When ABC and Nicki Minaj announced the launch of a comedy based on the international hip-hop and pop music superstar’s childhood in Queens, New York, both parties extolled the deal as an opportunity to “bring her one-of-a-kind story” to a channel that has recently been struggling with low ratings.
But comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres made light of Nicki Minaj’s recent power move — all while trivializing her curvaceous figure — when she unveiled what she described as a “very exclusive sneak peek” of the upcoming sitcom on the Ellen show this week.
The satirical sketch featured members of a black family and their dog, all of whom had large posteriors. In the opening scene, the girl playing Nicki Minaj walks down a flight of steps, turns around, and bends over so her bottom is in clear view. The actress portraying her mother then walks out from behind the couch, knocking over lamps and other objects with her large backside, as a laugh track plays in the background. Nicki Minaj’s father and Buddy, the family dog — also endowed with abnormally huge bottoms — later joined in on the modern-day minstrel show.
Needless to say, Black Twitter was livid. People took the social media platform to lament the skit’s portrayal of a young girl, call Ellen DeGeneres racist, and demand an apology.
Ellen DeGeneres disappointed me w/ that Nicki Minaj skit. It was lazy and tasteless at best. Racist & a modern day minstrel show at worst.
— Taryn Finley (@_TARYNitUP) October 13, 2015
— Rachel Décoste (@RachelDecoste) October 14, 2015
— J.Chris (@jacreekoe) October 13, 2015
As of publishing time, Ellen DeGeneres has offered no apology and Nicki Minaj hasn’t commented publicly on the matter. The internet uproar over the satirical skit, however, raises questions about how the media continues to portray black women.
Although black women are ranked the most educated group in the United States, accurate media representation of this segment of the population has been sparse. In 2013, Essence Magazine reported that negative imagery of black women appears in the media twice as often as positive depictions. The study cited showed that black female consumers detested the “modern jezebel” and “gold digger” tropes the most.
Nonetheless, media misrepresentation has persisted. In recent years, reality television programs — such as the Love & Hip-Hop and Basketball Wives series — have amassed advertising revenue by showing infighting among black women and elevating the image of the hypersexualized, money hungry “hood rat.” Even shows that have been extolled as groundbreaking for black women have still received criticism for the light in which they show sisters in positions of power. For instance, despite the clout she has built as a longtime Washington insider, Olivia Pope, the protagonist in Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal, still serves as the object of a powerful white man’s sexual desires.
Social media and the music industry — in which Nicki Minaj participates — have also played a significant role in disseminating hypersexualized portrayals of black women and creating what columnist Brandon Albert calls a “false advertisement of women.” Rappers, both male and female, treat women’s body parts as accessories and prizes to be won. In an age when sex is only click away, popular content aggregating blog WorldStarHipHop averages more than 1 million unique visitors daily, in part because of its videos of voluptuous black models gyrating on camera.
“Television has even taken notice and uses hip-hop as a means of reaching out to viewers. For example, shows like Flavor of Love are a product of what the media has generated from the rap influence,” Albert recently wrote. “The show is extremely disrespectful towards women, depicting several women fighting to be with one famous man. It’s almost as if society thinks it is okay to treat women in this manner, since it is justified in many songs and other forms of media.”
The use of black women’s bodies for sexual fodder goes far beyond Nicki Minaj and the entertainment industry, stretching back to at least in the 19th Century, when Europeans displayed Sarah Baartman — a woman from the KhoiKhoi tribe in South Africa — in human zoos specifically because of her large posterior.
After her enslavement at the age of 17, Baartman toured Europe, where men would molest her without consequence. Cartoons and drawings of Baartman exaggerated her shape in an effort to portray her as a “sexual beast” and highlight the differences between her body and that of a Caucasian woman. After her death, scientists dissected her body and extracted her organs, genitalia, and buttocks, without her prior consent. Their study of her corpse furthered European science.
In a February Tumblr post, Ebrahim Aseem called Baartman the “first video vixen,” pointing out similarities between her experience and a profitable industry that thrives off the images of clad, voluptuous black women.
That legacy continues today — affecting the girl who played a young Nicki Minaj in the Ellen skit as well as her peers, who may not appear on television but could still endure a predatory environment unkind to a young woman undergoing puberty and learning about her sexuality.
Shifting this paradigm, and creating a space where the totality of the black woman can be represented, is complicated. It would likely require addressing the harsh realities of a money-driven industry while simultaneously allowing black women artists to celebrate their bodies without controversy. Nicki Minaj — who herself has attained some notoriety as an artist for her raunchy album covers and even raunchier lyrics — has made this point while railing against critics who disparaged the video for “Anaconda.”
“Everything we see that’s labeled as beautiful is very skinny. In the song I kind of say, ‘F— them skinny girls.’ But it’s all love,” Nicki Minaj told Billboard last November. “I consider myself a skinny girl. I went overboard with the video to show that I’m not going to hide. And those big-booty dancers I have, they’re not going to hide. Black girls should feel sexy, powerful and important too.”
Ironically, DeGeneres’ spoof of the “Anaconda” video elicited laughter from Nicki Minaj, who appeared on the show in September.