Brow Beat

Why Nicki Minaj Was Right to Criticize MTV—and Taylor Swift 

Nicki Minaj, after winning the Best Hip Hop Video award during the 2014 MTV Europe Music Awards on Nov. 9, 2014.

Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images.

On Tuesday, the MTV Video Music Award nominations were announced, which to most of us is merely a reminder that the circus that launches a thousand memes every year is just around the corner. (Quick: Who won Best Female Video in 2003? Yup, I had to Google it, too.) For the artists , however, being nominated clearly means something. And to a certain kind of artist, missing out on a nomination for something you are proud of probably stings, a lot.

Nicki Minaj is one such artist: she missed out on a nomination for her video “Feeling Myself,” a collaboration with Beyoncé, and has been very publicly displeased. Following the announcement, she let loose with a series of tweets, which began with a playfully sarcastic barb at MTV for the absence of “Feeling Myself”: “LOL u guys did we miss the deadline??

The Video of the Year category features Beyoncé (“7/11”), Ed Sheeran (“Thinking Out Loud”), Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars (“Uptown Funk”), Kendrick Lamar (“Alright”), and Taylor Swift (“Bad Blood”). Based on that lineup, it was easy to see that Minaj’s tweets in regards to the “other girls” and “slim bodies” that are “celebrated” were a reference to the latter artist—Swift’s “Bad Blood” video is basically just a collection of her very best famous girlfriends, most of whom are as thin and supermodel-shaped as she.

But just because Swift was the obvious subject, it doesn’t mean she was the target—as Minaj pointed out by retweeting a fan:

Much of the Internet and media quickly dubbed this a “feud,” with Ryan Seacrest and Entertainment Weekly positioning Minaj as the aggressor and Swift as the victim in strategically chosen juxtaposed imagery. (FWIW, EW did apologize.) Transgender activist Janet Mock pointed these tweets out as evidence that the media continues to uphold the Angry Black Woman stereotype.

And Swift took it personally, too:

Swift—and the media—missed Minaj’s point, and thus proved her point. In seeing Minaj’s tweets as a direct attack on her, Swift only gave more fuel to the not unreasonable argument that her brand of feminism is of a very specific, exclusive sort. Saying that “I’ve done nothing but love and support you” and throwing the blame on “one of the men” who may have taken her slot instead is, at best, dismissive, and at its worst, patronizing: Swift gets to effectively ignore the fact that she benefits from working in an industry that values white voices over black ones, and always has. (For all MTV’s recent well-intentioned, if misguided, attempts at being a forward-thinking brand, let’s not forget that this is the same network that had to be shamed into playing Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” back in the day.) It’s a defense that has long been a source of contention within the feminist community, where white women sometimes trumpet the fight against patriarchy while simultaneously choosing to ignore how women of color are often treated differently (and worse) under such patriarchy. When Minaj responded to Swift, “I love you just as much. But [you] should speak on this,” that was her way of kindly, but firmly, challenging her friend—who is in a unique position of dominance—to do more.

But wait, you say—“Anaconda” was nominated, for Best Female Video and Best Hip Hop Video! What is this superstar even complaining about? For one, “Anaconda” was a cultural phenomenon, one of the most talked about, GIF’d, and parodied videos of the year. For an institution like MTV, which is ostensibly supposed to have its finger on the pulse of pop culture, it would make sense for “Anaconda” to be on the list—especially since the VMAs are known for unashamedly prioritizing buzziness over artistry. (Swift’s “Bad Blood,” for what it’s worth, broke Minaj’s Vevo record earlier this year.) Video of the Year is the only VMA category that even casual viewers tend to care about, and undoubtedly the most coveted award of the evening. It is essentially equivalent to the Album of the Year Grammy award in terms of industry cachet and bragging rights. For all of the money and influence both women and hip hop now have in popular music, both have also historically been ghettoized as “lesser.” Recall how vocal Kanye West has been about the Grammys’ penchant for relegating his genre-bending music to hip-hop and rap categories, shutting him out of the “bigger” categories for Song, Record, and Album of the Year. Minaj’s point is no different on this front. It may seem self-serving at first—being nominated at all is an honor, sure—but it’s a good thing to bring attention to the way black women and hip hop are routinely classified. (Yes, Beyoncé was nominated in the Video of the Year category, but “7/11,” in which she dances around goofily in a hotel with her girlfriends, is a considerably “safe” video compared to Minaj’s ass-filled cartoonish romp.)

“Anaconda” samples perhaps the best-known lines from the opening dialogue on Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” in which a white woman gawks at a particularly large ass, and says to her friend “Oh my God, Becky, look at her butt.” But there’s another part of the original song that can be easy to miss if you don’t listen closely, in part because it’s undercut just as Sir Mix-a-Lot jumps in with his infamous opening rap: “She’s just so … black,” the woman concludes, in a manner of equal awe and disgust. Some 20-plus years later, after making a video in which she puts a feminist bent on a one-hit-wonder’s ode to black women, such awe and disgust plays out similarly on Twitter and in pop culture coverage every day. Even if “Anaconda” doesn’t deserve to be Video of the Year, Minaj is onto something—and Swift and the media should take note.

Update, July 23, 2015: Taylor Swift has now apologized:

And Nicki Minaj has accepted her apology: