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“Sexy role model” not a contradiction in terms

Credit: Eunice Oh/ Credit: Eunice Oh/
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Mainstream media seems to have a pretty good idea of what constitutes a “good role model” and who fits the bill. Case in point: The Internet went into uproar last week when rap superstar Nicki Minaj tweeted indignantly about Fiorello H. LaGuardia Arts High School’s refusal to let her return to “the school that changed [her] life” and “inspire” students. Since Minaj and I share an alma mater, needless to say I was shocked to hear that the new principal Lisa Mars declined the visitation offer of one of our school’s all-time most successful graduates.

Speculation flew wildly about the reasoning behind the snub, and I’ll admit that I bought into Minaj’s insinuation that it was because the principal didn’t consider her “good enough.” In terms of music video views or albums sold, no doubt Minaj’s celebrity sufficed; but as a “role model,” LaGuardia’s principal would surely be neither the first nor last to believe Nicki Minaj not good enough.

In later reports, the principal defended herself, claiming that it was the New York Department of Education’s objections, and not her own, which barred Minaj from LaGuardia’s doors. Minaj wanted to bring MTV cameras onto New York City public school grounds with about a week’s notice, and couldn’t compromise her busy schedule for a date more acceptable to the bureaucracy. In a nuanced light, Minaj’s righteous anger seems a bit overplayed. Nevertheless, this apparent misunderstanding of a scandal provides a convenient platform to talk about the anatomy of the female role model.

There are many reasons one might have for not wanting their daughter or little sister to look up to Nicki Minaj. Nine out of 10 of these reasons probably have to do with her notoriously shameless expression of sexuality. Minaj is known for her killer curves as much as she is for her killer verses, neither of which she is afraid to flaunt. Her chart-topping summer single “Anaconda,” which has amassed over 184 million plays on YouTube, features a rhythmic chorus and Minaj as the unchallenged twerking master; it’s difficult to say which is more mesmerizing.

The same folks shaking their heads at Minaj for such a lascivious display will surely fail to consider the music video’s scene where she gleefully chops up a banana and then sneers at the phallic remains. They will also likely not acknowledge the fact that the one time a man is present in the video, he is overwhelmed by Minaj’s seductive powers, and when he tries to touch her without her consent, she immediately shoves him away and struts off the screen, abandoning him with head in hands. Minaj’s sexiness is self-aware and unashamed, and everything she allows us to see is entirely within her control.

Society has a way of demonizing women — and especially female celebrities — who own their sexuality like Minaj does. To be sexy is to be “slutty,” and to be slutty is to be morally decrepit and corrupting. The only way women’s sexuality may be halfway acceptable is when it is tempered by the presence of a man, whether he is rapping about his “big booty hoes” or grabbing at the scantily-clad bodies of the anonymous women surrounding him. When a woman like Minaj — or Miley Cyrus, or Kesha, or even Beyoncé — dares to be sexual, independent of a man’s influence, society is thrown through a loop and quick to enact brutal judgment.

Maybe my high school’s refusal of Nicki Minaj had nothing to do with the lurid reputation society has given her. Still, there is no better time than now to speak up in defense of women like Minaj, who embrace their sexuality and who are role models despite and because of that. It might be worth noting that Minaj, Cyrus, Kesha, and Beyoncé have all self-identified as feminists, while such “good girl” celebrities as Shailene Woodley and Katy Perry have swerved away from the label as if dodging an oncoming truck.

Minaj is a talented artist who revolutionized rap music. She is a driven businesswoman who has built, grown, and maintained an immensely successful career, noting that the same qualities that make her a “bitch” would make a “boss” out of a man. And, yes, Nicki Minaj is sexy. I am proud to call her a role model of mine.