Why We Need To Take Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda Seriously, Seriously.

The Introduction:

Recently, Nicki Minaj has been in the news. Her so-called feud with Taylor Swift directed a lot of people’s attention to her Anaconda video, about which Nicki was, understandably, upset because it did not get a nomination for Best Choreography and Video of the Year at the VMAs.

And, as we all know, Taylor decided to get involved. I am not going to rehash the ins and outs here. Marina has a really great video discussing the issue; please watch it to find out more.

Now, for my part, I want to talk about the merits of Nicki’s video, which has been heavily criticized and a little bit about the response others had to Taylor’s misapprehension of the issues of race, media, and Nicki’s tweets. Perhaps, I’ll start with the second point first.

Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran decided to derail Nicki’s point even further with their smack-talking, WWF (sic, should be WWE) analogy of the VMAs. First of all, Nicki has every right to be upset that her video was not nominated. Let’s get that straight. Full stop. Second of all, she has a right to tell her fans she is upset. Her fans support her, they like her work, and they want the best for her. She is allowed to share her vulnerability. Full stop. Now, when Taylor got involved, she derailed Nicki’s point. But when Ed and Bruno got involved, they were silencing Nicki even further and completely derailing Nicki’s discussion of race and systems of racial stereotype and oppression via the machismo of wrestling. Additionally, they made a mockery of two women disagreeing about something. Ed and Bruno made it about Nicki and Taylor’s gender–two women not seeing eye-to-eye became about two men showing that women don’t and can’t play nice with each other. First, it harkens back to archaic tropes that women can’t hold the same jobs men do because their emotions overwhelm them. Second, and most importantly, it reinforces race-based tropes of the angry-black woman. The narrative becomes that Nicki is just angry and Taylor is somehow a victim in this. That is not at all what was going on. Nicki was expressing her own disappointment and anger that she was not nominated.

The Argument:

Let’s talk about Nicki’s discussion of race and bodies in relation to Anaconda. Nicki explains that she feels black women and fuller-bodied women are not represented in the media. Yes, yes, yes. It is just true. When Nicki posted a photo to instagram to announce the video, people were outraged by her bum. Good grief. When a woman expresses her sexuality, suddenly is is tacky, pornographic, slutty….<<INSERT ALL THE WORDS>>, but men have been sexualizing and making women into objects FOREVER. Why is it okay for the Wiggle song to exist or Blurred Lines or any of those types of videos where women are not only made into objects in the lyrics but hyper-sexualized in the video? Additionally, because of racism’s dreadfully terrible history (not that it could have any other history but dreadful) of aligning certain races with animals, animality, primal lust &c., black men and women are always sexualized  (read: over-sexualized) without their consent. Thus, when a black woman expresses her sexuality, she is immediately policed by the media, social-media websites, friends, family, people she doesn’t know &c.,

The genius of Nicki’s video is that it RECLAIMS one’s ability to be sexual without being sexualized by someone else. The beginning of Sir Mix A Lot’s song has two white women discussing a black woman’s body like it doesn’t belong to a living person. They are distanced from making emotional contact, first by their language, and second by the fact that the black woman is put on a pedestal like a statue–a non-human. Their language cannibalizes the body of the woman. Her body is cut into what is worthwhile (by Mix A Lot) and what is not. Her “butt.” She is no longer seen as a person, but she is something that we ALL consume as we watch the video and get the song stuck in our heads–“I like big butts.” This becomes especially apparent as we see fruits and veg used to stand in for bums. They also say that she looks like a “rap guy’s” girl friend, thus claiming she only exists in the context of the male gaze. Next, they even suggest that she looks like a prostitute, based solely on her body type. WHAT?! The girls are ridiculed for finding her body gross, but not for sexualizing her body. Her body, according to the rest of the song, is meant to be sexualized, sings Sir Mix A Lot.

Now, if we take a moment to look at the way the women are dancing in the video, we will note that Nicki’s own choreography is fairly similar. It is not more riské than Sir Mix A Lot’s video. The only difference is that a woman is saying that her body is sexy and reclaims the power of the gaze.

