The best scholarship, to me, contends head-on with the ambiguous, the potential spectrum of interpretations offered by a single text or image. I remember when I first stumbled across Barthes’ dead author fixation when I was 16 or 17, and it blew my mind. It opened up a world to me where literature and art, and everything really, is continually being re-inscribed with signification. Everybody, in some sense, co-creates that to which they assign meaning – and by so doing the “meaning(ful)” object access its own peculiar afterlife(ives) and even agency. TL;DR: everyone is dead, nothing’s dead, there is no singular truth. Wrestling with this, in various iterations, is basically why I went to grad school I think.
Anyway, in “old news”, a solidly pop-culture image – and the ensuing online debates about it – demonstrates the exasperating and awesome roads this kind of hermeneutics leads us down. In August 2014, Nicki Minaj’s cover art for her song “Anaconda” (see image to the right) caused quite “le scandale”, even “le uproar”, as we say in my cod-French house. Looking at this particular image and debate offers a case study of the productivity of this theoretical attitude that is accessible to students. It also shows the ways in which such an analytical framework, often relegated – by arbiters of intellectual rigour – to “dry academic scholarship” of “worthy” or “high culture” objects, can and should be deployed more broadly.
There’s a lot at play in the commercial image – race, gender, sexuality, celebrity, socio-economic power, and even pleasure. And, at this point, others have almost definitely said it or said it better than I can. Metafilter, a community discussion site, has a great round-up of the strands of analysis, and some nuanced and informed comments from users too. (Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s November 2014 profile of Minaj for GQ makes for some good reading too, and provides context for those less familiar with the rap-star.) My favourite analysis of the image, by a decisively wide mark, is offered by Moze Halperin on Flavorwire, who draws on Lacan in a slip of piece. (Why yes, many moons ago I did fall hard for Lacanian critique of medieval literature. Once the Lacanian, ever the Lacanian, eh?) Halperin contends:
Whether or not Nicki Minaj meant to position her body so that – in keeping with the phallic motif of her upcoming single’s title, “Anaconda” – it resembles a human phallus, it’s hard not to give in to the powerful signifier, and now impossible to not see the pose Minaj strikes while getting her eagle on as deliberately dick-like. Especially from a distance. Inspired by Lacan, feminist critique often boils down to the insidiousness of society’s perception of the female anatomy as a phallic lack, and to that Minaj (perhaps, and I hope) responds, with a hotly intimidating smirk, not just by “taking” the phallus, but by rendering her entire form phallic, somehow all the while flaunting her exaggeratedly female figure.
Whilst I don't want to rehash the insightful critique already floating around the internet, I have been thinking recently about my personal relationship to Minaj and the image. I like Nicki Minaj. I think some of her tracks are fantastic, mainly those from Roman Reloaded – Super Bass, Starships, Freedom I’m looking at you. I think her aesthetic swagger is provocative and interesting. She is, after all, the reason that the delightful “pelican fly” entered my vocabulary as a descriptor for Very Nice Looking people, items, and ideas. Beyond that, I don’t really have much to comment. Of itself, the image doesn’t make me like her more or less. At first sight, I wasn’t particularly scandalised by it. Sure, I “got” the “wow, lady flesh!” element of much of the professed internet shock, but I was more fascinated by the symmetrical reflection of glowing light off each buttock. Somehow, the gleams read to me – remember I look at a lot of hagiography – as almost halo-like, signifiers of some evanescent internal special-ness. So, butt-glow signifying unattainably polished feminine performance, crossed with a “fuck-you” empowerment transmitted by her unapologetic gaze back at the viewer. “Yeah, I see you – I got you – you will never get this” – a gender-neutral retort for women who can never look like her and inhabit her fierceness, and men who want to penetrate (more or less literally) her persona for their own purposes.
