|“Popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is the stake to be won or lost in that struggle. It is the arena of consent and resistance. It is partly where hegemony arises, and where it is secured. It is not a sphere where socialism, a socialist culture — already fully formed — might be simply “expressed”. But it is one of the places where socialism might be constituted. That is why “popular culture” matters. Otherwise, to tell you the truth, I don’t give a damn about it”|
(Stuart Hall, “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular,'” pp. 227-39 from People’s History and Socialist Theory, edited by R. Samuel. London: Routledge 1981)
It’s (still) 2015. Celebrities sub-tweet, celebrities unfollow other celebrities, celebrities use emojis with ironic detachment, and celebrities raise the spectre of the “other” online. I imagine that the Nicki Minaj – Taylor Swift feud, played out over Twitter last month, functions as anathema to scores of “serious” academics across the world. Who cares, right? Outside of the obvious answer to that (clue: lots of people care) the more interesting question in this case is why people care, and more pertinently still, why should those of us who claim professional or ethical loyalty to the academe, or some other co-ordinate of “proper” knowledge, consider this is a worthwhile subject for analysis? Hall lays it out in inimitable style above, but I would like to focus on the specific guise of the backlash that followed this “twitter beef” becoming “big news”. The urge to denounce this feud’s right to attention, I think, reveals more clearly the dynamics which bore the feud itself. Below I attempt to answer the question of why this is a sociologically important event via an interrogation of three observable techniques, employed as shutdown devices intended to de-legitimize any such “serious” debate: (1) the “race card” angle, (2) the “anti-feminist” angle, and (3) the concluding, overarching “SJW bullshit” angle. The shared characteristics of these ostensibly disparate strategies argues for the renewed importance of intersectional praxis in combating all manner of oppressions, and the fallibility of disregarding popular “moments” such as Minaj-Swift as “meaningless”.
For those unfamiliar with the details of this case study, I will gladly provide a brief overview. After the MTV VMA (video music awards) nominations were released, global star (and criminally underrated rapper) Minaj posted a number of tweets focused on the struggles experienced by women of colour – even women of colour who sell millions of records and maintain massive visibility across cultural platforms – with regards to industry platitude. Quoted below:
“If I was a different “kind” of artist, Anaconda would be nominated for best choreo and vid of the year”
“When the “other” girl drops a video that breaks records and impacts culture they get that nomination”
“If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year”
Not the most provocative set of statements, but enough to prompt much online back-and-forth as to latent racism embedded in the music industry – back-and-forths that Minaj was happy to correspond with. As it happened, fellow nominee Swift also felt comfortable corresponding with the premise, albeit offering an analysis more explicitly personal than structural:
“@NICKIMINAJ I’ve done nothing but love & support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot..”
Finally, after Minaj replied that Swift had not been the target of her ire, the latter offered what she no doubt considered a reconciliatory, open hand of sisterly solidarity:
“@NICKIMINAJ If I win, please come up with me!! You’re invited to any stage I’m ever on.”
Naturally, this was considered by some to be an open hand of condescending, pig-ignorance; the kind of sincerity offered by an empowered actor who does not know how to respond to bell hooks’ adage that “it is what we do with our privilege that matters”, other than to take “share your platform” in the most literal way. Cue a spiral of twitter antagonism, profitable certainly for the medium (all that freely uploaded content!) and quite possibly both main parties. The furore quickly enveloped the mainstream media’s portrayal of Minaj and Swift too, worthy of the echo-chamber reputation of social media.
Angle #1 The “Race Card”
For its part, the response from “white media” has been inevitably prickly and sensitive about being called out by Minaj; as if being challenged on racial bias is worse than that bias existing in the first place.
Nosheen Iqbal in The Guardian, 22nd July 2015
I love reading the comments sections on articles, any articles, but particularly of the sort quoted above. As is so often the case with online material, they showcase an anonymous anger completely at odds with whatever – and it’s a rare piece of writing that manages to avoid this trap, to be fair – position the author, the original poster (OP), set out. Anecdotal by nature, they still provide an insight into voices without a body, which is to say the invisible architecture that ideology leans on. In Iqbal’s article, the first three comments illustrate this point rather explicitly:
“Red meat for identity-politics journos. No fan of Swift but she was right to shut this race-bating bs down.”
