Cinderella Ate Hip Hop: Nicki Minaj vs. Peggy Orenstein

Or: If she ate, then let her ate and watch the money pile up…

So, white feminists are all upset about “princess culture”: “ONOES, what is it doing to our girls, encouraging them to succumb to outdated stereotypes about femininity, passivity, and marriage?” Peggy Orenstein’s new book “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” is one installment in this trend, which can be summed by this quote from the 2006 NYTimes article upon which Orenstein’s book builds:

As a feminist mother — not to mention a nostalgic product of the Grranimals era — I have been taken by surprise by the princess craze and the girlie-girl culture that has risen around it. What happened to William wanting a doll and not dressing your cat in an apron? Whither Marlo Thomas? I watch my fellow mothers, women who once swore they’d never be dependent on a man, smile indulgently at daughters who warble “So This Is Love” or insist on being called Snow White. I wonder if they’d concede so readily to sons who begged for combat fatigues and mock AK-47s.

More to the point, when my own girl makes her daily beeline for the dress-up corner of her preschool classroom — something I’m convinced she does largely to torture me — I worry about what playing Little Mermaid is teaching her. I’ve spent much of my career writing about experiences that undermine girls’ well-being, warning parents that a preoccupation with body and beauty (encouraged by films, TV, magazines and, yes, toys) is perilous to their daughters’ mental and physical health. Am I now supposed to shrug and forget all that? If trafficking in stereotypes doesn’t matter at 3, when does it matter? At 6? Eight? Thirteen?

Although Orenstein’s book is actually more even-handed than the general white liberal feminist condemnation of princess culture as uniformly disempowering, it does still assume that princess culture is a problem, because princesses (and all the stereotypically feminine attributes they ideally represent) are bad. Princesses are passive, all body and no mind, future trophy wives who just wait around to be saved by some dude.

Nicki Minaj’s “Moment for Life” video resignifies the iconography of princess culture, mainly in the form of the Cinderella story. She wears a light blue gown, as does Disney’s Cinderella, and she has “glass” slippers. Moreover, she has a ghetto fairy godmother whose British accent is anything but posh. (Interestingly, she has a somewhat complicated and conflictual relationship even with her fairy godmother.) Now, where Minaj most obviously departs from the standard princess narrative is in the song’s lyrics: The “moment” she wants to cherish is not being “saved” by some prince charming, but her accomplishments as an artist. The first verse is all about Minaj’s accomplishments, and her rise to her current level of success. The princess narrative tells women that the most important thing they can do/desire is a fairytale wedding. Minaj uses the imagery of a fairy tale wedding to indicate that the most important thing she’s ever done is dominate mainstream American hip hop.

Just as Beyonce’s Video Phone critiques white liberal feminist notions of the “male gaze,” Minaj critiques white liberal feminist views of “princess culture.” Clearly this “rewriting” of white liberal feminist narratives is becoming a common strategy used by black female mainstream musicians; I wonder if we can go further and say it’s a black feminist aesthetic strategy generally?