She castrates the male gaze.

I mean, the video is SO GENIUS! Nicki reframes the ENTIRE idea of how women’s body’s are and have been sexualized by male artists. The song begins with Sir Mix A Lot’s sound bite, and, for a moment, you see the bodies through the male gaze–then Nicki begins talking about a guy–her context. She reverses the power of the male gaze and she openly discusses her own sexuality. She’s basically saying, “yah, look at her butt.” Do it, when she says you can. Is that what makes people so upset? It’s on her terms? The lyrics are often ill at ease with what is happening in the background. When the scenes seem to become more sexualized, the less relevant they are to her lyrics. For example, when she is talking about the male with the “dick bigger than eiffel” the man in question is not even in the scene to restore the power of the male gaze. It is not his pleasure or power that we glean from the scene, it is hers! Furthermore, she is talking about and referencing the male body in abstract terms: the male body is reduced to his penis, just like in Mix A Lot’s women are reduced to their bums. Although, the penis is usually taken as a sign of power and virility, Nicki undoes this. She mimics Mix A Lot’s use of fruit, mostly to imitate the male phallus: bananas. They swim, abstractly, upon a turn-table, or just as Nicki is about to take a bite of one she throws it away in disgust and cuts one with a pair of scissors. She castrates the male gaze. I mean, that scene where she is spinning just shows the ridiculous way women, especially black (/POC) women, are sexualized by the media and not on their terms.

I think my favourite part is when she is dancing for Drake, and she is expressing her own sexuality, but when he tries to touch her, she slaps his hand away. She said LOOK, not touch. Get it? Look at her butt?!

So, whilst Nicki did not get a nomination, I think her video should be celebrated for the clever ways it functions to dismantle how men and women have portrayed women, especially women of colour, in the music industry and the media. If we understand the context of her videos, then we won’t underwrite her when she says that her video represents that from which which the media, purposefully, shies away. Additionally, if someone says, well “Beyoncé was nominated” then we should say, why are we counting how many black women are nominated?

Heaps of Love,
WordPlay Xx

The Litigation Mermaid: Ideas of Consent and Contracts

Disney / GIPHY

Ariel signs a contract. Ursula acquires Ariel’s voice. Ariel has three days to kiss Eric, and, if she fails to do so, her soul becomes Ursula’s. Poor Unfortunate Souls, indeed. Although, Ursula is cast off as a villain in The Little Mermaid as an othered body—a powerful female, who is not a merman, and compared to Ariel’s slim waistline, fat. Her otherness is meant to vilify her in the context of Ariel’s so-called innocent quest for love and a different kind of othered body. It is arguable that The Little Mermaid is as much about the legal truths of contracts as it is a doe-eyed love story. In fact, I also argue that this film is not so doe-eyed, but a tale of sexual awakening and includes ideas of consent, if not outright comments on the subject.

First, let’s discuss the terms and conditions of Ariel’s agreement to Ursula. Ariel is not naively signing her soul and voice away; Ursula tells her the results of not paying a debt. Ursula shows a mermaid and man who wanted to become more attractive to impress one another, a vanity which costs them their souls. Arguably, their souls were in peril before Ursula got to them. Indeed, Ursula’s own size and curves emphasize the hubris of the choices of the mermaid/man to slim down her waisteline and to bulk his pecks, instead of just accepting themselves and each other for who they are [naive, right?]. Ariel and other Disney Princesses have unrealistic body types, Ursula’s parable about weight undeniably shows how unrealistic and disastrous coveting these body types are. Indeed, as we see in Ursula’s later transformation to woo Eric, she may chose to look however she wants. Ultimately, Ursula’s entire song “Pour Unfortunate Souls” shows the dangers of covetousness and hubris.

Disney / GIPHY

For example, underwater, Ariel is used to doing as she pleases. She is out-spoken, fearless, and adventurous. But to get above water, Ariel must give her voice to Ursula. The agreement is not all that unfair. In true trinity fashion, Ursula exchanges three days as a human with Ariel for her voice and Ariel needs to acquire “true love’s kiss.” Ariel agrees, and signs her name to the contract. 

