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Does Nicki Minaj Portray the Image of a Phallic Mother?

This post is part of the Gender and Domination Course in OOPS.

While getting ready for classes one morning, I caught myself singing along to a Nicki Minaj song and nailing the rap part quite well.  What caught my attention even more was that memorizing these lyrics gave me a boost of confidence.  In analyzing the lyrics I just spit out, I realized that they painted a picture of a phallic mother, which Nicki Minaj often does portray in her songs.  

In numerous interviews, Nicki, whose real name is Onika Tanya Maraj, has mentioned that she had a rough childhood in Trinidad and later in Queens, New York, when she moved there with her grandmother.  In many interviews, Nicki recalls her alcoholic, drug-addicted, and abusive father setting their house on fire with her mother still inside.  Out of this failed attempt to kill Minaj’s mother came an uprising within Minaj to rise from the ashes like a Phoenix.  She further described another time when her father pulled her mother out of a car and dragged her for two blocks.  In an interview with Details magazine she said, “My mother left him many different times and came back.  After that I had a phobia about unlocked doors. Anywhere my mother and I were, I made sure the doors were locked because that was my only way to protect her.  I’ve always had this female-empowerment thing in the back of my mind because I wanted my mother to be stronger, and she couldn’t be. I thought, ‘If I’m successful, I can change her life.'”  

We live in a capital-hungry, materialistic, and phallocentric world where sex sells and money equates success, so it must make sense that Nicki Minaj had to portray the image of an omnipotent phallic mother through her sassy rap lyrics and hyper-sexualized music videos in order to be noticed as successful.  In another interview on The Wendy Williams Show, she said, “All of my young and teenage years we lived in fear that my mother would be killed by my father.  It was ridiculous.  It made me act out to guys and be evil when I was growing up. It made me tough. I am an emotional person, but I am a tough person. We didn’t really have many options and that makes you feel helpless. And I think that is the worst feeling.”  To further deal with the trauma of her childhood, Nicki continuously mentions having created several personas which she embodies for different song performances.  Her three main personas are Nicki (Ego), Barbie (Superego), and Roman Zolanski (Id), “There’s Barbie, who’s careful about what she says. There’s Nicki, who’s old-school hip-hop. Then there’s Roman Zolanski. who’s outlandish and raunchy.”

Nicki saw her mother returning to her abusive father as a flaw and this observation tainted her view of her mother as a phallic mother, which is an imaginary figure that one fantastically associates with being flawless and having it all — including a penis.  As Kristeva mentions in Desire in Language, “…if we suppose her to be master of a process that is prior to the social-symbolic-linguistic contract of the group, then we acknowledge the risk of losing identity at the same time as we ward it off.”  While we recognize that there may be “unsymbolized instinctual drives,” we also “immediately deny it; we say there can be no escape, for mamma is there, she embodies this phenomenon; she warrants that everything is, and that it is representable.”  The symbolic action of Minaj’s mother continuously returning to her destructive father tainted the image she had of the phallic mother, since her mother was not acting as an independent, self-providing, strong woman.  The fantastical concept of the phallic mother is built on the idea that the mother acts as a filter and threshold where nature confronts culture.  Kristeva explains, “[If] there were no one on this threshold, if the mother were not [phallic]…then every speaker would be led to conceive of its Being in relation to some void….”  In order to fill this void which she uncovered as a child, she became the phallic mother in an artistic way.  The loss of Minaj’s fantastical image of the omnipotent mother resulted in her seeking a restoration of the image, which actually became a new, all powerful Nicki Minaj.  The change of her name from Onika Tanya Maraj to Nicki Minaj further suggests a rebirth of herself, and thus, her vision of the phallic mother.

