Why we're all talking about Nicki Minaj's butt

The artwork for Minaj's new single 'Anaconda' got more than a quarter of a million likes on Instagram.

The artwork for Minaj's new single 'Anaconda' got more than a quarter of a million likes on Instagram. Photo: Isaac Brekken

Last week rapper Nicki Minaj posted the cover art for her new single Anaconda on Instagram. Unsurprisingly, in this viral age, the image of Minaj, wearing a pink sports bra, g-string and blue Air Jordans, spread like brushfire across the internet.

The artwork amassed more than a quarter of a million likes on Instagram and as those numbers skyrocketed so did the volume of memes mocking it.

Minaj happily played along sharing some of the more amusing offerings: Marge Simpson as Minaj, Minaj’s bum-cheeks forming the ‘oo’ in the Google logo. There were plenty of others, including a memorable mock-up where Minaj was inserted into Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe

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Predictably, the cover art also received widespread criticism and snark.

Responding to the negative feedback Minaj began to share images of white models in similar poses from Sports Illustrated magazine. She caption these photos “acceptable” and then reposted the image of her cover art with the word “unacceptable”

If you thought she was suggesting there was a racist angle to the snark you are correct. Unfortunately her point was lost on some.

In a round-up of the week’s “Nicki Minaj memes”, News’ Nick Bond notes, “Minaj’s point seems somewhat muddied, given all the ‘acceptable’ examples she offers are of swimsuit models — women hired specifically for the purpose of wearing next to nothing.” Sadly, like many others,  he’s incapable of grasping the different ways in which white and black women’s bodies are sexualised and politicised.

For a white model to make the cover of Sports Illustrated in a g-string is considered a perfectly reasonable career choice; indeed, it can be career-making. A black woman doing the same thing in a different context or publication is likely be decried as “ratchet” or lacking in class.

In an Atlantic discussion about Lily Allen’s Hard Out Here video last year, Ashley Fetters explored this issue, writing: “Most of [the] bodies getting ogled at and over-the-top objectified are black women’s bodies, and the woman rejecting that, presenting [themselves] as the exception, are white.”

With that in mind, Bond’s piece only gets worse as he continues to editorialise. “Minaj is a multitalented rapper, singer and businesswoman,” he continues, “and judging by the various parodies of her artwork that she herself has been keen to highlight, it seems the general reaction to her new look is less ‘NICKI, THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE’ and more ‘Nicki love, you look a bit silly. Aren’t you cold?’”

Bond might think the tone is one of gentle ribbing, but many of the responses to the Anaconda artwork suggest that “UNACCEPTABLE” is indeed the order of the day. Chuck Creekmur, owner of AllHipHop.com, penned an open letter to the multi-platinum star.  In it, the entrepreneur writes, “when I peeped the artwork for your latest single, I wasn’t even shocked, I was just disappointed [...] how dope would it be if you transcended what people expected of you? Like, how cool would it be for your transformation to extend beyond NOT wearing blonde wigs and crazing clothing?”

Fortunately, his concern and disappointment has been resolutely shut down. In an excoriating response over at Jezebel, Kara Brown writes, “I'll tell you one thing: Nicki serves me. She serves me by being a smart, talented, black woman in a male-dominated field who is in control of her image and owns her sexuality and who calls out sexist bullshit when she sees it. Nicki Minaj not serving the concerns of one man doesn't bother me in the least.”

(I imagine Minaj herself has laughed off the concern-trolling; after all, this is a woman who said, of sexism in the industry, “When I am assertive, I’m a bitch. When a man is assertive, he’s a boss.”)

So, back to Le Déjeuner sur l’booty: why can’t Minaj’s bottom be considered worthy of existing alongside, or indeed even within, high art? Why does it need to be the butt, as it were, of the internet’s jokes?

I change my Facebook Cover Photo often. Its purpose, as the kids in Douglas Rushkoff’s latest “the youth of today” frightfest Generation Like put it, is that it “kind of tells about your personality”. This week, I chose this play on Manet’s famed work because my personality thinks that the cover art for Minaj’s Anaconda is something glorious to behold, and inserting her bared bum into a famed painting - a painting whose fame is highly likely due to the presence of the naked arse of a (white) woman - presents it, and by extension the Anaconda cover, for what it is: high art.

This sniffy dismissal of hip hop, rap and R&B-adjacent self-expression is common among the supposedly enlightened corners of the net (and print media). Witness the widespread hooting and guffawing about Kanye West’s Bound 2 video; nobody stopped to consider whether or not West, an outspoken art and design fan, might be paying tribute to the gaudy, sentimental (and X-rated) series of portraits that artist Jeff Koons created with his then-partner Ilona Staller. These two works are probably the least-NSFW examples, but you get the picture.

(For their part, West and his wife Kim Kardashian just shrugged off the parodies and criticism and got Koons himself to give baby North some art lessons at last December’s Art Basel Miami.)

Similarly, Minaj is unquestionably tuned in to the art of self-expression - or, as Creekmur dismissively puts it, “wearing blonde wigs and crazy clothing”. The video for Stupid Hoe, directed by Hype Williams, is a work of art. In her ever-changing look Minaj is just as chameleonic as conceptual portrait artist Cindy Sherman, and yet her frequent image shifts are just dismissed as frippery.

Sherman, famously, was never nude in her own works. That Minaj, on the other hand, is not afraid to represent herself - at this time - in the raw doesn’t mean she’s any less compelling an artist.

Minaj has since swapped out the Anaconda artwork for a tamer, front-on portrait from the same photoshoot, and momentarily delayed the single’s release. "I promise you will understand why before the week is out,” she wrote on Instagram. Here’s hoping it’s because she’s busy working on ways to be even more of a Boss Ass Bitch.