“Another article on this non-event. Good work Guardian.”
“Pretty sure it’s about Nicki Minaj making everything about herself and people making every little thing a racial issue.”
And here’s the rub; these comments are ten a penny in the anonymous terrain of the internet, but will still be passed over as facile – which is to say illegitimate – evidence of the micro-aggressions that greet so many people who “call out” racism. I’ve written before about the irony inherent in a process whereby those who make an observation of discrimination are just as likely to be as, if not more, damaged by the resulting fracas. The burden of proof, applied strictly to the perceived receiver of aggression, thus has its bar further raised.
In this case, the idea that Minaj had somehow invented the possibility of her being the subject to a racist music business seems, to me at least, laughable. But look carefully at some of those comments. “Red meat” “race-baiting” – Minaj is promoting, reproducing, not letting go of racialised prejudice. It’s a persistent motif. Ultimately, the accusation then being levelled at Minaj, or anyone who differentiates themselves from a “colour-blind, post-patriarchal, classless” [hegemonic] body is that of exclusion. Ergo, Minaj is the real perpetrator of racism, for having the temerity to separate herself from “other girls”. Sara Ahmed puts it beautifully thus: “The judgment of exclusion is a mechanism for concealing how exclusions already operate.”
This reversal – the accuser becoming accused – is a common occurrence in popular culture. Azealia Banks (you’ll know “212”, and I wholeheartedly recommend checking out her album “Broke With Expensive Taste”) has been one of the more vocal, and so concurrently, paradoxically, one of the most guilty, advocates for highlighting the double-standards cast upon women of colour in the music business. Her critique of pop star Iggy Azeala, and the wider phenomenon of appropriation of black culture (which did not begin nor end with the Rolling Stones) was, to pervert the aforementioned phrase, “red meat” to those decrying use of the “race card”. Banks was guilty of “not letting go”. She was bitter, hysterical, and a bitch – unsisterly, which leads very nicely to angle number two.
Angle #2: “That’s not feminist!”
Funnily enough, Minaj has spoken lucidly before about the insane expectations levelled at all women in the music business, contradictory identities that have to be maintained. “When you’re a girl… you have to be, like, everything” – surely something anyone who falls outside of hegemonic standards has empathy with, the exhaustion of having to permanently “fit in”. The problem seems to arise when those experiences are seen to override one another. Hence, presumably, Swift’s rebuttal that Minaj should not resort to “pit[ing] women against each other”. Minaj was not acting in solidarity. But what type of solidarity was Swift expecting? The only conclusion to be drawn is that this imagined solidarity occludes calling out the specific barriers that black women of a similar money-generating capacity as Swift endure as a standard. Symptomatic of tensions in the wider pro-feminist community, no amount of straw-man framings of an “oppression Olympics” can assuage the varied conjoined history of feminist and anti-racist movements. In such a context, and embedded in such a history, Minaj’s intervention, whether or not it was “pitting women” against one another, is strictly feminist.
For most of my adult life I have held in mind a reasonably homogenous conception of feminism. This is to say, I hadn’t yet been exposed to the theory – and fact-checking – offered by the likes of Crenshaw, hooks, Lorde, Collins et al. A consequence of having not been exposed was not seeing. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism… these were distinct entities, axes of oppression which were unified simply by being oppressive. The art of Minaj, for instance, was perpetuating the objectification of women in the male gaze, nothing more. The racism she might have suffered was, again, something completely different. Of course, anyone with a passing understanding of feminist history (and mine is certainly still no more than “passing”) will be well aware that it is a history of fracture, across all these indices. That awareness can lead to seeing new things, or seeing things anew: Minaj’s “Anaconda” lyrics (“Fuck those skinny bitches in the club”) not to mention the video, or Banks’ frustration with how “bigger” women have been thrown into the fashion industry spotlight by white celebrities, suddenly don’t seem so “anti-feminist” either. They seem a sincere engagement with a history of misogynoir.