Minaj’s 2014 debut of her Anaconda music video displays a primitive jungle setting where Nicki is the ringleader of all the backup dancers and the mother of all the moves, which the girls imitate the entire time.  The video shows various phallic objects such as high heels, bananas, anacondas, dumbbells, and loud booming pink speakers and the lyrics further illustrate the picture.  Using Kristeva’s theory that language expresses bodily drives through its semiotic element, the body language, auditory language, and visual symbolic items used in this music video demonstrate further reversal of the phallic order, all while maintaining the language of reference, which Irigaray suggested we never shy away from as a society.  Seeing as to how Nicki is the singer, she phallicizes herself by saying, “My anaconda,” which seem to reverse the phallic order, just as the pink booming speakers do.  She is clearly portraying the image of subliminally spreading control through sound waves, both in her music video, and whenever her songs are heard.  Much like the phallic order, much of it is subliminal.  Nicki raps, “Was in shootouts with the law, but he live in a palace.  Bought me Alexander McQueen, he was keeping me stylish.  Now that’s real, real, real, Gun in my purse, bitch, I came dressed to kill.”  She describes her man’s danger while letting us know that she has a high status due to her fashion and a lovely phallus in her purse because the death drive often comes dressed in a sexy way, according to Jamieson Webster’s presentation, Dressing Up the Death Drive.  During this presentation, Webster explained how brands are a symbol of status and financial success.  Further, the ads for these brands often feed on our death drive, such as with McQueen’s line, who committed suicide after his mother’s death.

Minaj continues, “He can tell I ain’t missing no meals, Come through and fuck him in my automobile.  Let him eat it with his grills and he tellin’ me to chill, And he telling me it’s real, that he love my sex appeal.  Say he don’t like ’em boney, he want something he can grab.”  Obviously, an omnipotent women wouldn’t be missing any meals because she knows how to provide for herself.  She also dominates the man by fucking him in her car, rather than the other way around, and besides, he can’t resist it because he loves her sex appeal, which is a display of power and domination.  She then draws the fine line between the Madonna and Whore by symbolizing the gentle Madonna with a boney body and the sexy Whore with a voluptuous body that allows for some grabbing, which brings us to the main verse of the song, “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun.”  The gun theme further continues, “This dude named Michael used to ride motorcycles, Dick bigger than a tower, I ain’t talking about Eiffel’s.  Real country-ass nigga, let me play with his rifle.”  So now that we know Nicki attained the phallus, we also know that she has played with a rifle or two, adding to her own phallic mother abilities.  

The video further continuously and subliminally attributed the phallus to Nicki.  In the music video, Nicki is seen in a kitchen scene chopping up bananas, thus reclaiming her stereotypical gender role by owning her stance in a kitchen.  As the phallic mother, Minaj shows that she actually likes owning the kitchen because it demonstrates her ability to provide and sustain life, just as a breastfeeding mother can do.  All while she owns the kitchen, she is also seen castrating bananas; therefore symbolizing having the phallus and destroying it.  The banana is another subliminal reference of being phallic while being able to provide and even though she has attained the phallus, Minaj shows that she also has the power to castrate it at any time.  The music video ends with Nicki reclaiming her womanhood by seducing Drake while he anxiously sits and then leaving; therefore attaining the phallus and then rejecting it.  Again, Minaj shows that all while she can attain the phallus, she is also in the position of power in rejecting it.  This attain and reject pattern can further be seen in the complex of girls wishing to be and attain affection from their mother and then rejecting her due to the penis envy she caused. As Freud wrote, “As a substitute for penis-envy, identification with the clitoris: neatest expression of inferiority, source of all inhibitions. At the same time disavowal of the discovery that other women too are without a penis.”  With a woman’s own clitoris serving as a reminder that it is “less than a penis” and that they too, are therefore “less than a man,” women often resent their mothers for not giving them a penis.  Additionally, the picture advertising this song is phallic on it’s own.  Nicki’s torso and head depict a phallus while her round gluteus maximus cheeks depict testicles, thus hinting at a thought as to why curvy, hourglass body frames are so attractive.  Minaj doesn’t only resemble a phallic mother, but she becomes the phallus itself, in this image.

