Yesterday, Paper Magazine released their latest “break the internet” cover shot by Ellen von Unwerth: a pink ode to the Pink Friday rapper Nicki Minaj and herself, complete with three sexy Nickis simulating a “Minaj À Trois.” Brunette Nicki sits front and center, topless save a set of nipple-pasties, while rose-gold Nicki leans over her side, caressing her breast. Kneeling on the floor in front sits blonde Nicki, with her tongue extended.
I saw the cover on Facebook last night, and it took me a second to understand what I was looking at. When I realized, I thought it was *badass*. I thought it was clever and funny to have a woman as accomplished and unapologetically in-your-face as Nicki Minaj flipping the bird to society with a loud, “All I need is myself.”
The comments section disagreed. Not entirely, but mostly. Reading an endless stream of comments decrying the cover, I was stunned. Comments calling Nicki a hooker, cheap, “slutish,” mixed with comments like, “Oh, so you do porn now?” and requests for a “dislike” button filled the feed. People hate this, I thought.
It didn’t outrage me that people were so dismissive of the cover. Obviously, not everyone has the same taste in artistic expression. But the heated comments I read weren’t about art – they were about misogyny. What really needled me was that, particularly given the historical moment we’re living in, so many people were angry, fearful, and disgusted by a woman publicly asserting her sexual power over herself.
Of course, the Facebook comment section on one post does not represent the entire public reaction, but it’s symptomatic of a fear of female sexuality that’s deeply ingrained in American culture. I can’t think of a time when a woman’s choice to expose her body hasn’t resulted in the same judgement or insults. Top of mind examples include pregnant Demi Moore’s iconic nude 1991 cover shot by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair, or the infamous cover of Miley Cyrus, also shot by Annie Leibovitz for same magazine, which only exposed the young singer’s bare-back. When Cyrus’s cover was released, she and Leibovitz immediately defended it as artistic. Eventually, the backlash became so severe that Cyrus issued a statement about her regret and embarrassment for having participated in the cover’s creation.
Now, we’re living in a world where men who assert their power to sexually harass or abuse women enjoy enough protection to thrive in the shadows for decades – enough to allow a presidency. Children, like 13-year-old Millie Bobby Brown, step onto red carpets and the next day’s coverage focuses only on her womanhood brought on by some shoulder-length hair. How is it possible that it’s relatively acceptable to sexually dominate or fetishize women and girls, and simultaneously, it’s regarded as obscene for a woman to choose, with a publication and photographer, to showcase her own sexuality?
Of course, there’s an argument worth making about the long history of hyper-sexualization of women of color in the United States, but in this instance, and in many others, Nicki Minaj celebrates owning her sexuality, power, and accomplishments. And that deserves applause wherever it happens.
There’s not much time left in 2017. But for the rest of this year, next year, and forever, instead of judging women – all women – for the means through which they do or do not express their sexuality, don’t. It’s that easy.