Last week in pop news, Nicki Minaj cussed Miley Cyrus out live on stage at the VMAs and the whole internet lost its shit, which is what the internet does best. Let’s just call it The Beef That Launched One Thousand Tweets. Some are intrigued by this Nicki-Miley beef, others are calling bullshit on the whole thing, but it doesn’t really matter. By now we should be indoctrinated into MTV culture enough that we just expect something “totes contraversh,” whether scripted or not, to happen at an event of this proportion. The nature of the feud and whether it is real or not are inherently unimportant questions. What’s important is that Nicki called Miley a “bitch.”
It immediately reminded me of Tina Fey’s line in Mean Girls, “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it OK for guys to call you sluts and whores.” When the word bitch has such a rich and abusive history in music, especially in rap and hip-hop, it’s jarring to hear the word coming out of a woman’s mouth, especially one as powerful as Nicki Minaj. It’s language like this, albeit coming from men in the genre, that caused writer, activist and filmmaker dream hampton to disavow hip-hop and “men who collude to silence women.” In the same vein, isn’t the consistent use of the word “bitch,” as it were leveled by one woman against another woman, in their everyday vocabulary, as well as in their songs, also an active collusion with that culture?
Nicki has been pivotal in shifting the male gaze as well as being consistently vocal in creating a visible, often unapologetically angry dialogue for women of color. “Lookin Ass N****s” was a seminal moment for women in hip-hop, even though it didn’t quite get the standing ovation it deserved from the mainstream, which Nicki is used to with bangers like “Anaconda” and “Super Bass” (was it too brash, too bold, too violent in its dismantling of the status quo? For a woman, and especially a woman of color, probably yes it was, which, I assume, is why it slipped by without much occasion in the mainstream realm of pop where Nicki is most visible). My point is, she’s not passive in her narrative. She’s in control of the language she’s seeking, and what’s frustrating in this instance is that she should be using that control to shift the cultural paradigm rather than conforming to it. To wit, Nicki’s speech wasn’t “savage” as suggested and subsequently retracted by Salon.The issue isn’t her using her voice or being heard. The problem is, very specifically, one woman calling another woman a bitch for all the world to hear.
I get that Nicki is mad. The whole MTV debacle was absurd, and not because she was annoyed that “Anaconda” was passed over, but because of the unchecked privilege that caused white women like Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus to feel personally affronted by Nicki’s blunt refusal to accept racist ideals in the industry she should, based on merit, command. Miley, unprovoked by anything other than that very special kind of offense white women feel when their lovely privilege is challenged, came at Nicki in an interview in the New York Times, calling her “not very polite” and “not too kind.” Miley, for no reason really, decided to publicly perpetuate the angry black woman stereotype, painting Nicki as the irrational aggressor rather than the victim of an industry that systematically white washes the voices of its women, and blindly rewards whiteness over accomplishment. Miley is just as guilty for her actions as Nicki is for calling her a “bitch.”
Confrontation has a storied history in hip-hop, and Nicki has never shied away from the posturing and name calling that’s part of the swagger of a whole genre. She’s had beef with everyone from Lil Kim to Azalea Banks, and part of what makes Nicki so wonderful is her unapologetic attitude to anyone who would seek to diminish her. And if we’re being completely honest, Miley deserved to be held to account for what she said about Nicki in the press. I just think that including the word “bitch” in her retaliation was unnecessary, just as I think it’s unnecessary for anyone, in any situation to call a woman a bitch in anger. Nicki, I think, could have just as easily stormed the stage with her counter-attack without resorting to the language that men have used to oppress women in a genre where Nicki is still headbutting the ceiling. The word carries with it as much history of oppression for women, and especially women in hip-hop, as do the ugly, destructive stereotypes recalled by Miley in her interview. For Nicki's own views on the term, her impassioned condemnation back in 2011 makes for inspiring viewing (wath below).
