Rapper Nicki Minaj knows who she is. According to her lyrics, she’s Nicki Minaj, Nicki Lewinsky, Nicki the ninja, Nicki the boss, Nicki the Harajuku Barbie. She’s not Jasmine — she’s Aladdin. She’s the best, and she can single-handedly annihilate every rap bitch in the building. Nina Sayers, the ballerina Natalie Portman skillfully portrays in “Black Swan,” isn’t as sure of herself. The main character in Darren Aronofsky’s much buzzed-about psychological thriller secures the lead in “Swan Lake,” though her director doubts whether the innocent dancer can convincingly play the role of the mysterious and sensual black swan. She’s timid and reserved, a grown woman who still lives with her mother and sleeps among her stuffed animals. She’s one of the best dancers in the troupe, but she never stops punishing herself long enough to enjoy that fact.
These two cultural figures seem to be opposites. The outlandish firecracker Nicki Minaj and the staid perfectionist Nina Sayers are clean, net stereotypes who probably don’t have much in common.
But they do.
Both women achieve their own form of greatness by embracing every part of themselves, which are personified in the form of different alter egos. Because of this, they manage to show the depth that every human has but that few people — especially famous women — are allowed to reveal.
Feminism is an overwhelmingly broad topic. I took a feminist studies course last year, and the only thing I learned for sure is that it’s hard to know anything in a world with such mixed messages. But if there is one unifying problem women in the modern United States face, it’s the issue of “having it all.” To succeed in anything, women have to fragment themselves. They choose to be the business bitch, or just a sweet, good-natured friend. They can’t have it both ways. And nowhere is that more apparent than in pop culture.
But Minaj is known for her multiple personalities. In her songs, she is all confidence and bravado, switching her voices back and forth with ease and theatricality. She goes from being “Barbie,” a soft-spoken it-girl to “Roman,” a gay man with an attitude, to Nicki Minaj, her purest self, whom she describes as “more street.”
At first, Nina doesn’t embrace her alter ego and resists her dark side, personified by Lily, a fellow ballerina who emerges as Nina’s main competition. But as the film progresses, we see Nina commit small acts of evil, such as stealing jewelry, in her quest to become the perfect lead in “Swan Lake.” In one scene, Nina has sex with Lily. That scene is recalled later when Nina stabs Lily while trying to stop her from performing. In both instances, it is revealed that Lily was never present at all — Nina was making love to and killing herself. Lily was a hallucination symbolizing Nina’s own desires and ambitions.
And it is not until she embraces her dark side that Nina can give the performance of her life. She is both protagonist and antagonist in the film, and that helps her to achieve brilliance before dying.
Minaj’s music sends the same message: Her genius is in her multiplicity. Using alter egos allows Minaj to have conversations with herself, making for some of the most entertaining and frightening verses in the music industry today.
Both Nicki and Nina are at their best when they seamlessly weave all parts of themselves into their performances. Although their alter egos are presented as separate entities, it’s no question that they come from and represent the two women.
Plenty of other people in the music industry have tried the multiple personality thing, but most stars present their doppelgängers as completely separate entities. Sasha Fierce was specifically designated to perform Beyoncé’s more energetic club hits, and she and Beyoncé never collaborate. Nicki and Nina get it right by using all parts of themselves at once to achieve greatness.
“Black Swan” and Nicki Minaj are two of the most talked about things in pop culture right now. Is this simply a coincidence, or does embracing the full self demonstrate a step forward for women in the media?
Such one-dimensional female superstars as Ke$ha and Taylor Swift dominate the charts. Movies like “Sex and the City 2” and “Twilight” portray devastatingly shallow and simple female leads. Conversely, Kanye West gets respect for both showing his feelings and being a cocky douchebag. The vulgar Eminem gets love every time he raps about wanting to be a role model for his daughters.
So beyond providing entertainment, maybe Nicki Minaj and Nina Sayers can serve as inspiration, at least on some level, for the women who just had kids but want to return to work, or the teenage girls who want to get straight A’s and give hand jobs in the bathroom during homeroom, to embrace both sides of their selves. Maybe these pop icons can show that nobody is simple, and being one-sided is boring and nothing to celebrate.
Today’s media culture tends to skirt away from anything meaningful, so maybe that’s expecting too much.
Or maybe not. I’m generally cynical about these things, but my optimistic alter ego is telling me to have a little hope.