Nicki’s theme of portraying the image of a phallic mother continue in many other music videos and lyrics, such as in the 2014 production of Bang Bang by the lovely trio of Jessie J., Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj, all wearing top notch high heels.  The title of the song says it all: bang, bang. Bang as in banging men during sex; bang as in the words written across the megaphone Ariana is grasping in bed; and bang as in the bullet coming from a gun.  The lyrics start off with the introduction of the infamous hourglass, “She got a body like an hourglass, But I can give it to you all the time.  She got a booty like a Cadillac, But I can send you into overdrive.”  The comparison of butts to cars is seemingly a perfect analogy for men who buy cars to soothe their castration anxiety.  The lyrics in the song continue to include Madonna v. Whore contradictory language, “See anybody could be bad to you, You need a good girl to blow your mind,” and “See anybody could be good to you, You need a bad girl to blow your mind.”  The Madonna v. Whore contradiction hint that a woman can only be one, yet a phallic mother can be both- she can have it all.  While Jessie and Ariana sing these lines about the contradiction, Minaj references herself to both, as will be shown later on during the analysis of Hey Mama.  

Then comes the chorus, “Bang bang into the room, (I know you want it), Bang bang all over you, (I’ll let you have it).” Want what? Have what? Ah, the phallus of course!  Then there’s a hint at a certain kind of maturation that comes with being with a woman, “She might have let you hold her hand in school, But I’mma show you how to graduate.  No, I don’t need to hear you talk the talk, Just come and show me what your Momma gave (Oh yeah).”  Just as a mother may help a boy grow up, so can a woman that becomes that man’s lover.  And if that wasn’t obvious enough, there’s a further reference to the phallic mother being the one which gives birth and in this case, one in which gave birth to the man’s phallus which his partner now wishes to see and attain.  Freud discusses in his writing that the best gift for a mother is to have a son, because it attributes a phallus to her, which she has been deprived of all her life.  However, whether male or female, any child is a phallus for the woman, since it literally comes out out of and emerges from the woman’s body and a phallus did play a role in conceptualizing that child.  So when Minaj sings, “…come and show me what your Momma gave,” she not only attributes a phallus to that man’s mother, but also to herself, as she knows she can attain his phallus as well.

Although this song only features Nicki Minaj, her rap appearance serves as the climax of the song as she exits from a helicopter as if coming from a level of higher consciousness to deliver her message, “It’s Nicki full throttle, it’s oh, oh.  Swimming in the grotto, we winning in the lotto….Kitten so good, it’s dripping on wood.  Get a ride in the engine that could, go.  Batman robbin’ it, bang, bang, cockin’ it.  Queen Nicki dominant, prominent.  It’s me, Jessie, and Ari.  If they test me they sorry.  Ride us up like a Harley, then pull off in this Ferrari.”  The all powerful Nicki continues to mention money (lotto), sex (full throttle, kitten so good), guns (bang, bang, cockin’ it), woman power (It’s me, Jessie, and Ari), cars (engine, ride us up like a Harley, pull off in his Ferrari), and the reversal of the phallic order (Queen Nicki dominant, prominent).  Queen Nicki has it all- guns, cars, sex appeal, money and power, which all adds up to the image of a dominant woman.

2014 proved to be a powerful year for Minaj, as she debuted her song, Only, featuring three men: Drake, Lil Wayne, and Chris Brown.  She starts the song off with letting us know that while she’s never had sex with Wayne or Drake, her “man full, he just ate,” because she can provide for him, as a good mother also would (apart from the sexual innuendo of the term).  Later on in the song, she moves to talking about women and says, “These girls are my sons, John and Kate plus eight,” Nicki dominantly attributes a phallus to all girls, while making a comparison to the divorce of reality stars, John and Kate, leaving Kate to raise all eight children, and leaving Nicki to comfort and revive the confidence in all her girls/sons, as she did with her own life after the fire incident.  This can also hint to the fact that she’s the birth mother of all other women rappers.  Kristeva describes that when a woman gives birth and becomes a mother, she experiences a reunion with her own mother, “By giving birth, the woman enters into contact with her mother; she becomes, she is her own mother; they are the same continuity differentiating itself.”  This proves that in displaying herself as a phallic mother, Nicki is identifying with the image she once portrayed her mother to be, all while recognizing that she and her mother are individuals who have their separate flaws.  Minaj made up for the loss of her view of her mother as phallic, through the rebirth of becoming her phallic mother and makes up for her mother’s powerlessness by adopting a omnipotent and hypersexual persona.  