The fact is, my reading of the image is not just utterly biased by my own concerns for gender politics and power dynamics, but also by every piece of criticism about it I read before ever seeing the cover myself. My (analytical) sight was, and is, channelled through the reactions of others. I read about the furore, read pieces deconstructing the furore, and then saw the art. As I said, the image doesn’t really affect my feelings towards Minaj more generally. However, Halperin’s interpretation of the image absolutely does. Halperin opens up a hypothetical Minaj-identity in which the rapper forthrightly and playfully challenges us to consider gender, power, and the processes of visual consumption. I too join Halperin’s cry of “perhaps and I hope”. I’ve never seen the “Anaconda” single as a material object, though Amazon UK suggests it was available to purchase at some point. I wonder if my reaction would have been – or would be – different had I ever encountered the image in tangible form, possessed the CD itself? Could I pin my feminist-Lacanian hopes on Minaj after literally buying into the woman’s commodification, her literal objectification as cover art? Would buying the CD be supporting Minaj’s – or Minaj-Halperin’s – message of empowerment, or undermining it somehow? I honestly don’t know, but I suspect that the digital and material versions may elicit different reactions – in this instance, and more generally in terms of our responses to objects of interpretation.
Looking at the Minaj image, and reading the various positions viewers adopt towards it, I’m reminded strongly of a chapter in Bill Burgwinkle and Cary Howie’s 2010 book, Sanctity and Pornography. The book disentangles the relationship of modern pornographic image (and narrative) to medieval hagiography, a genre that so often foregrounds tortured bodies with more than a touch of titillation. (For an image-based example, check out St Agatha's "sexy mastectomy" - shudder - that accompanies this post.) If you’re a scholar of hagiography, Burgwinkle and Howie's book is, frankly, a must-read, particularly given its direct engagement with male saints rather than the more usual focus on sexualised female religious. (If you’re interested, read my review of the book for the journal Marginalia here.) In the chapter “Looking at Saints” (pp. 74-109), the authors argue that images of “sexy” martyrdom elicit a shifting viewing perspective: ‘The viewer of such scenes will almost inevitably flip between identification with the torturer, wielding his power, and the saint who intuits this torture as his opening onto transcendence’ (p. 78). Further, the viewer’s interpretive ‘strategy’ can – and does – ‘change from day to day: sometimes I am with the victim, sometimes with God, sometimes with the torturer; sometimes I can identify with nothing more than the diegetic viewers or the textual space; sometimes I can identify with nothing at all […]’ (p. 83). The Minaj image – loaded with doubly signifying iconography of female empowerment and gendered oppression – invites such muscular flipping of viewer positioning and concomitant interpretation. All interpretations are subjective, dependant on the viewing subject’s biases and inclinations. More than that, though: the viewing subject’s relationship is not monolithic, but shifting and swirling from moment to moment.
At the end of the day, does it matter if Minaj had none of the intentions Halperin assigns to her? Kind of. Maybe. No? This feels like a deeply personal question, as the internal life of the viewing subject unavoidably shapes the signification of the viewed image. I don’t have any desire to “know” Nicki Minaj in the way you might “know” a family member, friend, or spouse. In this, I am indebted to the scholarly work of celebrity studies, which posit that a celebrity functions primarily as an image-icon: a signifier of values/ideology that is tied to a flesh-and-blood person but certainly not identical to that being. The rapper’s “real” name is Onika Tanya Maraj. “Nicki Minaj” is an image conjured by the woman herself, a rap/star persona she has consciously chosen to animate in particular ways. Nevertheless, I like my Nicki Minaj, who may not be the same as your Nicki Minaj. I like what my Nicki represents to me, what I have chosen to assign to her thanks to my “faith” in Halperin’s deciphering of the image. Talking about faith in the context of secular imagery seems discordant. But, I think this is what it comes down to for me: I have analytical “faith” in the potentiality of the image to signify what I would like it to signify very much, that whilst Minaj might not be making any particular statement at all with the image, she might just be saying exactly what I want to hear.
Bonus Minaj analysis: read Elizabeth Dickson’s dissection of hypermasculinity in Minaj’s video for “Pound the Alarm” at The Sociological Cinema.