Recent comments on Today by Al Roker and his co-hosts about Nicki Minaj and her video for the song Anaconda have put a lie to all of the usual cliché sayings about words not having the power to hurt. When put into to the context of societal norms being established by virtue of the language people use and the casual way that the discriminatory has invaded the colloquial, the opposite is proven to be true. It is not only sticks and stones that inflict injury. Language has the ability to lift people up, inform and to educate, but it does not always do so. In a culture where the standardization of shorthand for the sake of mobile devices has been included in the everyday lexicon, it would appear that language evolves and changes at a rapid pace. The fact, however, that bias language informed by discriminatory attitudes and assumptions still dominates the everyday conversations of most americans proves that where these things are concerned, words are more resistant to change than one would think. Words have more than the power to hurt. They clearly have the power to shape the landscape of societal acceptance and cultural norms. A look at the differences between the manner in which Miley Cyrus was received when she changed her image from an innocent Disney star to the sexually-charged performer she is known as today, and the way that Nicki Minaj is being villified makes the point about the power of words quite clearly. It is not such a leap to find racial allegories in even something as simple as the common labels of “black hats” being the bad guys and “white hats” being the heroes. Hurtful words don’t have to be obvious to be insidious.
When Miley Cyrus first came out as a sexual being on public television, the shock factor was there. She was held up with scorn in the media, with everyone from Barbara Walters to Perez Hilton having a take on her behavior. The common theme at that time, however, was to look for a way to excuse it. Questions were asked about the role her father, also her manager, played in the decision. His parenting ability was questioned and blame was thrown there. Her friends were thought to have been bad influences, and her management and representation was called on the carpet for advising her poorly. It was speculated that this was a calculated attempt to re-brand herself, and she was hailed as a genius by some. Those who criticized her used words like “misguided” and “ignorant.” When Nicki Minaj makes a video of a similarly sexual nature, she was described as “vile” and “desperate.” Nobody asked where her parents were when they spoke of her performances. Nothing was said about her guiding influences.
The two women are not the same people. There are other factors aside from race which enter into the comparison, but the fact that Nicki Minaj is being described with words which immediately carry connotations of scorn and disgust, while her caucasian counterpart was met with language conveying compassionate disapproval is telling. Assumptions about the motivations of Minaj for making her video, even by a black man like Roker, stand in stark contrast to the public search for a reason for Cyrus’ abrupt departure from her Disney image. The fact that those statements – those words- are on the lips of a broadcaster with the power to reach millions of homes across America make it clear that there is power in them. They inform the culture at all levels, even if only in the subconscious. People let their televisions tell them what they should and shouldn’t find shocking every day.
By November of last year, shortly after her public debut as a sexual persona, Miley Cyrus was doing interviews about how her performances and her “twerking” were inspiring to women. The hard edge of initial criticism began to blunt quickly. The question which arises in contrast, however, is whether or not the words which have been used to paint Nicki Minaj will be as easy to bounce back from. Even in the current day, some things still come down to black and white.
Opinion By Hawthorne James and Jim Malone