While Nicki is not an actual baby mamma, she portrays a phallic mother image and in the event of a woman giving birth (to the confidence of other women or to other women rappers, in this case), she is literally giving it.  There is literally something emerging from her body, like that of a phallus from a man.  These girls who are Nicki’s sons are her phalluses and in a phallocentric world, quantity trumps all.  Nicki continues, “Nothing but real niggas only, bad bitches only.  Rich niggas only, independent bitches only.  Boss niggas only, thick bitches only.”  Here, she’s pointing out that if men want a bad, independent, curvy woman, they must be real, rich, and bosses to align with the external materiality of the whole image.  Since quantity trumps all, the more money, the more realness, the more power, the more badness, and the more curves, the better.

Continuing on the “these girls are my sons” lyric which truly portrays the phallic mother image, it can be seen that Nicki has stitched this line into her songs for a while.  In her 2010 song, Dig It On’em, Nicki fully developed this thought and now just drops it in many of her songs.  She raps, “Man I just shitted on ’em.  Shitted on ’em, Put your number two’s in the air if you did it on ’em.  All these bitches is my sons And I’ma go and get some bibs for ’em.  A couple formulas, little pretty lids on ’em.  If I had a dick, I would pull it out and piss on ’em.  Let me shake it off.”  Just as shit may emerge from the body of a mother during giving birth, Nicki also reveals that she shitted on ‘em.  With the clever description of claiming them through pissing on ‘em with her dick, Minaj speaks from the phallic gaze as she pronounces herself as the dominant women in the rap industry and infantilizes and degrades all the others.  As she rebuilds her fantastical phallic mother image, in attempt to become who her mother never proved to be, these semiotic visuals described further represent her as the dominant women, thus reclaiming the mother figure she thought she’d lose in the fire as a child.  In her 2016 feature of Bebe Rexha, No Broken Hearts, she raps, “Girls is my sons, I’m giving them milf teas.”  Seeing that the acronym MILF refers to a Mother I’d Like to Fuck, Nicki continues to subliminally let us know that she’s the one giving girls this role model image of the woman they’d like to be one day.  Kristeva states, “…the desire for motherhood is without fail a desire to bear a child of the father (a child of her own father).”  Nicki hints at her Oedipal complex of wishing to bear a child of her father through rebelling against him and overcoming his danger by being with men of high status and dominating them at the same time.  While conquering this fear of her dangerous father, through being with dangerous men, Minaj is also overcoming the powerlessness of her mother, through being more powerful than these dangerous men themselves.  Further, No Broken Hearts is a song of reclaiming the phallic power as displayed through women buying their own drinks, “Forget all the players what they did.  We gonna be buying the drinks, we gonna be buying the drinks.  Line up the bottles, line up the models, we gonna forget everything.”  The music video shows this all being done through another dressing up of the death drive as women are swinging through the phallic city skyline while singing this song, showing that only bad bitches can be independent women and that confidence can be dangerous.  This semiotic element shown in music videos adds to the language of understanding the lyrics, all while portraying herself as the independent mother she wishes her mother could’ve been.

