Friday, 22 August 2014

Nicki Minaj's #Anaconda And Reclaiming "Black Girl Sexy"

If you haven't seen Nicki Minaj's new Anaconda video yet, stop what you're doing and watch it immediately! If you have seen it, then you already know that I love it. Ass, ass, everywhere. It's a big booty black girl's dream! But deeper than that, I love the way that it's an expression of agency on Nicki's part. She is a young, gorgeous and successful woman, and she's earned the right to be just as raunchy as she wants to be. She's never shied away from that and I love that about her. 

Naturally, the criticism of the video (as with the cover art) was swift and loud, but as usual, most of it intentionally misses the point. As I've talked about before, much of the criticism of high profile black women being sexual rests on the assumption that they have no agency to make the decision to be sexy on their own. This great piece from The Rogue Feminist illustrates why there's a stark difference between the treatment of sexualization of race in Nicki's video and say, Miley Cyrus's or Lily Allen's:

In contrast, Nicki Minaj is reclaiming a song (Baby Got Back) that was made by a Black male rapper who celebrated (but also objectified) Black female bodies. Throughout her song, Nicki raps like a man would, talking about her sexual conquests with men and the size of their dicks, almost as a way of doing to men what they have done to women (objectifying their dicks as Sir Mix A Lot objectified Black women's asses and many other men objectify women's vaginas). She also brags about her sexual prowess and stays in control and aggressive in the video (she goes as far as cutting a banana representing a dick and slapping Drake's hand away—the video critiques the male gaze). The target of mockery and disparagement in Nicki's video is men and the male gaze, and the video works to reclaim agency from it. 
In what way is Nicki asserting power over her dancers? In her video, she twerks along side her back up dancers and dances with them and interacts with them on the same level. She is just as scantily clad as they are. Lily Allen, however, stays fully covered in her video, does not dance provocatively, and thus contrasts her own pure and respectable femininity with the Black women, using their twerking and scantily clad bodies as an example of "bad" female sexuality and femininity—of women "objectifying themselves." This is racist because it frames Black female sexuality as lesser than white femininity and antithetical to feminism. 
In summary: Nicki's video is very much a celebration of female Black beauty and sexuality coming from a Black woman. Conversely, Lilly Allen's is using Black women as props to frame them as a vile or bad form of sexuality or being too sexual to prop up her own feminism.
What I love about the song and video is that it isn't just Nicki being sexy. It's a flat out display of her power over men. Nicki actively disregards the male gaze in the video. Between the lyrics, the tongue in cheek mishandling of the banana and literally slapping Drake's hand away when he tries to touch her ass, it's a song and video about her enjoying her own body and sexuality, and inviting other "fat ass bitches" to do the same. The assertion that because she looks traditionally "sexy" she is "desperate for male attention" doesn't hold any water when you approach it critically. Just because something happens to be appealing to straight men doesn't mean that straight men are the intended audience. It's an incredibly heteronormative assumption. Would we assume that femme lesbians are vying for male attention because they prefer to present as traditionally feminine?

At the end of the video, Nicki crawls away smiling as Drake is left visibly frustrated. This is a clear instance of her exerting sexual control over him. What she's doing here and in the rest of the video is reversing the male gaze entirely, something she does often. Instead of flaunting for men, she's taking on the role of those same men, and standing in as a female substitute, purporting to be bigger and better than they could ever be. This song doesn't "appeal" to men, it literally taunts them for not being good enough to match up to her. She spends a good portion of the song actively cackling in their faces!

Nicki has a long track record of tackling issues of sexism in the industry head on and it's silly to think that those issues weren't at the back of her mind when she created this video. Nicki Minaj is savvy and her feminist politics are on point. She just isn't here for your respectability, and I'm perfectly okay with that.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Race, Racism and Mental Health: A Look At #OITNB's Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren

I'm pretty convinced Suzanne Warren's mother is racist. Unintentionally so, but to detrimental effect.

As you know, I was very excited for the Season Two premiere of Netflix's Orange Is The New Black. I stayed up for hours and watched three straight episodes before my body gave in to fatigue and I went to bed. I spent the rest of the weekend inhaling the new stories that these women had to tell us, and I was grateful to be able to immerse myself in their lives once more. 