Nicki casually spitting “bitch” at Miley on stage isn’t OK, even when she’s expressing how pissed off she is. Her calling out “Skinny bitches” in “Anaconda” is not OK, even though it is challenging body standards, there’s no reason to do so with such a gendered slur attached. Lines like, “If he got a new bitch / Tell that bitch to meet you outside” (from “I’m Out” with Ciara) are also not OK. But it’s not just Nicki Minaj. And it’s not just hip-hop and rap either. “Bitch” as a slur, is used across genres and transcends and infects multiple cultures: Katy Perry singing “You PMS like a bitch” in “Hot N Cold” is not OK; Beyoncé’s growling “Bow down bitches” on “Flawless” is not OK; Britney Spears attempting to call women to action with the tag “Work bitch” is not OK; Iggy Azalea’s whole song “New Bitch” is really not OK. When women use “bitch” to diminish themselves, to make themselves subservient to the male gaze, or to belittle other women, it’s toxic and reductive. It seems to me that the word “bitch” should be reserved for use by ass backwards Real Housewife-types, not women who are actively and (mostly) progressively reshaping the music industry.
This is not just Nicki’s problem; her speech just drew my attention to the problematic nature of the word “bitch” and its marriage to hip-hop and music more generally. It is, quite frankly, time to change this deeply flawed lexicon. We can talk about “reclaiming” and “empowering” when it comes to language as much as we like, but the basic truth is that when we take the word “bitch” and aggressively hurl it from woman to woman, we’re not reappropriating anything. We’re just perpetuating a boring, malicious, deeply arcane attitude towards women that’s borne through decades of ceaseless repetition both in reality and in song.
It’s not the same as Nicki singing “I’m the baddest bitch” or “I’m a boss bitch”—in these instances she's actually subverting language by repurposing it to mean something different, and in both cases, asserting personal autonomy. It might look like I’m playing at semantics here, but I’m not. As a slur, “bitch” is a word glorified by men as a way to lyrically label disruptive women, the women who don’t conform to their every whim, and Mean Girls is right: the more women persist in using the term to hurt one another, the more it makes it OK for men to use it to hurt us too.
In an article for The Guardian, Julie Bindel discusses the reality of reconciling hip-hop culture with its many offenses, among them its persistent misogynist treatment of women. She says, “African-American writers, commentators and political activists, who—while being careful not to attack the whole genre and its importance to black culture—do maintain that its excesses are far from harmless, and that things like lyrics matter.” Tricia Rose, in her commentary on Jay-Z’s alleged pledge to remove the word “bitch” from his vocabulary following the birth of Blue Ivy, is less forgiving. “Commercially celebrated hip-hop swagger depends on a brand of manhood that consistently defines black women as disrespected objects. And fans of all racial background, but especially young white males, who make up the bulk of US consumers, eat it up,” she writes.
The weight of these ongoing offenses means that women in the same industry should be inspired to be more alert to, and less flippant with the language they use. It’s easy enough to argue that pop stars aren’t role models and therefore aren’t responsible for curing the ills of society. But in actuality, if we want to affect change, and indeed, bring undone the negative consequences of unchecked patriarchy, we’re all responsible for our words and actions. Including pop stars—as frivolous as that might sound at first. So in this implicit socio-cultural responsibility to overturn the dictates of a violent and oppressive history, we can either be the cat amongst the pigeons, or we can neuter ourselves with either apathy or complicity.
It was only three years ago that even Kanye West questioned the use of the word “bitch” in rap and hip-hop after releasing the song “Perfect Bitch” about Kim Kardashian, a song that was eventually redacted from his Cruel Summer compilation. Kanye ranted, as Kanye does, about his dilemma in using the word on Twitter, "I usually never tweet questions but I struggle with this so here goes… Is the word BITCH acceptable? To be more specific, is it acceptable for a man to call a woman a bitch even if it's endearing? Has hip-hop conditioned us to accept this word?" The same level of critical thinking seems notably absent from Nicki Minaj’s own reflections.
Nicki is a deft lyricist and communicator, and from what I can gather from watching her in the media, autonomous and aware. If she wanted to confront a nemesis, could it not have been done more creatively than to let her vocabulary slip to the lowest common denominator? Indeed, can’t all women, when looking for ways to express their anger, employ greater care and eloquence to ensure that not only is their displeasure heard, it’s heard without perpetuating patriarchal control and debasing themselves with language traditionally used in music to denote a male chattel? My plea to women in music is this: don’t be complicit in the historic, systematized belittling of women in your industry. Write your own language, start a new history, because because this is what women are fighting for.
Kat George is on Twitter.