Skip to main content

Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus at The VMAs: A Case Study in Intersectional Feminism

It all started with the above tweet, in which Nicki Minaj pointed out the fact that the music industry, like much of the greater entertainment industry, shows a definite preference for those adhering to a specific beauty standard. Minaj is certainly not the first person to lob this criticism at the industry, and she won’t be the last. Still, for some reason, her saying that publicly was seen as not very nice. Case in point, Taylor Swift’s tweet in which she mistakenly thought that Minaj was coming after her specifically, since her video for “Bad Blood” was nominated for Video of the Year and stars, well, women with very slim bodies.

Now, Minaj and Swift quickly cleared up the misunderstanding and they’re besties again – they’ve even performed together. However, Swift was not the only one to see Minaj’s criticism of the music industry as not very nice. In an interview with The New York Times, VMA 2015 host, Miley Cyrus, commented on Minaj’s criticisms – well, less on the actual criticisms (which might have been productive) and more about how those criticisms were delivered:

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. And it’s not anger like, ‘Guys, I’m frustrated about some things that are a bigger issue.’ You made it about you. Not to sound like a bitch, but that’s like, ‘Eh, I didn’t get my V.M.A.’

What I read sounded very Nicki Minaj, which, if you know Nicki Minaj is not too kind. It’s not very polite. I think there’s a way you speak to people with openness and love. You don’t have to start this pop star against pop star war. It became Nicki Minaj and Taylor in a fight, so now the story isn’t even on what you wanted it to be about. Now you’ve just given E! News ‘Catfight! Taylor and Nicki Go at It.’

If you want to make it about race, there’s a way you could do that. But don’t make it just about yourself. Say: ‘This is the reason why I think it’s important to be nominated. There’s girls everywhere with this body type.’

Forget about the fact that this type of commentary on another artist’s comments can also be seen as “making it about you.” (After all, Cyrus “could’ve” declined to answer the reporter’s question). And let’s (for the time being) forget the fact that Cyrus has a history of appropriating black, female bodies to support her own work:

miley butt

Not to mention other elements of black culture – like hair for instance:

Too often, the narrative in public “feuds” like this involves everyone feeling sorry for the poor, defenseless white person bearing the brunt of this “hostility,” while very little focus is put on the point the black person is actually trying to make about inequality in the industry:

kanye taylor not buds

Black people, and other people of color, are constantly expected to “wait their turn,” or “wait for the right time.” And magically, the “right time” never seems to come. Is it any wonder, then, that they speak – angrily – at the “wrong times?” Nicki Minaj did just that, and in response to Cyrus’ casual dismissal of her concerns by focusing on how “rude” she was about expressing them, called Cyrus out at a live awards show:

nicki minaj what's good

No, it’s not “nice.” Yes, she is a woman calling out another woman angrily. But if you’re looking at how Minaj handled the situation, rather than looking at the injustice of the situation in which Minaj and other black women in the music industry constantly find themselves, then you’re part of the problem.

Tone policing. It’s that thing where a marginalized person has legitimate concerns that they’re angry about, and so they express those concerns with anger, only to have privileged people say things like “You might have a better time getting people to side with you if you said that a little more nicely.” Everyday Feminism has an amazing post you should really look at that breaks down what tone policing means, and why it’s harmful. But basically, Miley Cyrus dismissing Nicki Minaj’s concerns by focusing on her delivery is a huge symbol of it, and it highlights the need for intersectional feminism; a feminism that acknowledges that different communities of women within our greater Sisterhood have concerns that are specific to them, and deserve focus if Women as a group are ever going to move forward.

In the above EF piece, Maisha Z. Johnson writes this about the Minaj/Cyrus incident:

So how could I, as a feminist, support such a divisive moment of hostility between women?

To understand, you have to remember how Nicki got to this point – from tweeting about the music industry, without naming names, to directly and publicly addressing one of the biggest culprits of profiting off the backs of Black women in front of millions of people.

And addressing her in the language of her neighborhood – showing everyone that while Miley picks the parts of Black culture that she likes (and that get her albums sold), she can’t handle the whole truth of what it means to be Black. Because she doesn’t actually engage with the culture – or realize there’s more to it than the stereotypes enacted through cultural appropriation.

In short, Nicki’s fed up – she’s been pushed past the point of kindness, only because nobody’s being kind to her. They’re calling her rude just for talking about her struggles.

It’s a familiar story for Black women who frequently start out being polite, only to be shut down until we demand to be heard.

If women like Taylor Swift expect women “not to pit women against each other,” then they need to stop dismissing certain women themselves. Thing is, Swift seems to be getting the message. Not only did she apologize to Minaj:

But she and Kanye have made up, too: LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 08:  Kanye West and Taylor Swift attend The 57th Annual GRAMMY Awards at STAPLES Center on February 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

Now, if only she’d acknowledge that she, like Cyrus, has appropriated black female bodies in a harmful way in her “Shake It Off” video and apologize for that. (And, also, never do it again)

However, Cyrus doesn’t seem to want to examine herself long enough to get anything. Whereas Swift seems to be learning, growing and changing, Cyrus seems determined to do what she wants, when she wants, no matter who it hurts. And this is particularly disappointing, considering how Cyrus’ Happy Hippies Foundation seeks “to rally young people to fight injustice facing homeless youth, LGBTQ youth and other vulnerable populations.”

Perhaps she hasn’t heard – but black people, particularly black women, are a vulnerable population. No matter how “angry” they are.

(via The Daily Beast)

—Please make note of The Mary Sue’s general comment policy.—

Do you follow The Mary Sue on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, & Google +?

Have a tip we should know? [email protected]

Filed Under:

Follow The Mary Sue:

Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former Mary Sue assistant editor from 2015-18. Teresa's returned to play in the TMS sandbox as a freelancer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.