by Latoya Peterson
Ok first things first I’ll eat your brains/
Then I’mma start rocking gold teeth and fangs/
‘Cause that’s what a muthafucking monster do
— Nicki Minaj, Monster
Article after article, tweet after tweet, I watched the conversation about Kanye and all the dead women in “Monster.”
But if you watch the actual video, you’ll notice something interesting. All the dead women are white, with the possible exception of the second model in the bed. There are eight or nine brown* women in the video, all with prominent roles – and all of whom are alive.
Black woman with mutilated eyes who screams at the opening? Alive. The brown twins staring while sitting on the couch? Alive. Brown woman eating the server’s remains? Alive. The two monsters in the hall during Jay-Z’s verse? Alive. The zombie girls working the jump rope? Alive. (Or, at least, currently animated.) Nicki’s alive. The black were-woman? Alive.
In some ways, the conversation around dead women in Kanye’s video reminds me of the conversations that happen around feminism and black women. The reality of black women is assumed to be exactly the same as white women – if it is mentioned at all. The fact that the majority of the women pictured lying dead where white, while black women are all part of the monster crew is generally not mentioned.
So, I’m not surprised that no one has looked at the very specific positioning of white women in the video as opposed to black women, which dives deeply into the history and construction of black women as beast-like and fearsome, the sexualization of violence, and how the video is a win for both normalized misogyny and upholding the ideals of white supremacy.
The Monstrosity of Brown Women
The depiction of a black woman as a werewolf piqued my interest immediately. In fact, the first time I watched the video, I stopped playback to get a closer look.
Last February, I quoted Elizabeth M. Clark on the racial politics of werewolf transformation. Here’s what she had to say:
Patrick Gonder’s work on “the primitive” in 1950s horror films is useful here. Gonder discusses the ‘devolved’ monsters of 50s horror cinema, such as Mr. Hyde and the cavemen-primitives, in terms of race, class, and notions of civilization. He writes that the “hybrid nature of the [devolved monster] asserts white masculinity against and through the fantasy of a primal, animalistic black sexuality.” The beast within (excessive, uncontrollable masculinity run amok) that the werewolf represents for (white) men is always coded in terms of a non-white ethnicity and/or the working class. Cinematic werewolves are almost always associated with non-white ethnicities, from the gypsies in The Wolf Man (1944) to the Indian mystic/scholar in Wolf. [...]
The contrast, the in-between hybridity of two oppositions, the becoming of the Other is what horrifies: the white male becomes more primitive and bestial, darker (for men of color, this contrast is not seen as such a huge difference). Woman of-color-as-werewolf is almost inconceivable: if the horror of the female werewolf is the shock of female moving from sexual object spectacle to grotesque/ambigendered spectacle, then the biggest contrast is a move from the most feminine woman (slender, blonde, white) to dark, hairy, muscular wolf. White women represent the feminine ideal in this culture, and this is what we see in Dark Wolf: it would be impossible for a woman of color to play Josie, since during her transformation the contrast shown would be minimal.
Watching the black video model contort herself into a lupine representation of monstrosity clicked another, more disturbing idea into place. Kanye’s inclusion of black women in the monster crew could potentially be an extension of his Bigger Thomas complex, commentary on the assumed nature of blacks in America.
Or. (This damned or.)
Or, it could be a subconscious nod to the idea that black women belong in the monster crew, simply for being born dark.
Tami does some fascinating exploration on this historical divide between black and white women on her blog, and how it contributes to the rift between black and white feminists. In a recent post, “Seeds of Our Discontent,” Tami points to the long history of mistrust between black and white women, as explained by Sally G. McMillen’s Southern Women: Black and White in the Old South.
One aspect to this distrust was the vaulted position of white women – placed on pedestals, all other women were seen as lower beings compared to this perfect ideal of whiteness. To this day, this idea plays out time and time again, on fashion catwalks, in horror films, and in music videos.
I’ll return to this idea in the third section – but for now, it’s fascinating to see who is interpreted as “monster” and who is interpreted as “woman.”
Nicki Minaj’s Dual Sexualized Selves
Nicki Minaj plays what appears to be a dungeon dominatrix, torturing her alter-ego. The two Nickis are like night and day, using the typical white/black clothing dichotomy to symbolize good and evil.
However, its interesting to watch Nicki add another element to her performance – not only is she tormenting herself, she also acts against herself sexually, fulfilling a long held trope – female suffering is sexy. By writhing and grinding on her captive self, Minaj is playing into the visual imagery that has fueled horror movies for quite some time – a woman in peril should also operate as an object of sexual desire. Minaj subverts this a bit – her pink haired self appears openly defiant, before she is re-covered with the hood.