What Swift’s comment reveals too is how unremarkable, and unremarkably reproduced, this blindness remains. That such an empowered, smart woman – she who single-handedly defeated Apple – can casually imply that Minaj is renegading on the sisterhood by asking questions based on her experience as a woman of colour demonstrates just how easily enacted this colour-blind feminism is. So it proves. “That isn’t feminist” has been an accusation thrown against, just recently, feminism that centers the experiences of transgendered people, sex workers and women of colour. We can argue over whether Amnesty’s shifting approach to sex work decriminalisation is the best strategic approach to ensuring the wellbeing of sex workers; but anti-feminist? The hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen was similarly accused of being inflammatory and divisive. In these cases the “anti-feminist” angle strikes me as an accusation grounded in hostility and delegitimation reminiscent of the “race card” angle: not only are you wrong, you are guilty of the same crime you accuse us of.
Conclusion: “SJW Bullshit”
The “Angry Black Woman” archetype that the national media uses to harm Nicki Minaj is also used to justify Sandra Bland’s death. Discussing Nicki isn’t frivolous. People say discuss State violence, not pop culture. As if they are not connected via misogynoir. #SayHerName exists because once State violence is discussed, people center Black men. Thus, I already know the “discuss Sandra not Nicki” rebuttal is about erasure of both, actually. “Ignore famous Black woman!” “Focus on Black men for State violence!” – Gradient Lair (“There Is No Nicki Minaj vs. Sandra Bland. Black People Can Discuss Both”)
That twitter interactions increasingly provide the ground from which think-pieces spawn should be reason enough to reject any approach to legitimate knowledge which dismisses out of hand celebrity, or social media, or bad spelling. That in this case many have successfully connected the dots between the Minaj-Swift event and wider issues around contemporary feminism and anti-racism, as well as their internal schisms, proves further that in Hall’s words, quoted at the top of this piece, “popular culture matters”. The dots connected might at times be spurious, but the same accusation could be levelled at a good deal of the Financial Times’ output too. As articulated in the Gradient Lair quote, there is no frivolity in exploring the links between physical violence and poverty, and the meaning we ascribe to popular culture/events. Rather, it is an often alarming journey into the symbiosis between the two.
In the final instance, many such pieces are fobbed off as being much ado about nothing, storms in a tea-cup: Social Justice Warrior industrial product, all too eager for affirmation. This kind of “SJW bullshit” angle is ubiquitous online, but follows the trope image of a workplace table full of suited white men, all turned aside to look at the solitary woman / person of colour. “Well, you’re the only one who thinks we’re a sexist/racist organisation”, or something to that effect, is the common caption. Only now, and most interestingly, we are increasingly led to believe that the table is full of people claiming that the organisation is in some way discriminatory. A more honest cartoon, according to many, would feature one solitary person with their hand up, whispering “I don’t think this organisation is especially sexist/racist” while his colleagues holler all sorts of outlandish claims to victimhood.
I can’t imagine how exhausting, and dispiriting, such a dynamic – of a similar ilk to the “political correctness gone mad” narrative – might be perceived by those experiencing the commonly invisible (to those who can’t see) barriers and exclusions that come with occupying an inherently disempowered position in society. It is a bitter realisation that the accusations thrown at ethnographic investigations of popular culture (the medium is every-day, it’s crass, it’s common) mirror, to some extent, the manner in which micro-aggressions inform the daily life of marginalised peoples, equally mundane and ritualistic. This is what those who decry “identarian/identity politics” rarely seem to grasp. Prejudice and discrimination manifest in structural arrangements, and in elite-level representation. They also communicate in popular mediums, they are lived and every-day. They are endless and they intersect and are, well, messy. But it is so important to avoid the pitfall of dismissing the “drama”; as the Gradient Lair article quoted above puts it, when a figure demands we discuss one manifestation of discrimination and not the other, what is at stake is often the erasure of both.