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Nicki Minaj's Retroactive Feminism

How the biggest female rapper stops just short of being the best feminist.

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Yes, as in Don Imus. It's hard to hear that kind of dis from an African American woman who, like so many black pop stars, is prone to a platinum blonde hairdo, and undermines those times she does support other women (usually fans and her peers, like Katy Perry and Lauryn Hill). At the end of the song, she declaims that she is the "female Weezy" (Lil Wayne), which hopefully means that Lil Wayne is the male Nicki Minaj, but also is disappointing in that you wish she'd define herself against herself, not against a man. And while she calls herself a "boss bitch," reclaiming the concept of the b-word that's been so prevalent in certain male rap tracks, at Summer Jam she made it clear who she really considers the boss. After Peter Rosenberg dissed her, Lil Wayne made the executive decision that she would not perform at the concert in her headlining spot. Though she could have appeared and clowned him back in front of tens of thousands of people, in the spectacularly saucy way only she can, she conceded to her label boss' wishes. Wayne made the choice for her. It was disappointing.

And yet, she's so close! Minaj truly can be a wonderful role model in the way she encourages embodying your own destiny. But this interview on Nightline, in which she forgoes naming herself a "feminist" in lieu of "girl power," brought to light exactly what her feminism is about: the 1990s.

If you'll recall, in the '90s, the term "girl power" was invoked by the Spice Girls and other corporate entities to neuter the explicit feminism inherent in other music of the day—the in-your-face woman power of Yo Yo, the subversive energy of Bikini Kill, as two examples. "Girl power" feminism ushered in a convoluted feminism that gave birth to sentiments like "I am the female Weezy": sex positivity was often framed as "if men can be promiscuous, so can I"; throwback glamour to the '50s and '60s was framed as countercultural, rather than retroactive. Minaj's invocation of the term recalls that era. And while complex, complicated definitions of feminism are important to its progression—there is a point in which the water gets stale. We've heard it all before.

Meanwhile, fans of women rappers watch with dismay as the new crop repeats the male-centric cycle of dis-retort-repeat, rather than supporting one another. As Azealia Banks gets increasingly famous, her Southern counterpart, Tampa Bay's Dominique Young Unique, is throwing barbs her way, releasing diss tracks and having Twitter fights with the fellow 20-year-old. At this point, the good old-fashioned rap beef feels regressive, especially when we're finally getting over the drought of women receiving attention. With Minaj's lead, it would be kinda nice if, just once, all these awesome women would get together and do a "Ladies First 2012." Because we have a much bigger, much more deadly adversary to combat: patriarchy.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.
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