It’s easy for black women to like Beyonce. She’s a single female entity of commercial success, unapologetic sass, and Girl Power anthems.
But it’s harder to see that the success of her persona relies on its ability to balance the dynamics of female power. The tightrope that gives any woman permission to be independent, sexual, and bold; so long as she is not too tough, not too slutty, not too “bitchy”, so long as she doesn’t pose a real threat to male power.
The same idea plays out in her music. 2001 brought the release of Destiny’s Childs’ Independent Woman, a so-called salute of financial empowerment that urged you to “throw your hands up” if you bought the car you were driving and the “rock” you were “rockin”. But in 2004, came Cater 2 U, a nod to the 1950s housewife era of man-pleasing that called for running his bathwater or rubbing his feet. Getting his “dinner, slippers, dessert, and so much more.”
In 2008 it was Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It), a relationship revenge song about “doing your own thing”, but only if your man wouldn’t marry you first. And in 2011, we got Girls Run the World a declaration of female domination that claimed women were “smart enough to make the millions/strong enough to bear the children.”
Her songs, though with explicit “empowerment” content, have retroactive connotations about relationships, sexuality and gender roles; a woman of modern means who still wants to preserve old fashioned morals. The lyrical nudge that reminds you to “let the man be the man”, be strong but foremost feminine, that after all, you’re still a woman first.
And what Beyonce doesn’t say about female power, she shows with her body. In every music video centered around salacious curves and how well she can shake and grind in the scraps of fabric that all but cover them.
Female sexuality in and of itself has the capacity to be subversive and freeing; but when it is only ever seen in simplistic tits-and-ass sort of ways–in the very same context of female “empowerment”–it eventually sends the subliminal message that pussy and power are inextricably linked. That the body determines your final value, and you are ultimately the sum of its parts.
Enter Nicki Minaj. The eccentric, Queens-bred spitfire who managed to climb the echelons of male-dominated hip-hop and land somewhere on the top. And in many ways, she’s more progressive than Beyonce: She exudes a more complex, subtle version of sexuality, refers to her fans in unisex terms of “Barbz” (and Ken Barbz for gay men) and speaks poignantly about the challenges of being a female MC:
When I am assertive, I’m a bitch. When a man is assertive, he’s a boss.He bossed up! No negative connotation behind ‘bossed up’. But lots of negative connotation behind being a bitch… You have to be–you have to be dope at what you do, but you have to be super sweet and you have to be sexy and you have to be this and you have to be that and you have to be nice and you have to… It’s like, I can’t be all those things at once. I’m a human being…
But as much as Minaj tries to break through the chains of a mans’ world, she’s still complacent in the very system that confines her. Instead of denouncing the unrealistic beauty standards for women, she fully embraces them. She fires off lyrics like “pretty bitches only can get in my posse” (Stupid Hoe) and her image of choice, the Barbie, is the most extreme hetero-normative icon of beauty in existence. Instead of rebelling against the double-standard of female sexuality by discussing her own in the same braggadocious manner of male rappers, she boasts about her so-called respectability, in one interview saying: “if every nigga can say that he had you, you’re not exclusive, you’re not a bad bitch.” And instead of forming alliance with the scant of female hip-hop artists, she pits herself against them in girl-on-girl beefs; hurling childish insults and degrading remarks.
It was at the end of Stupid Hoe that Minaj referred to herself as the “female Weezy”; a sentiment that perfectly describes the way in which she sees herself. Not as her own separate female identity but as an extension of a mans; like Eve coming to life after taking Adam’s rib. And in many ways, that’s true. She’s taken the most negative aspects of mainstream hip-hop—misogyny, materialism, violence, competitiveness—put a dress on it, and called it her own.
What’s ironic is that Beyonce and Nicki Minaj are perpetually cited as “feminists” or “female role models”. But even when they’re being “feminist” they only tip-toe around the status quo, operating safety within the parameters of patriarchy. They seek to sell a shiny package of Girl Power that is just edgy enough to make us feel empowered, but not radical enough to encourage any real political change.
The personas of Beyonce and Nicki Minaj embody the exact same masculine/feminine dichotomy of many black women in America who have bought into the myth of the Strong Black Woman. A woman who is either like Beyonce—the herculean superhero seamlessly juggling her independence with femininity —or like Nicki,–the take-no-shit tough girl who thinks playing by a mans’ rules will make him forget she’s a woman.
But within the Strong Black woman myth lies the reality of the black female experience. The hardcore persona really only manifests itself in cattiness and competitiveness toward other women, but in relation to men, the armor cracks open to reveal a submissive vulnerability that looks more like weakness. It’s a persona that, even while being masculinized, tries to remain extremely feminine; curvaceous and soft-bodied, possessive of European features—light skin, long hair— a baby doll face, a masterful cook and housekeeper, an exuberant sex appeal, and passive demeanor.
It’s the oxymoronic dance the two personas engage in; two steps forward and three steps back, awkwardly trying to find a way to fit together but only cancel each other out.
Society likes to perpetuate the idea that black women hold their partners accountable, that unlike the White Girls, Black Girls don’t “put up” with no mans’ shit. But in truth, loyalty runs deep within the black female culture; the Ride or Die mentality, the allegiance to Your Man that means placing his needs above anything and everything else. It’s the reason black women suffer rates of domestic abuse that is 35% higher than white women (22 times higher than women of other races) and make up 1/3 of intimate partner homicides in the country. Or the reason black women account for 30% of the total HIV/AIDs infections among blacks (a rate 15 times higher than that of white women).
The Strong Black Woman persona also claims to be in control of her decisions at all times. Yet, millions of black women poured over Steve Harvey’s relationship advice books; the ones that would instruct them on how to walk, talk, dress, and act in order to get and keep a man.
Many “Independent women” are also deeply religious. They value autonomy but also adhere to the patriarchal structure of the church that insists that a woman be “obedient” to men, that she “know her place.”
The way these two contradictory images play out also inform black womens’ ideas about gendered politics. The actual pursuit of social, economic, or personal equality is seen as unnecessary and obsolete. Because in many ways I think the Strong Black Woman myth almost feels feminist enough, feels menacing and potent enough to mistake for real power.
The problem with Beyonce or Nicki Minaj isn’t so much the persona, but what happens when we buy into it: We get so distracted by the empty rhetoric of “girl power” and “Independent woman” that we forget just how much political progress we have yet to make. We get seduced, over and over, with the same images of the Strong Black Woman and its false implications of gender equality. We fall in love with the allusion of power, and walk away broken-hearted every single time.