Despite the imagery in Nicki’s set, I have to admit to some satisfaction here – while women here are casually tossed aside and used as decoration throughout the entire video, it is only Nicki’s section that brings a bit of interest to the horror movie concept. (Well, that and the zombies skipping rope.) Nicki Minaj owns this track and has the most interesting concept in the video. (Think about it: a very easy thing to do would have been to make her the severed head Kanye is holding, or pose her beautifully in a grave.)
But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the intent and response are very different things. While Nicki Minaj is easily the woman with the most agency in the video, she is still reduced to being the target of a simplistic male gaze. I’ve written about this before, noting that hip-hop’s visual culture has (d?)evolved to the point where female rappers are also required to serve as eye candy in their own music videos, an action not required of men in a similar position.
The bleed over has even pulled over to neo-soul and R & B. Now there was always some element of sexual allure boosting sales – but when Erykah Badu’s artistic statement in “Window Seat” was passed around on the merit of “her perfect three baby booty,” one has to wonder if anything is enough to overcome the male gaze.
Minaj is a master of playing to the male gaze while disrupting certain expectations as a way to assert her artistic individuality. So it was not surprising, but still somewhat jarring that at the height of Nicki’s dominance of the track, the person who uploaded the YouTube video inserts a little note that pops up saying “WHAT a ASSSSSS!”
Even at her moment of lyrical greatness, the perception of her body trumps all.
White Womanhood and Black Women
Kanye’s images were meant to both disturb and titillate, to intentionally contrast the beautiful with the profane. And it is this ongoing dynamic that troubles me more than the images of dead women or Kanye’s lyrics.
Andrea Rubenstein coined a very useful concept a while back: the usual amount of racism. She explains that this is the type of racism that becomes generally accepted practice – for example, shows with all white casts and workplaces in areas as diverse as New York City. It is so insidious, it becomes expected – therefore things that exceed this threshold are either applauded or condemned depending on how far they stray away from the “usual” amount.
This frame is also fascinating to explore what appears to be a violation of the usual amount of sexism in this video in particular. Women draped around as decorations in music videos isn’t new or uncommon. Lyrics about sexual dominance involving specific sexual acts also aren’t new or uncommon.
Sexualized depictions of violence didn’t begin or end with Kanye – over the years, the Jezebel team has documented dozens of ways in which advertisers and fashion photographers seek to titillate viewers and readers with images of gruesome murder victims draped in high fashion. Jenna Sauers wrote the definitive call out back in 2009, but there are examples a plenty (link mildly NSFW) in the horror genre.
So why did this video provoke such outcry?
Kanye violated the norms of the usual amount of misogyny by making the women two things: (1) dead and (2) white.
Look at that tenderness in the shot above, the almost loving caress. In divorced from racial context, it would be the same as many other depictions of the glamorous serial killer. Anthony Hopkins turned his portrayal of the disturbed, yet highly cultured Hannibal Lecter into an Oscar. Patricia Cornwell laces each of her novels with charismatic killers. That caress that Kanye gives the dead model in his bed matches the way Cornwell characterizes many of her murders – they approach their grim work feeling tenderness toward these women they intend to mutilate. The last time I picked up a Scarpetta novel, I wanted to skip through the pages, avoiding the long drawn out depictions of the soon to be dead woman lying sexily in bathtub, filled with cold water. Infusing the macabre with sex appeal is a deeply rooted tradition.
It’s also a tradition in music videos, to fuse both sex and violence as a way to sell records. As Sut Jhally explains in Dreamworlds 3, this type of violence has become so normalized, it manifests in real life interactions:
However, within the racial context, it’s designed to simultaneously play into America’s deepest fears and deepest needs at the same time: the fear of black men (in general) and their alleged desire for white women. I would think Kanye was playing into that idea consciously, and perhaps he is. But the segregation of treatment contributes to a final note, where Kanye is also upholding the ideals of white supremacy. Even in death, white women are worthy of love, tenderness, and a starring role in male fantasies. Brown women are relegated to the background, left to their own monstrous devices, shadow creatures performing their roles.
Neither depiction is great for women – it’s essentially a loss all the way around. But I do wonder, if the video was full of the corpses of black women, would it have provoked such an outcry? I would certainly hope so – but considering the silence around the rape and murder of black women (even those committed by serial killers in L.A. and North Carolina) in real life, there is room for considerable doubt.
(Images from Hip Hop Connection, via Necole Bitchie)