David Guetta’s 2014 hit, Hey Mama, featuring Minaj serves to be the cherry on top of this mother sundae.  While Nicki’s portrayal is typically that of a dominant woman, in Hey Mama she plays on this theme with a slight flip.  In Hey Mama, Nicki allows her man to dominate her, thus ascribing power to herself as sovereign to permit his domination..  She portrays an image of being submissive, while knowing that she’s calling the shots underneath it all because she not only allows someone to dominate her, but she also knows that she’s the one actually providing for her man.  The lyrics state, “Yes I be your woman, Yes I be your baby.  Yes I be whatever that you tell me when you ready, Yes I be your girl, forever your lady.  You ain’t never gotta worry, I’m down for you baby.  Best believe that when you need that, I’ll provide that you will always have it.”  She then describes why she actually calls all the shots, underneath it all, “Yes I do the cooking, Yes I do the cleaning.  Yes I keep the nana real sweet for your eating, Yes you be the boss yes I be respecting, Whatever that you tell me ’cause it’s game you be spitting.”  Once again, Minaj paints a picture of being the provider- the one who sustains life- the breastfeeder.  She allows the man to be the “boss” who she respects because underneath it all, she is actually the boss of him since she is allowing him to have that title.  As we know, while Nicki can attain and attribute the phallus to others, she can also quickly castrate it if anything goes wrong, showing that all power is in her hands.  

Rather than dismissing these gender roles, Nicki playfully owns them and infantilizes men in the process.  Just as a baby boy cannot provide food for himself, a baby man also cannot provide the daily essentials needed in sustaining life for himself.  She also playfully owns the idea that women are the carriers of life by featuring women dancing around womb-like bathtubs in the music video.  Unlike JLo, she does wanna be your mama!  Minaj further develops the theme of being bad, “So baby when you need that, give me that word, I’m no good, I’ll be bad for my baby….So I make sure mama, toes on my knees, Keep him, please, rub him down, be a lady and a freak.”  She admits to being a good lady, but also a freaky bad girl when necessary, thus bridging the link between the Madonna and Whore complex since she has it all- she is both Madonna and Whore; a lady and a freak.  This is all due to Nicki wanting her man to acknowledge her as the phallic mother by saying her name, “I know you want it in the worst way.  I wanna hear you calling my name Like hey mama mama mama hey mama mama (Hey).”  Although she allows her man to be a “boss,” at the end of the day, he is the one calling her name because he needs her in order to sustain his identity, which can only be given through her.

Freud believed that sublimation is a successful way of working out past struggles, “Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life.”  As for Minaj, she was able to overcome the perception of her mother as having some void in not being able to escape the fire her father tried to kill her with through sublimating her fear and anxiety through rapping.  In many ways, psychoanalysis serves as an antidepressant in the way art and music also do.  Kristeva’s demand for a “poetic revolution” demands for the link between the semiotic and symbolic elements.  In art, music, and psychoanalysis, the drives and semiotic forces that society often represses, are kept in language, therefore cultivating the potential to overcome symbolic limits and laws and to creatively rework the self and society.  This shows a reactivation of the semiotic chora, which serves as a connection to the maternal body or the omnipotent mother.  

While wanting to identity with the unflawed image of the mother that Nicki had before the fire incident, she strived to become that unflawed phallic mother image through rap, thus sublimating her libidinal energy and anxiety into art.  Nicki Minaj successfully gave birth to the image of the phallic mother, which seemed to die for her in her childhood. In the words of Kristeva, “…motherhood [or a fantastical motherhood, in this case], would be nothing more than a phallic attempt to reach the Mother who is presumed to exist at the very place where (social and biological) identity recedes.”  Though Nicki reaches this phallic power through infantilization, degradation, and humiliation, she nonetheless claims it in a way which reverses the phallic order.  In a phallocentric world, the phallus and the power associated with it is not kind, as it many times requires for the infantilization, degradation, and humiliation of women in order for it to rule.  This forceful domination is often demonstrated through unequal pay (degradation), “chivalry” in which men help women open those heavy doors (infantilization), the power plays in porn (infantilization, degradation, and humiliation), as well as everyday language, such as “pussy” being used interchangeably with “powerless”.  

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