By Guest Contributor Rajul Punjabi
The trailer for The Other Woman, a flick about the unlikely blossoming friendship of three women (Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, and Kate Upton) while they conspire against their mutually shared cheating man (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), was released last week. Nicki Minaj is in it too, and a plethora of entertainment outlets are ablaze with blurbs about her non-animated silver screen debut.
One of my favorite headlines reads, “Nicki Minaj Stars in The Other Woman.” Fun, right Barbz? Finally, her formal theatrical training and the scintillating possibilities of Minaj channeling one of her alter egos on the silver screen. But, as the preview reveals, she’s hardly the star of the movie. She plays a “sassy, outspoken, legal assistant” to Cameron Diaz’s power lawyer. She’s not even the side chick. She is the side chick’s sidekick.
Sound familiar? Yes, let the sassy black woman sidekick role sashay its way into 2014. To be fair: at this point, I have not seen the entire movie, so I should not be judging the book by its racially insensitive, pseudo-feminist, and cheesy cover, but I’m going to go ahead and jump the gun here. Nicki Minaj as someone’s legal assistant is a hot, cinematic abomination. It’s even worse than Jennifer Hudson’s role as Carrie Bradshaw’s personal assistant in Sex and the City.
An alumnus of New York’s LaGuardia High School for Performing Arts, Minaj spent much of her musical career taking on different personas. Meanwhile, the only exposure to acting that supermodel Kate Upton apparently has thus far are minute roles (as vessels for objectification) in Tower Heist and The Three Stooges. The fact that Upton – one of The Other Woman’s stars – is referred to as “The Boobs” in a revenge operation plot opens up a whole ‘nother conversation about offensive stereotypes. Regardless, “The Boobs” still plays a central role in the film.
Minaj appears sparsely in the preview. Her shining moment is when Diaz’s character sits down with her in the office and confides that the man she’s been dating has a wife at home. Minaj’s character then responds, “And you don’t think you can take her?” Instead of being appalled at her boss/friend’s experience of betrayal, she portrays the “strong bitchified black woman” as bell hooks calls it, assuming the role of the predator ready to pounce on any woman to who presents a challenge.
As I replay the trailer – this disconcerting piece of cultural anthropology – I echo bell hooks’ question from her dialogue in New York last month. Where is our decolonized image? It’s certainly not here, where women such as Minaj’s character play fourth fiddle to three white women who are duped into sleeping with the same man.
I get it. Nicki Minaj is fierce, irreverent, and fosters her own brand of black feminist. But this is where I (along with many commenters on the aforementioned entertainment sites) get confused – she isn’t playing herself in this movie, regardless of the eyelashes and Queens drawl we note in the trailer. Minaj is not Jasmine, she is Aladdin. So why is she at the back of this magic carpet instead of co-piloting?
Some might argue that Minaj has a right to try something mainstream rather than a niche film that is targeted specifically toward audiences of color. This role and her cheeky response to Diaz’s character could be an attempt at portraying a woman like Minaj as a someone who will take your side, expressing a sentiment of sisterhood undertaken by the protagonists. Even if I processed all of this with a lighthearted, comedic message, there is still a waving red flag: stay in the background, Minaj. That’s where you’ll feel the safest to mainstream American movie-goers and that’s what will rake in the cash.
I hope there is more to this role than meets the eye, but I would not be shocked if there isn’t. It presents a conundrum. Minaj, for better or worse, has never played the sidekick in her primary art. This is the woman who on “Itty Bitty Piggy,” says she wants a personal shopper and even assistance in “picking her fruit out.” Even when she spits a quick 16 on someone else’s song, she is the star. I can attest to this, as I have spent a fortune on iTunes just making sure that I capture every last of her lyrics, grunts and growls.
It is not my place to understand every artist’s intricate process when navigating through their career paths, but I can’t help but wonder why she accepted this role. I may be overthinking her position in all of this. Perhaps it’s not strategy but instead just something she wanted to include to diversify her repertoire, like that song with Justin Bieber. But the film, directed by Nick Cassavetes (of The Notebook and John Q fame), seems to dismiss her into the ethnic sidekick role that is the polar opposite of everything else her brand seems to stands for. From a womanist perspective – you can thank Alice Walker, and most recently, Beyoncé for this – Minaj can play any role she wants, wear anything she wants, and take on as many alter egos as she pleases and still retain her power and my respect.
If this role is a strong career move, and I am asserting some kind of skewed expectations for her, then I am wrong – as long as there is intellect involved, and as long as this assistant role is portrayed with a brain. In fact, back in 2010, The Root ran a pretty comprehensive list of black best friends in cinema whose “primary function in a movie is to act as the main (white) character’s conscience, offering advice no one asked for at the exact moment it’s needed.”
But I have gotten a taste of the Mindy Kalings and Issa Raes who makes this other end of the spectrum — the ethnic sidekicks, the sassy black best friends and the firecracker Latina stereotypes in that continue to pervade the movies — more difficult for me to accept and digest. Or maybe I have guzzled down the Nicki Minaj Kool-aid and believe that a King simply cannot take on the role of someone’s assistant in a chick flick and still maintain her regal status. Either way, her character in this movie seems to be worthy of examination, since American cinema is a portal of art that has continuously relegated the creative potential and expression of our “sassy” black women and assorted ethnic sidekicks to “dues paying” roles.
Yes, new actors in the game must start somewhere. It’s just uncomfortable to me that this “somewhere” means playing a service role in this movie, just as Hudson did backing up Sarah Jessica Parker. Sidenote: Hudson’s role in SATC2 felt like an extra salty kick in the face since it was her follow-up to Dreamgirls, which should have promised her lead-role status. This draws right back into theories about finding comfort in placing women of color into socially oppressive categories such as mammy or the jezebel.
Melissa Harris-Perry discusses these categories in detail in her 2011 book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America. More recently, at her Gender, Sexuality, and Hip Hop conference at Tulane University, I presented my case on Minaj and her alter egos. Dr. Harris-Perry asked me why this creation of explicit alter egos might specifically a female thing. It all leads back to these categories. Hov and Jay Z and Shawn Carter are basically the same person. So are Eminem and Slim Shady. Nicki and Roman and Martha Zolanski are not. Could alter egos be a desperate yet playful attempt to claw free of these categorical constraints?
I argued this very idea in my presentation. Some of our immensely talented black female artists such as Minaj, Janelle Monae, and Beyoncé, have embraced alter egos for a variety of reasons: to create a distance that protects them from the projections of the media, to defy gender roles, and to allow themselves the freedom of sexual expression. I assert that Minaj’s penchant for channeling traditionally masculine braggadocio in her lyrical content, while strutting around in a hyperfemale hot pink ballet tutu is precisely what makes her lead role material. Her rejection of gender and racial roles is powerful. The rejection of her ability to play a lead role in a movie like this undermines this power.
Rajul Punjabi is an entertainment journalist and an adjunct instructor of Journalism at Long Island University in Brooklyn. She writes about music, gender, and culture. You can follow her at @rajulpunjabi.