There were more than a few surprises when it came to the backstories that were explored this season most notably Morello, Poussey and Miss Rosa, in my opinion. But the backstory that stood out to me most was Suzanne's. In the second season's third episode, Hugs Can Be Deceiving, we get a glimpse into the difficulties Suzanne faced growing up as an adopted black child in a white family, who while clearly loving and protective of her, remained stubbornly blind to her mental health needs. 

So why do I think Suzanne's mother is racist? It's a bit difficult for me to articulate, so I'll defer to this completely out of context quote from Bitch Flicks about a young black female character on the Disney channel show Jessie:
"The worst part about her character to me is not just the stereotypes, but the fact that she is exhibiting urban Black stereotypes despite never having been a part of urban Black society. She lives in an Upper East Side penthouse and was born in Uganda. It is reminiscent of early 20th century ideas: things like social darwinism. These characteristics of Zuri exist in her genetics just because of the color of her skin."
Emphasis mine. Just let that percolate for a bit while I get into this next bit.

We the audience have had two seasons to get to know Suzanne, but even from the very beginning when she doggedly pursued Piper and nicknamed her Dandelion, it was clear that she suffered from some form of mental disorder. While demonstrably very intelligent (can you quote Shakespeare from memory?) Suzanne is inappropriately sexually aggressive, lacks social boundaries, and demonstrates difficulty understanding interpersonal cues. That she is "different" is plainly obvious to the casual observer.

And yet. 

In Hugs Can Deceiving we see Suzanne's mother self-righteously accuse another mother of racism for not wanting Suzanne to attend her child's sleepover in a flashback scene. The sleepover is for her 6-year-old. Suzanne is 10. The scene rubbed the wrong way for a lot of reasons. 

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Rereading Harry Potter: 10 Questions I Have About The Magical World

Because I'm a dirty cheater, I'm rereading the Harry Potter series in order to meet my Goodreads Reading Challenge goal for this year. (Too lazy to hit the library for new books!) I reread the novels every year, but this is the first time I've really been reading with a critical eye. I sped through both Philosopher's Stone and Chamber of Secrets but I as a Muggle fan of this amazing work of fiction, I still have questions about the mechanics of this universe. Here is a greatly condensed version of my running tally of enquiries for the first two novels:

Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone

1. Why don't we don't hear about Sirius Black until book three? In this novel, we see Harry be introduced to his magical roots, and Hagrid has to hastily give him the story of what made him famous. He gets the Sparknotes version: Lord Voldemort, the greatest dark wizard of all time, killed his parents and tried to kill him when he was only an infant, and inexplicably, he could not. Dirty old Voldy was reduced to a shell of his former self, and Harry was left with his scar. This is Harry's origin story. But, shouldn't the fact that his parent's very best friend betrayed them factor into that some how? Doesn't that little bit of information have a profound effect on the mythology of this story?

2. What happens to wizards who get expelled? We know that Hagrid was expelled in his third year, and that Dumbledore allowed him to stay on as Gamekeeper, but how does a situation like this play out for other expelled wizards? Hagrid's wand is snapped and he is forbidden to perform magic. Does that include other forms of magic like potion making or divination? Since getting expelled is essentially like flunking out of school, are there adult remedial classes for wizards who never finished school? Or are they forbidden from magic forever and encouraged to join the muggle world like squibs?

3. How is there is no faster magical way to find information than the library? Throughout the novel, we see Hermione sprinting to the library to research information. I understand that the magical world has largely shunned technology, but there must be a magical shortcut that works as the equivalent to a search engine. Not even an "Accio books about Nicholas Flamel" spell? That seems strangely archaic. I just feel like "because magic" should be a reasonable explanation. Why isn't it?

4. How do muggles get to Diagon Alley? Do muggle-borns' parents get an extra letter with instructions on how to get access the wizarding world so they can buy their newly minted magical child's school supplies? How does that affect the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy? Are they allowed to roam Diagon Alley during the term? Do their minds get wiped each year so that they can't go blabbing about their witch and wizard children?

5. How does this moving between portraits business work exactly? Is it limited to portraits in the same building? Or is it any portrait of the same person regardless of location? Since we find out later that the portraits can be used to deliver information, does that mean that all portraits of a particular person have all the knowledge of every other incarnation of that person? What happens when a new portrait is made? Can different portraits of the same person interact or does that rip a hole in the space-time continuum?

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