Calling out White Feminist hypocrisy
By Susie Plotkin
“And now back to this bitch that had a lot to say about me the other day in the press—Miley, what’s good?”
This line, which Nicki Minaj delivered during her acceptance speech for Best Hip-Hop Video, is the standout memory from the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards. People will forget who hosted the show, they’ll forget who won which awards, they’ll forget the guest performances, but they won’t forget that Nicki Minaj called Miley Cyrus a bitch, because that’s all that matters. They will forget, too, the reason Minaj called out Cyrus and the context of Cyrus’ even more outrageous statements about Minaj. In the end, Nicki said that Miley was a bitch on stage, and that’s much more important.
The media seemed to understand that this line was the takeaway from the VMAs. Following Minaj’s acceptance speech, the Internet exploded with headlines about the exchange. The Guardian recapped the VMAs with an article titled, “VMAs 2015: Nicki Minaj calls Miley Cyrus ‘bitch’ on stage at MTV awards.” Other news outlets decided to steer away from the traditional route of simply explaining what happened, and focused instead on the Cyrus family’s reaction to what Minaj said. Entertainment Tonight, via their online forum, featured an article titled, “Watch the Cyrus Family’s Stunned Reactions to Nicki Minaj Calling Out Miley at the VMAs,” including a series of photos of Cyrus’ parents and siblings in the audience, wide-eyed, hands over their mouths, shocked. The Daily Mail similarly headlined an article, “Stunned! Miley Cyrus’ family can barely contain shock as they watch singer branded b**** by Nicki Minaj at MTV VMA’s.” Bitch—a word so foul it can only be expressed in asterisks. We are supposed to read these headlines and, like Cyrus’ family did, understand that Nicki was rude, crass, and wrong, and Miley was taken off-guard, a victim, and poised.
Most of these articles, of course, would eventually include Miley’s response later that night: “We are all in this industry, we all do interviews, and we all know how they manipulate shit. Nicki, congratu-fucking-lations”. Oddly enough, there were no headlines reading, “Ouch! Miley Cyrus says ‘Congratuf***inglations’ to Nicki Minaj when she won Best Hip-Hop Video Award.” Miley’s response (which was just as crass) and what she did to instigate Nicki’s original attack were not important enough to flood headlines.
This all started when Minaj’s video for “Anaconda,” which broke Vevo’s then-record for most views in the first 24 hours, was not nominated for Video of the Year. Minaj tweeted, “If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year,” calling out the music industry’s obvious preferred acceptance of certain body types (read: white and super thin) over others (read: not white and not super thin). Minaj’s tweet wasn’t controversial, raunchy, or crass; she was frustrated that her highly successful video wasn’t nominated in a category she thought it deserved to be in. She recognized that the women featured in her video have very different body types than the music industry prefers, and called it out for that. Minaj did not mention any specific artists or videos that were nominated in her tweet, and only protested the general trends of the music industry for women, but still Taylor Swift took it personally.
Swift tweeted, “@NICKIMINAJ I’ve done nothing but love & support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot.” Clearly Swift missed the point of Minaj’s tweet and wasn’t able to comprehend that Minaj could simultaneously A) be a woman and B) make a comment about racism in the music industry without “[pitting] women against each other.” Minaj’s tweet came from her perspective as not just a woman in the music industry, but as a woman of color. Swift doesn’t need to think about how her race plays into her success because she’s white, just like any person born into a majority group doesn’t need to consider what part of their identity put them in the majority. This is to say that while Swift might experience sexism in the music industry, she will never experience sexism in the same way that Minaj does. When she redirected the message of Minaj’s tweet, which was a critique that stemmed from a place of intersectionality, to an accusation against her in the name of “one-size-fits-all” feminism, she actively silenced and ignored the entire problem Minaj was referencing in the first place. In Swift’s world of White Feminism, sexism exists in a gender vacuum, ignoring all other personal identities that inherently accompany it—race, sexual orientation, etc.—which is why her suggestion that “maybe one of the men” took Minaj’s nomination is so predictable; she dismissed the possibility that race could play any factor in this by focusing solely on gender, thereby implying that white women and women of color face the same kinds of oppression.
