The Orientalism of Nicki Minaj

Nicki Minaj’s new persona: “Orientalist Black Barbie”.

Nicki Minaj is hip hop’s newest “it” girl — so why does it seem like her schtick has been done before? Oh, that’s right, because it has.

Minaj is a caricature of Lil’ Kim, taken even farther to the extreme than even Kim would find comfortable. After ditching the rainbow-coloured wigs of her early days, Minaj has fully adopted the hypersexualized, “poseable Black Barbie” look that Kim made famous. Like Kim, Minaj bares skin to sell shitty music to kids who can’t remember the good stuff: a close listen to her music reveals the uninspired, nonsensical lyrics, pedestrian sing-song hooks, and excessive reliance on Auto-tune that has come to characterize hip hop music today — something I like to call “The Drake Effect”. No wonder Kim is furious: Kim was actually a talented lyricist who, for better or for worse, found a way to sell her music to a sexist music industry. To her credit, Kim was a (perverse) representation of sex-positive feminism, which becomes clear when one juxtaposes her hypersexualized style with her lyrics. Minaj, on the other hand, is the Barbie doll who, in one song, craves the love of a man she compares to Eminem.

And I think I love him like Eminem call us Shady
When he call me mama, lil mama, I call him baby

That would be a sweet thing to say, too — if Eminem weren’t the poster-child for recovering drug addicts and domestic abusers right now.

The feminist in me is practically climbing the walls: are we really okay with the idea that two of the most popular female hip hop artists of the last several years — Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj — are glorifying themselves as life-sized Barbie dolls? I mean, the bimbo and body image issues alone are enough to make anyone shudder — and we haven’t even scratched the surface of the icky, RealDoll factor. Someone pass me my Queen Latifah.

Okay, so to be fair, Minaj isn’t totally biting Kim’s style. She has put her own unique spin on Lil’ Kim’s Barbie persona — except, it’s really not unique at all. Unlike Kim, who was satisfied with latex body-paint, Minaj is drawing from Asian cultures to exoticize her look. Call her Orientalist Black Barbie, because Minaj has egregiously stolen from various Asian cultures in two of her last music videos.

First up, Minaj teamed up with Michael Jai White in this “Memoirs of a Geisha“-inspired music video directed by Hype Williams, for “Your Love”:


The plot of the video: Michael Jai White is a samurai who runs an all-girls martial arts school. One of the girls has lusty, lusty thoughts for White. But, White only has eyes for Nicki Minaj who, I-shit-you-not, simultaneously breaks some cement blocks with a karate chop while giving Michael Jai White a completely doe-eyed, I-don’t-have-two-working-neurons-to-rub-together look, all at the same time. Because guys dig women who can simultaneously kick your ass while not knowing how to form a multi-faceted thought.

So then, stalker girl challenges Minaj to a slow-motion ninja fight which was clearly choreographed by a five-year-old. Minaj is killed, and Michael Jai White screams “NooooooOOOOOOO!!!!” as the camera pans away. Because apparently guys only dig women who have the appearance of being able to kick ass, not women who actually can kick ass.

The Orientalism of the video is so obvious as to not really warrant much further commentary: the Yellowface eye makeup to give the appearance of slanty eyes; the excessive use of silk in every goddamned scene; the terrible ninja-inspired sword fight; the Daisy Duke kimonos that would cause an oba-san to suffer epileptic convulsions — the whole video is like an Asiaphile wet dream.

Not content, apparently, to just appropriate Japanese culture, Minaj just released a second music video that appropriates a wholly different Asian culture. In her collaboration with, both artists star in a very weird K-Pop-inspired music video for their song “Check It Out”:

This one has a gregarious K-Pop TV show host, lots of CGI Korean words popping out at you from the background (Angry Asian Man notes that they are a “crude” translation of the song lyrics), and — most bizarrely — an audience of Asian Stepford Wives in the studio audience. These women all wear sunglasses and short black dresses, and move in unison as they robotically watch Minaj and drop some acid on the soundstage; at the end, they methodically clap, as if all their brains have melted out their ears after being subjected to three minutes of this inanity. Is the audience an intentional (or unintentional) reference to Asian conformism, or to more of Minaj’s I-don’t-think-for-myself Barbie shitck?

What annoys me the most about these videos isn’t how they have ruined two favourite songs of my childhood — Annie Lennox’s “No More ‘I Love You’s” and Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star“. No, what annoys me the most is how we’ve seen female pop stars do Minaj’s Orientalist bullshit before: Gwen Stefani, and Madonna before her, have borrowed heavily from Asian culture, with little regard for the authenticity or appropriateness of their actions. It sucked then, and it sucks even more now that Minaj thinks she’s stumbled upon something unique and clever. Asian cultures have a rich and varied history, but in these videos, they are appropriated with as much depth as the Auto-Tune of the songs themselves, and regurgitated onto each scene as little more than a superficial, stylized, exoticized patina.

With Minaj apparently in the middle of an East Asian cultural tour, one wonders how her Orientalist ADD will manifest itself next. Next stop: Chinese opera? Indian Bollywood? Thai weddings? I should start a pool.

