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Lee: Failing to Reclaim “Anaconda”

Nicki Minaj is one of the most recognizable musicians of our generation. Her image is so iconic that she has her own collection of perfume bottles shaped after her head and bust, in the same style as Greek models of another age. She is known for her lyrics, her rapping skills, her fabulous wigs. She is also known for her butt–more specifically, the pride she takes in her butt.

In her 2014 hit “Anaconda”, Minaj cleverly twists the lyrics of the divisive rap classic  “Baby Got Back” in order to make herself the subject of the song rather than the object. When she remixes Sir Mix-A-Lot’s lyrics, they become her own. My anaconda. It’s no longer his sexual desire or lust that drives the song: it’s hers. She does a employs a similar trick to the obnoxious Valley Girl voices that introduce the song. When they sing “Oh my god, look at her butt”, Minaj juxtaposes their contempt against her dance in the video to make them sound appreciative, even envious.

The song was celebrated as a feminist victory by websites such as They Young Folks, Medium, The Guardian, and even Middlebury College. And in some ways it was. Minaj claims agency over her body, every piece of it, including the parts that women are taught to suppress or hide. “Anaconda” follows this complex balancing act between being a sexualized object and demanding to be the sexy subject of a narrative.

However, the song decidedly derails in the last verse. Minaj shifts her tone from one of self-affirmation and pride to one of derision and contempt. She falls into the trap of putting down other women in order to lift herself and her “tribe” up in comparison. Minaj sings the refrain three times: “Fuck the skinny bitches in the club”, and it undermines the entire song. It carries echoes of Victorian literature like Jane Eyre, in which one woman must suffer or be rejected in order for the heroine to thrive. Instead of using her platform to uplift all women or declare solidarity, she divides them into categories (either “fat ass bitches” or “skinny bitches”) and pits them against each other.

This unnecessary tribal mentality is dangerous, because it encourages women to compete for validation through sex or admiration. Instead of using the song as a platform to elevate women and their desires, Minaj tacks on the last verse as a disclaimer: this song is only for certain types of women. You cannot listen to the song without the context of this competition, and it poisons the message of the entire piece. It can’t just be about body positivity or reclaiming sexuality and sensuality. Each of the possible affirming messages of the song becomes mitigated.  You can claim your body (if you look like me). You can claim your sexuality (if you look like me). You can be proud, you can flaunt it (as long as you got it).

“Anaconda” emerges as yet another form of exclusive feminism, albeit one that makes room for celebrating plus-size women and women of color. I believe that “Anaconda” has beautiful, empowering moments, and it’s a shameless expression of female sexuality from a talented rapper in a male-dominated field. However, I don’t believe that it holds as a feminist reclamation of a misogynist classic.

When we divide women into categories, when we have a clearly defined “us” and “them” system in which women are willing to sacrifice each other, we can’t call that feminism. If we use our positions of power to exclude any group of women , we are failing to realize the true message of equality in feminism.

“Anaconda” is objectively a fun song, and few bars of music can evoke such a powerful reaction from our generation as the first few beats of “My anaconda don’t-”. But we have to be careful before lifting the song up as a beacon of feminism in rap.