Disney / GIPHY

Now, we all know that Ursula wants to use Ariel’s wish to be human to acquire King Triton’s throne and triton to rule the waters. She will manipulate the contract in order to acquire the goods from Prince Eric, so Ariel’s soul will become hers. Yet, the film focuses on Ursula’s contract with Ariel and her final contract with Triton. The presence of the legally binding contract is more authoritative than Triton’s sovereignty, his foul temper. Indeed, let us examine Triton’s court and his behaviour. Like the French Kings, a luxurious court life is meant to symbolize divine right and kingship. We see that his other daughters behave frivolously and sing little ditties to keep the court amused. Entertainment is the opiate of the masses—bread and circuses. But this style of kingship sacrifices the populace for the grandeur and splendour of court life.

Moreover, Ariel is, from the start, shown to be irresponsible to court life because she is not at the concert. Instead, she searches shipwrecks for signs of human and their wares. Ariel seeks the other–the humans that mermaids/men, and underwater life fear. Indeed, humans are seen as a chaotic and harmful force to the water’s ecosystem. Their waste is worrisome to Triton, and that his youngest and dearest daughter collects the detritus completely unnerves him. Instead of explaining himself to us or Ariel, he finds his daughter worshipping the idol of Prince Eric and destroys it all. HUMANS?! BADDIES! (Thanks Triton) But Ursula is willing to transgress the boundaries between land and water, human and not-human. Ursula sends Ariel into the human world after she sacrificed her voice in exchange for the legs. Ariel is, thus, still tied to the underwater world because her voice is trapped under water in a legally binding contract with Ursula. Moreover, Ursula’s contracts do pull Ariel back into the water and even has the power to unravel Triton’s power. So, instead of simply seeing the patriarchal forces of the film play out, we must note that Ursula’s contracts are more powerful than Triton. This is why she is scary. She can overpower Triton. It is when she starts to use Triton’s triton (phallus?) that she is undone and defeated by Eric. Triumphing not only over Ursula, at her death, but also over Triton’s waters. Ariel and Eric do, indeed, get married on a boat and Triton has to concede to Ariel and Eric’s love. Ursula’s disruption to Triton’s authority forever changes the relationship between land and water.

Before I discuss the presence of consent in the film, I discuss the othering of Ursula’s body. We’ve already touched on the divisive quality of man and nature in the film—this divisiveness is a type of othering. The human world is othered because it is different from the underwater world over which Triton reigns. It is seen as a negative place because it is not known, and it is inhabited by difference. See the song “Under The Sea” to drive this point home. Now, the othering of Ursula body is similar in idea. Ursula is immediately identified as a villain in the film. Is it the darkness with which she is associated? She does not look like the white, pristine mermaids/men. Is it that she is not white? Is is that her sexuality is overt, where the barely clad mermaids are somehow innocent and chaste? She is also a woman with, seemingly, unnatural powers. But, where Triton uses his triton to ‘magic’ events, Ursula actually relies on contracts for power. She relies on an enlightenment-based principle of contract and law to make agreements and settle debts. The results of unpaid debts are, indeed, ghastly. Who really wants to look like a slug or a piece of old sea kelp? The questions raised show that Ursula’s legal actions are blurred and convoluted by the fact that she is a non-white, not skinny, woman. Ursula’s marginalization should keep her oppressed, but she has power.

I remember, as a child, watching Ursula and knowing right away that she was meant to be recognized as the baddie. Ariel’s innocence was so starkly contrasted in Ursula’s knowledge of being sexy and what men want. Not mermen…real men. For example: 

Disney // Giphy

Yes, Ursula has curves. Yes, Ursula is sexy. She knows the importance of body language. Look at that butt. DAYAMM. Also, those red lips. You can see that she is aware she is sexy. But there is also this discomfort present. Why should she feel sexy? She doesn’t look like Ariel. She is not skinny. She is not doe-eyed. She is not the daughter of the King. She is not… But her sexuality and knowledge of sexuality is unmistakeable. Her own self-awareness is lost on children as a negative inference, but Ursula’s character should be seen as an empowered female character. A character who has to fight and play dirty for what she wants. Is it only dirty because she is a woman? Negative adjectives are attached to women’s actions, whereas a male character would be considered a hero–trying to claim power from Triton, a king who creates margins and alienation. Ursula has made her own spaces to assert her power. Ursula certainly does not hold her tongue. She even wields Ariel’s voice in the film.