“It is the responsibility of so-called feminists like Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus to not silence the voices of women who are hurt by the social systems they benefit from.”
Minaj was clearly taken aback and confused by Swift’s tweet, replying, “Huh? U must not be reading my tweets. Didn’t say a word about u. I love u just as much. But u should speak on this @taylorswift13.” The remarkable thing here is that Minaj must have been frustrated with Swift’s tweet, but she still responded without any malice. She even went so far as to tell Swift she loved her too, and invited her to “speak on” Minaj’s initial tweet. Although she must have recognized the implications of Swift’s tweet, she still asked her for her support on the issue. But Swift didn’t take that opportunity to redeem herself, and instead tweeted, “@NICKIMINAJ If I win, please come up with me!! You’re invited to any stage I’m ever on,” which is condescending at best.
The next morning, Swift finally apologized, tweeting, “I thought I was being called out. I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke. I’m sorry, Nicki.
@NICKIMINAJ,” and Nicki tweeted back, thanking her for her apology, which should have put the issue to rest. However, then Miley Cyrus decided to add in her two cents about the exchange in an interview with The New York Times before the VMAs, despite the fact that she admitted to not having followed it closely enough to know the specifics. Cyrus disapproved of Minaj’s role in the fight, saying, “If you do things with an open heart and you come at things with love, you would be heard and I would respect your statement. But I don’t respect your statement because of the anger that came with it.” This tone policing is classic among members of majority groups, Taylor Swift included, that suppress the messages of minority groups, refocusing the message of what someone is saying from its content to the anger behind it. Who cares what Minaj had to say if she wasn’t being polite? If she had been less angry, Cyrus would have “respected her statement”—which is confusing for a few reasons. Primarily, Minaj’s initial tweet was not anger ridden; it was constructive and honest. Moreover, Cyrus has never criticized an activist on her side for being too angry in their remarks (for example, a sexually liberated white woman). Cyrus herself is known for risqué remarks, like the time she said in an interview with W Magazine in 2014, “I’m trying to tell girls, like, ‘Fuck that. You don’t need to wear makeup. You don’t have to have long blonde hair and big titties. That’s not what it’s about.’” It’s not entirely clear to me how that statement, or any of the other number of similar statements she’s made, is more open-hearted and less angry than Minaj’s tweet. Not to mention the fact that here, when Cyrus spoke about feminism and empowering women, she was clearly targeting a white audience, as having long blonde hair isn’t often a societal beauty expectation for women who are anything but white.
Both Swift and Cyrus have commented on how sexism in the music industry has affected them many times in the past. In reference to people who didn’t believe that she had written her own music, Swift told Billboard in December of 2014, “They may have to deal with their own sexist issues, because if I were a guy and you were to look at my catalog and my lyrics, you would not wonder if I was the person behind it.” Similarly, when she was on the cover of Marie Claire’s September issue, Cyrus said about the music industry, “There is so much sexism, ageism, you name it… Kendrick Lamar sings about LSD and he’s cool. I do it and I’m a whore.” Neither of them sugarcoated their statements. They both acknowledged and spoke out against the sexism that they face in the industry. Yet, when Minaj spoke out against the oppression she faces, both women dismissed her statement and attacked her. It seems that Swift’s emphasis on empowering other women is limited to her girl gang of white models, and that Miley’s assertion in an interview with BBC in 2013 that she’s “one of the biggest feminists in the world” is only true if you ignore every woman who doesn’t face the same obstacles as her. Feminism means equality of the sexes, but this can’t be achieved by ignoring and disregarding the types of oppression that women of color (or gay women or low-income women or trans women) face. It is the responsibility of so-called feminists like Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus to not silence the voices of women who are hurt by the social systems that they benefit from (whether they realize it or not).
If Miley was going to criticize Nicki for being “not too nice” when she made a constructive statement, then at the awards show that Miley was hosting, Nicki damn well would be “not too nice.” And regardless of how the white-lauding press decided to handle it, I think the stand-out memory from the VMAs came after Nicki called her a bitch, when the camera panned to Miley to show her reaction: standing in her fake dreadlocks, jaw-dropped, speechless. Although just temporarily, their roles were reversed: Nicki managed to silence Miley.