Nicki Minaj’s backside comprised the most unmistakable images in a conversation about the rapper on Monday in the Black Cultural Center.
It was a talk about how images in popular culture – and how we form our conceptions of those images – dominate the way we behave towards, identify with and relate to others. Social media platforms have become inescapable channels through which memes show up all over the Internet, often without context. Thus, the memes end up becoming symbolic of culture in their own way, such as the meme in which fans turned Minaj’s buttocks-baring artwork for her 2014 single, “Anaconda,” into a “Muppeted” version of Kermit the Frog as well as a Marge Simpson meme.
Memes change everything, argued Aria Halliday, a Ph.D. candidate in American studies. “(Minaj) is interested in looking spectacular,” she said. “People are drawn through images (such as memes) ... and Nicki loves the way she looks.”
Memes function as comments on social situations using humor, said Halliday, but Nicki Minaj’s representations of herself offer talking points for self-objectification, memetic culture (operative word being meme) and feminism. Minaj had reposted the parodied versions of the album cover and used them to promote her own brand.
Although Minaj turned these images’ effects into a positive, the memes had essentially beheaded her, “and the effect is monstrous,” commented Marlo David, an associate professor of English and women’s gender and sexuality studies, who was also present. As the call-and-response discussion developed through Halliday’s presentation, Minaj’s reaction was found to differ when Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana’s heads took over the meme. Social media in 2014 responded fully when Minaj called out Cyrus during the Video Music Awards.
“It’s important that I bring up Miley Cyrus because … she goes about popularizing herself through the use of black women’s bodies over and over again,” said Halliday. “She has her own twerk team, all black women, who are dancing around her … She also has on a thong very much like what we saw in the ‘Anaconda’ image from Nicki Minaj ... But she becomes popular for her use of black women’s bodies in this way. It’s one of her most watched performances.
“I found these images to be strange rather than funny or humorous, right? Because, you know, we’re not seeing Taylor Swift’s body taken up and used in different ways. We’re not seeing Miley Cyrus’ body taken up and used … Why is it that we can use Nicki Minaj’s body like this?”
Ultimately, issues Halliday raised were meant to encourage more “nuanced feminist approaches to representation,” as Minaj’s purposely sexual approach shows. The difference in representations of black women’s bodies is when the images are used for fun and/or without context.