Disney / GIPHY

Ursula’s assertion of power is captured in her claim: “It’s she who holds her tongue who gets her man.” Whose tongue? Ariels! Ursula has her voice and Ariel’s voice. With it, she is able to manipulate Eric into falling in love with her. Note that when Ariel regains her voice after the sea-creature shenanigans at the wedding, Eric immediately races to Ariel. It is not female submissiveness, but the assertion of power and authority that negotiates power relations in the water and out–the voice.

Disney / GIPHY

Ursula’s character is sexy. That is undeniable. Eight (ten) arms are better than two? Anyway, Ariel’s character is understood as an unaware, innocent, young girl seeking her true love. Prince Eric. *swoons* But Ariel’s character should not be understood as an non-sexual being. Ariel is experiencing a sexual awakening in the film. Ariel is crushing on Eric like no other crush before. Haha. Lies. We’ve all been there. But Ariel is awakened, and she wants to be part of Eric’s world. Although Ariel’s character is chastised as a child and she is very childlike, it is undeniable that she is older than these characteristics. She is portrayed as naive and chaste, but she makes the contract with Ursula. She knows she wants to leave the water to find Eric.

Disney / GIPHY

Disney / GIPHY

Although, Ariel’s character appeals to children, the film, even unknowingly, expresses the sexual awakening of a young woman. Perhaps, that she metamorphoses into a human with legs—literally, becoming a woman, her sexual awakening is complete.

Now, speaking of sexual awakenings and our massive crush on Prince Eric. So dreamy. *giggles* It is all so sudden. Oh yes, where was I? Let us move to our final discussion, that of consent. Ursula told Ariel that she had three days to make her humanness permanent by having true love’s kiss—can it be true love if both parties cannot communicate openly with one another? No! So, perhaps Ursula’s contract was always filled with clauses and impossible loopholes in her favour. But, I digress. The song “Kiss the Girl” has often been read as a moment where the kiss is meant to happen to the girl, but, arguably, Ariel’s friends are her voice in this scene. She WANTS to kiss Eric and for Eric to want to kiss her. Alas, the boat is upturned at the end of the scene, and maybe we can consider Ursula to be a bastion of consent, rather than trying to stop all possible kissing moments [cock block]. [Of course, Ursula’s attempt to marry Eric is an example of consent gone to pooh]. But even if Eric does kiss Ariel, consent is not present. Eric does not know who Ariel is, and Ariel is using him to become human.

Disney / GIPHY

Ariel and Eric cannot kiss until both parties can communicate. The kiss is not consensual until communication is present. And while Ursula has Ariel’s voice, communication is impossible and so, too, is consent. Writing or sign language are not necessarily options because of the premise of the contract; indeed, there is a scene where Ariel attempts to communicate by signing, but Eric cannot understand her signs. Finally, it is when Ariel speaks, Eric recognizes her and they both go to kiss. But they are stopped as Ariel changes back into a mermaid. The contract to kiss him was not known by both parties; communication has failed. When the contracts binding Ariel to Ursula are resolved, Triton signs a contract to release her, Eric fights to save Ariel. This happens in very quick succession, but the events that unravel show the necessity of consent.

In conclusion: 

Disney / GIPHY

Yes, The Little Mermaid has its issues that many feminists have discussed more eloquently than I, but I think that there are also instances where women are shown to have power, sexual awareness, and consent. Indeed, Ursula’s knowledge of contracts is an area that could, perhaps, be explored. Octopi Law School; Under the Sea Academy of Law; The Eight Balancing Arms of Justice….I could go on.