“Be an Excellent Bitch, Don’t Be a Petty Bitch”: Subverting Images of Black Femininity through the Selfies of @PrincessNokia

FEBRUARY 20, 2018

Standing in front of a floor-length mirror, a woman grins cheekily and poses with her iPhone, snapping a photo of her reflection. This picture was uploaded to Instagram in late 2016 by the user @princessnokia, the self-proclaimed ‘New York City Aficionado’. In another post found on her Instagram profile, she takes a photo of herself from worm’s-eye view, so that her natural hair fills up the negative space around her and becomes the object of focus. Both of these images fit the description of a selfie, which Jerry Saltz understands as “a fast self-portrait, made with a smartphone’s camera and immediately distributed and inscribed into a network.”1 For Destiny Frasqueri—the 25-year-old Afro-Latina singer/rapper behind the ‘Princess Nokia’ moniker—this photo-sharing application offers an easy, instantaneous way of circulating empowering images of Black beauty (along with captions connoting female resilience) among her fanbase. Frasqueri’s Instagram account, with a following of nearly five hundred thousand users (as of February 2018), serves as a subversive tool accompanying the unapologetically feminist messages that the rapper strives to promote through her own artistic production. Moreover, these aforementioned images cannot simply be read in the context of vapid narcissism, a mode of representation which the self-portrait has long been affiliated with. Instead, they are informed by her own personal sentiments and experiences, deeply communicative in their essence. Indeed, as Terri Senft and Nancy Baym suggest, the selfie functions both as “a photographic object that initiates the transmission of human feeling in the form of a relationship,” and as “a practice—a gesture that can send […] different messages to different individuals, communities, and audiences.”2 This paper will first approach the notion of ‘selfies’ under the definition provided by Senft and Baym, and then arrive at the conclusion that Princess Nokia’s self-taken pictures are more than just evocations of embedded narcissism, but serve as powerful visual aides reclaiming representations of Black women under the public eye of social media.

In their 2015 article titled “What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon,” media scholars Terri Senft and Nancy Baym examine the (rather sudden, and ever-changing) ubiquitous nature of the selfie. The act of selfie-taking has been repeatedly portrayed by popular media as an overwhelming feminine practice, often linked to harmful mental states such as narcissism, body dysmorphia, and even psychosis.3 Despite these shared social anxieties, the authors persist that a more productive approach to critical analysis must go beyond discourses of pathology. In fact, this method of understanding only “perpetuates a vicious cycle, in which women are vain because they take selfies, and selfies connote vanity because women take them.”4 The systems of social surveillance that are inherently linked with selfie culture are only sustained further by new media platforms such as Instagram, often set up as a ‘damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t’ type of scenario.5 Here, the end-user is placed at the centre of deep moral conflict, calling upon Laurie Penny’s claim that young women just ‘can’t win’, despite their best efforts.6 On the one hand, the female body must be an autonomous agent that defies sexist representations, but on the other, it must maintain and uphold a certain standard of beauty and femininity, guaranteeing an entry ticket to social acceptance and the promise of love. For Princess Nokia, the selfie represents both a coping mechanism and a medium of emotive expression, as she grapples with forming her own self-identity that contests social expectancies.

Growing up between the Manhattan neighbourhoods of Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side, Princess Nokia has deeply embraced her urban roots as Afro-Nuyorican (a portmanteau describing the diaspora of Puerto Rican New Yorkers throughout the city). Having previously released music under the stage names ‘Wavy Spice’ and ‘Destiny’, Frasqueri has finally found her voice in her latest incarnation (as Princess Nokia), for the release of her 2016 EP, entitled 1992. As an openly queer-identifying woman of colour, the recording artist has dubbed herself “a bruja and a tomboy, a classic New York Boricua shorty […] who isn’t burdened, but empowered by her complexity.”7 To enter the realm of rap music with such a distinct and polarizing subject positioning implies the presence and undertaking of inherent risk. The hip-hop genre is one that has been long dominated by masculine virility and male performance, but Frasqueri’s alter-ego allows her to find some sense of belonging. By adopting this new, ambiguous identity, Princess Nokia is able to reconcile a space where all of her defining characteristics can exist in tandem. For me, Frasqueri’s alter-ego arguably fits in line with Donna Haraway’s construction of the cyborg, “a creature in a post-gender world,” free of traditional western stereotypes towards race and gender.8 She does not care if she fits in, and certainly isn’t afraid to assert her presence: “Who that is, hoe? That girl is a tomboy!”, she proclaims in her 2016 single Tomboy. In this track, she also raps lyrics like:

With my little titties and my phat belly / I could take your man if you finna let me / It’s a guarantee that he won’t forget me / My body little, my soul is heavy / My little titties be bookin’ cities all around the world / They be fucking wit’ me / I’m a Calvin Klein model, come and get me / Step the resy up, don’t be fucking with me / My little titties are so itty bitty / I go locomotive, chitty chitty, bang bang / Gold hoops and that name chain / Timb boots and like, four rings / Missy Elliott, can’t stand the rain / You lames playing the same games

Princess Nokia’s style of lyricism points to feminine imperfection, and reclaims it in solidarity. Despite her “little titties and phat belly,” her confidence is persistent, deeply resounding in her performance of the self. Likewise, her self-portraits follow the trajectory of the ‘self enacting itself’, a gestural image of the photographer who simply hopes to demonstrate the effect of “see me showing you me.”9

Nokia’s selfie posted Halloween of 2016 seems to draw upon some of these same notions of feminine empowerment. In this photo, she is nude from the waist up, her chest concealed by soft curls that frame her body.