And, how long is it going to take for someone to make the Nicki Minaj version of “Aren’t Asians Great”?

Chinese Brides: Submissive, Obedient, and Stone-Cold Killers?

Chinese brides -- submissive and obedient... except when putting would-be home intruders in chokeholds.

The People’s Daily, a large print paper from China, has the most bizarre, is-this-an-April-Fool’s, article about a supposed trend of Egyptian men seeking out Chinese brides. From the article:

A large number of Egyptian men, mostly over the age of 35, have contacted the Chinese embassy in Cairo to inquire about the possibility of marrying Chinese women. Others have been seeking Chinese brides through matchmaking Web sites. Despite confirming that they have received requests from Egyptian men, the embassy said it refuses to act as a go-between.

The financial situation of Egyptian youths is the major reason behind their preference for Chinese brides. In a traditional Egyptian marriage, the groom has to pay a dowry, buy an apartment and give the bride a diamond ring or a gift made of gold. By contrast, Chinese women do not ask for much in this regard.

In addition, many Egyptian men view Chinese women as perfect wives because they think Chinese women are pretty, active and smart as well as very skilled in cooking and other household chores. In their eyes, Chinese girls are also well trained in martial arts, and thereby capable of defending themselves as well as their husbands.

For Egyptian men, obedience and loyalty are the most attractive features of Chinese women, as the Chinese culture teaches them to be subordinate to their husbands. Another important advantage is that the mother of an expatriate Chinese woman normally does not live in Egypt, which means the husband does not need to worry about the mother-in-law’s interference in the couple’s life.

That’s right. In point of fact, all Chinese girls are trained from a very young age to cook bao, clean house, scrub our husbands’ shit stains from their underwear, perform therapeutic massage with our feet, bear a huge litter of sons with each pregnancy, only speak when spoken to, and protect our husbands with our dazzling array of martial arts prowess. Also, we all have bound feet, answer to the name “Suzie Wong Lotus Blossom Jade Princess”, are kung fu masters, and can fly. In fact, a Chinese bride is the perfect complement to the Egyptian groom looking for a part-time wife, part-time housemaid, and part-time ninja.

Give me a fuckin’ break.

The real question here is: why is the People’s Daily even publishing this kind of trash?

Brenda Song’s Crazed, Hypersexualized Asian Female Stereotype in “The Social Network”

The Social Network portrays Asian American women as hypersexualized, buxom women of loose morality -- and programming nerds as sexist assholes.

I haven’t seen The Social Network — nor do I really plan to see it anytime soon. I mean, how much do I care about rich White guys battling other rich White guys to be the richest White guys out there?

But, out there on the blogosphere, there’s been some vague excitement about the return of Brenda Song, freshly grown-up from her Disney Channel days. She is shown prominently in The Social Network‘s trailer, and there was some early speculation that Song would make for an interesting supporting character against the backdrop of Jessie Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake making billions of dollars with some simple databasing and a lot of drunken debauchery.

Turns out all of that hope was for naught: despite Aaron Sorkin’s normally brilliant writing of strong female characters (to wit, C.J. Cregg of West Wing), Brenda Song’s Christy in The Social Network is only the most visible of a long litany of hypersexualized, dehumanized female props that exist merely for the sexual gratification of the movie’s White male main characters.

In Rebecca Davis’ review of The Social Network, Davis describes the viewer’s introduction to Christy:

We first meet Brenda Song’s character, Harvard co-ed Christy, when she throws her cleavage at newly successful (and, ohmigod, final club member!) Eduardo Saverin. A few minutes later, she’s giving him oral sex in a public restroom. Afterward, Christy and her friend sit uselessly on a couch while the men plot the expansion of Facebook. This isn’t the only time in the movie when two girls are drunk and irrelevant on a peripheral sofa.

Then, inexplicably and suddenly, Christy becomes mad with jealousy. Near the climax of the film, Christy lights a scarf on fire in Eduardo’s apartment, then turns and asks, doe-eyed, if he’s leaving her. What this scene contributes to the film’s development is beyond me—unless Sorkin is trying to explain why Harvard’s all-male final clubs won’t let women become members: We might all be vindictive pyromaniacs.

Kartina Richardson, a filmmaker and writer, described this scene to me as “really the only cheap move on the movie’s part—here’s the erratic hyper-sexed Asian woman totally obsessed with her white Harvard man.”

The counter-point to the Social Network‘s army of bubble-headed groupie women are apparently, according to Davis, “feminist killjoys”. Because, of course, any woman who actually has respect for herself, and can think for herself, must automatically be ugly and hate fun.

And, this is the film that critics are calling “brilliant“?

Awesome. I’m really gonna go see this movie now…

By contrast, at least this Taiwanese animated news version of the movie is honest about the movie’s sexism. (Warning, minorly NSFW because it animates the “sex in the bathroom” scene.)

