team needs to be pretty savvy to navigate all of them consistently, in a way that will make fans catch on and stay with them. The window to make an impression is short. One video is watched by millions, all over the world, in a matter of minutes.  As current pop star Ke$ha puts it, “I have three and a half minutes to change somebody’s mood, and if I can make them in a better mood, that’s like magic. That’s like magic mind control.”

So are these stars controlling their fans, controlling their media coverage, or just enabling everyone’s inner drag queen to come out?

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