In this series, Double X writers look back on 2015’s flashpoint debates around gender and feminism as they played out in the spheres of reproductive rights, work-life balance, pop music, affirmative consent on campus, and more. Read all the entries here.
In the summer of 2014, “Anaconda” wrapped the Internet around its hot-pink G-string. The “Baby Got Back”–sampling Nicki Minaj jam, whose video centered around legions of gyrating, twerking, thrusting, and otherwise quivering butts, launched a thousand memes and broke Miley Cyrus’ 24-hour view count record on Vevo.
But it didn’t impress MTV’s arbiters of taste enough to get a Video of the Year nomination in the 2015 Video Music Awards. In a series of tweets in July, Minaj implied that if her “Anaconda” video had featured thin, scantily clad white women instead of voluptuous, scantily clad black women, MTV might have taken note. (The previous Vevo record-holder, Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” featured a skinny, naked Cyrus straddling a swinging wrecking ball. It won Video of the Year in 2014.) “I’m not always confident. Just tired,” Minaj tweeted. “Black women influence pop culture so much but are rarely rewarded for it.”
Taylor Swift, who got a 2015 Video of the Year nod (and won) for “Bad Blood,” saw Minaj’s tweets and came after her for “pit[ting] women against each other.” Minaj responded that her tweets weren’t about Swift—they were about racism in the music industry, and as a white woman, Swift is an unwitting beneficiary.
This year has brought Swift monster success, but her particular brand of skinny, monied, very white feminism—a feminism that wonders why we can’t all just get along—got a welcome dousing of skepticism in 2015. This was a year that mounting public discourse around intersectional feminism collided with the music industry’s growing white consciousness of cultural appropriation.
We can thank Minaj for keeping it on the agenda. In an interview with the New York Times, Cyrus downplayed Minaj’s criticism of the VMA slate as a petty, jealous feud, sidling right up to the very definition of tone policing: “I don’t respect your statement because of the anger that came with it.” Minaj came back with one of the year’s best-placed burns at the VMAs in August.
The retort inspired an entire cottage industry of T-shirts, stickers, and coffee mugs, and Minaj responded further to Cyrus with poise and pointedness in a New York Times Magazine cover story, breaking down one of the major differences between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation:
The fact that you feel upset about me speaking on something that affects black women makes me feel like you have some big balls. You're in videos with black men, and you're bringing out black women on your stages, but you don't want to know how black women feel about something that's so important? Come on, you can't want the good without the bad. If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us. You shouldn't not want to know that.
Both Cyrus and Swift (the latter of whom apologized) showed the world how easy it is for white women to call women of color rude or angry and discredit their experiences if their delivery is hard to swallow. Iggy Azalea did just that to notorious troll Azealia Banks, who’d managed to land a few spot-on pieces of criticism in a radio monologue and series of tweets last year about Azalea’s apparent lack of concern for the black communities after which she models her style. Azalea brushed off Banks’ concerns in a tweet of her own: “There are many black artists succeeding in all genres. The reason you haven't is because of your piss poor attitude.” The New Republic’s Kashann Kilson writes that Azalea’s own attitude reflects a white America in denial of racial oppression:
Iggy was meant for a country trying to convince itself reverse racism is the new racism. The contrast—between the advantages white people get from being white and the disadvantages that come with being black—is as stark as it’s ever been. Yet someone like Iggy, in possession of white privilege, cannot only exploit all those advantages—she cries foul when someone else points it out.
By the grace of the gods of decency, the Grammy judges didn’t peg Azalea—she of blond hair, pale skin, racist tweets, and a fake “blaccent”—as the best in the rap business for her album, The New Classic, a title that could be an ominous premonition of the color of rap to come. Still, months later, the sting of the industry’s love for Azalea hasn’t gone away. Erykah Badu took a cheekier approach in November, taking a pretend phone call from Azalea onstage at the Soul Train Awards to assure her that “what you’re doing is definitely not rap.”
Azalea’s minstrel-esque performance primed the feminist public to interrogate Amy Schumer’s “Milk Milk Lemonade” video, a sendup of hip-hop tributes to women’s behinds (i.e., “fudge machines”) like “Anaconda.” Schumer dons cornrows and a grill in the sketch, rapping in front of a dance crew of women of color shaking their butts. “Just like the choice to use rap, the decision to mostly include black women dancers in ‘Milk Milk Lemonade’ highlights the fact that this video has a targeted understanding of who is to blame for the ‘stupidity’ of big booty culture,” wrote Courtney Taylor in For Harriet.
Even Cyrus, whose schtick has gotten marginally less racially questionable since her Bangerz days, is still catching flack for trying black culture on for size. Some suspected that the new track and video Missy Elliott dropped in November—her first in a decade—was a Cyrus diss. “The dance that you’re doing is dumb/ How they do where you from?” Missy raps in “WTF.” “Stickin’ out your tongue girl/ But you know you’re too young.” Cyrus is infamous for her tongue’s antics, and she once tried to claim twerking, a style of dance born in the black New Orleans bounce scene, as her own. “It shouldn't surprise anyone watching Miley feebly half-twerkin' all over a stage would make [Elliott] roll her eyes out of her head,” tweeted C. Spike Trotman in a convincing case for the “WTF” diss theory.
It’s easy to see why black female rappers take umbrage at the success of some of their white peers, and it has nothing to do with what Cyrus, Swift, or Azalea played off as catfighting or trash-talking. In a rap industry that routinely shuts out female artists and a music industry that sets white artists up for quicker, easier success than their peers of color, black female artists (and rappers in particular) are getting squeezed out. Meanwhile, debates over white feminism continue to question if and how the movement can ever adequately address the needs and experiences of women of color. Banks categorically rejected it in November. “I don’t trust any woman who says she’s a feminist. No matter what color she is,” Banks tweeted.
One of Banks’ Twitter followers happened to ask her if she knew the work of Bell Hooks (who stylizes her name as bell hooks), one of the leaders of intersectional feminist theory. Hooks reiterated her commitment to the future of intersectional feminism in a recent interview: “Feminism has been the contemporary social movement that has most embraced self-interrogation,” she said. If self-described feminist musicians such as Cyrus and Swift want to earn their claim to the term, 2016 will have to be the year of enhanced self-interrogation techniques—and a hefty helping of self-education—for the white women of music.