Register Now for ASPIRE’s 2010 Asian American Women in Leadership Conference

ASPIRE — Asian Sisters Participating in Reaching Excellence — is holding their 6th annual day-long Asian American Women in Leadership (AAWIL) Conference on Saturday, October 16th at Boston University. This incredible conference — which traditionally attracts between 150 – 200 participants — is the only conference geared towards Asian American women on the East Coast, and it has annually inspired and empowered Asian American women; this year’s conference looks to be no exception.

This year’s  conference theme — “Discovering the Leader Within” — offers workshops that focus on topics faced by professional and activist Asian American women. Some of the panels include: “Confronting the Glass Ceiling”, “Growing Up Asian”, “Mental Health”, and “Road Less Taken” (the last of which spotlights the stories of APIA women who took unconventional paths to success). ASPIRE writes that the goals of this year’s conference are as follows:

  • Build upon last year’s theme of “Fearless Leadership: Taking Charge with Confidence”
  • Gather cross-generational Asian American women from across the continental US with diverse personal and professional backgrounds to share their experiences of how exploring and learning allowed them to flourish
  • Discuss the various aspects of continuous leadership development to make lasting, positive changes in our communities
  • Celebrate and explore ways Asian American females “Discover the Leader Within”

The keynote speakers at this years’ conference are two incredible APIA women who truly embody this year’s theme of leadership:

  • Linda Chin, the president of the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence is the morning speaker. ATADV is an East Coast non-profit that focuses specifically on issues of domestic violence within Asian American households.
  • Jeannie Suk is the conference’s afternoon speaker. She is an Assistant Professor at Harvard Law, and is the first Asian American woman to hold a tenure-track position at that institution.

Discounted ticket prices are currently available that knock $15 off the normal ticket price; these specials are only available until October 9th. After that, registration will remain open online until the date of the conference.

Please check out the conference website for more information, and go here to register your attendence to the conference. Click here for the press release to read about how the conference of past years has impacted its attendees.

Chef Anita Lo Talks Being a Woman In a Male-Dominated Workplace

Top Chef Anita Lo

Today, CNN featured a mini-interview with Chef Anita Lo, who competed on the first season of “Top Chef: Masters” and beat Mario Batali on “Iron Chef America. Lo was honoured in Food & Wine Magazine‘s “Best New Chefs in America” feature, and owns the NYC restaurant, Annisa.

Lo talks about being a woman in an industry overwhelmingly dominated by men. She is, of course, also Asian-American and much of what she has to say seem to apply to minorities in white-dominated workplaces:

Five Things to Know About Being a Female Chef in a Male-Dominated Profession: Anita Lo

1. “Gender is a social construction. Men and women are raised to think and act differently through parenting, ubiquitous media images, language and general peer culture. It is important to question and debunk these myths that all of us carry. Some people think that women cook for love and men cook for glory, but to be successful, at least here in New York, you need to do a little of both.”

2. “To make it in this business you have to be extraordinarily passionate and tenacious. You will spend long hours on your feet in a hot, uncomfortable environment for meager wages at odd hours. Cooking is a lifestyle choice for the obsessive-compulsive.”

3. “You must be prepared to answer a million of these types of questions. As one of a very small minority, you do get asked about this a lot. And of course, I am a big supporter of women in business – our wine list at Annisa celebrates women in wine and is made up of wines mostly by female vintners.”

4. “The ratio of gay-to-straight executive female chefs is much higher than amongst the general population. The Kinsey Report states that about 10 percent of the general population is gay. I think that ratio is higher among female executive chefs and apparently, in the WNBA as well. But on a more serious note, this is perhaps related to my first statement and begs the question: are gay women less bound by societal norms and therefore get further in this field?”

5. “Find a support system outside of the kitchen. Women Chefs and Restaurateurs is a national organization that supports women in cooking through education and networking. This is perhaps the beginning of the ‘old girls’ club.'”

As a scientist, I am also a woman who works in a male-dominated field that remains particularly adherent to its “old boys network”. I agree with Lo that success for women in these kinds of professional environments depends heavily on having a passion for your chosen field, along with the ambition to fight for the same kind of recognition that men generally reserved for men.

For me, it sometimes feels like I have to work twice as hard just to break through the sub-conscious condescension that some men (particularly those of the older generation) reserve for women in the sciences. I have to work to prove that I belong in the lab, and that I am just as competent as my male colleagues. It’s true that a very specific personality type seems to succeed under these conditions.

But, I also find that my female predecessors have broken through many barriers to help pave the way for female scientists. There is truly a support system for female scientists — just as Lo talks about the support system for women chefs. My mentor, also a woman, runs a lab that currently trains more female students than male students, and she and her colleagues seem particularly supportive and sensitive to the concerns of female trainees.

Female chefs, female scientists, and female CEOs are all pioneers, breaking through glass ceilings in our respective fields. And even over the last fifty years, huge advances have been made: my mentor recounts how she was routinely dismissed and patronized towards when she was a student in the 1970’s. By contrast, a recent study found that more women than men received PhD degrees last year.

While I don’t think an “old girls’ club” is a useful idea to pursue — there’s no reason to reproduce the institutions of oppression that marginalized our gender in the past — I’m glad to see parallels between my own experiences as a woman in science and Lo’s, who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with world-renowned male chefs.