A set of Supreme men’s boxers peek out as she holds up a gaping pair of oversized pants to her frame with her right hand. She accessorizes this outfit with a piece of cloth, closely resembling that of a do-rag—a popular icon among Black male rappers of the hip-hop community. To finish off, she captions her pièce-de-résistance: “Been on tour and couldn’t plan a Halloween costume. So I thought I would be FABULOUS for Halloween and let you bitches have it.” Here, Princess Nokia stands with ease, clearly seeking some comfort in the power of her own self-fashioning. Frasqueri presents no conscious effort of body-contortion to emphasize curves, nor does she seem to be concerned with how ‘boyish’ and ‘unladylike’ she looks. This picture also appears to be unedited—the background has presumably been left in its natural state, with no evidence suggesting that the scene has been tampered with or ‘stage-managed’ by the photographer herself.10

The fact that she has chosen to depict herself as half-nude stands out as rather culturally significant, particularly when considering the plethora of racist historical doctrines that have repeatedly represented Black women as exceedingly hyper-sexual, wild, and primitive creatures who are somehow more prone to sexual deviance.11 This image substantiates as one that fits under the cannon of ‘new racism’, whereby “the changing influence of Black popular culture and mass media [are] sites where ideas concerning Black sexuality are reformulated and contested.”12 Even though she is nude, her body is desexualized due to its inability to fit the gender-normative constructs that accentuate certain physiognomic traits, a denigrating framework that continuously vilifies the bodies of Black women as primarily objects of sexual desire. Princess Nokia’s selfie attempts to renegotiate the terms and challenges of social inequality while still participating in the “new commodified Black culture [industry].”13

In a second image posted on October 4th, 2016, Princess Nokia takes a selfie from a lowered angle looking up, concealing most of her face with her hair.

Unlike the first image, the focus here is not on Frasqueri’s facial expression, her clothes, nor her body language—instead, all attention is diverted to her Afro, as a clear visual indicator of her African diaspora identity. Her caption stands as a disclaimer to the image, taking on the form of a short poem:

All my ex boyfriends left me for white girls

Guess they cudnt take my anger and I wasn’t worth the fight for [sic]

Sweet edges now crease your hands, and a cherub light skin with size 2 pants.

See u later my mans

My angry brown pussy, see you ain’t have a chance

The visuality of hair—as a site for shared collective consciousness among Black women and an essential marker of their racialized identities—is a pedagogical method explored in depth by Professor Ingrid Banks of UC Santa Barbara in her book Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness. As she writes, “[…] hair shapes ideas about one’s identity. Attitude and emotion are placed on the site of one’s head, as opposed to inside one’s head.”14 Turning to Princess Nokia’s selfie, it becomes evident that her choice to leave her hair in its most natural state, as ‘unkempt’, ‘messy’, or ‘wild’, is an active decision that knowingly defies the impossible standards of Western systems of beauty, opting instead to celebrate her own cultural heritage.

This visual image is productive on two levels. First, as I have indicated, it reconsiders systems of oppression and reveals the importance of portraying Black women’s hair as beautiful. Second, through its associative caption, Princess Nokia is rather overtly pointing to the trope of ‘Angry Black Women’ who have typically been categorized as “aggressive, loud, rude, and pushy” and consequently aligned with the “controlling image of the ‘bitch’.”15 Frasqueri, however, takes the negative connotation of the word, flips it and reverses it. She sees the meaning of the word ‘bitch’ as being not a marker of negativity but a powerful and admirable term, drawing on a form of representation which Patricia Hill Collins has coined the ‘Bad Bitch’, or, ‘Bitch, with a capital “B.”’16 In a 2016 interview conducted with the digital media platform VFILES, Princess Nokia took to the camera and professed: “I love being a bitch…I’m a big bitch. Not a mean bitch. I think the word bitch is a very good word, actually. I like reclaiming it.” In the video, she does indeed adequately reclaim the word – twenty-six times, to be exact. Furthermore, in response to the term’s embedded affiliations with race, she has declared that “for a long time, young women such as myself had to be very careful with how we spoke to people. I think a lot of people assume that brown women are like angry or coarse, but I think we rightfully are so [emphasis added].”17

As the twenty-first century’s response to the time-honoured artistic tradition of self-portraiture, the ‘selfie’ represents more than just merely filling the gaps in one’s narcissistic proclivities. Through a visual analysis of two selfies taken by the Instagram user @princessnokia, I have argued that selfies can be read as active agents inciting positive social change. They can exist as modes of self-representation, working to “resist racism, class exploitation, sexism and/or heterosexism.”18 In “Art at Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie,” Jerry Saltz writes that “selfies have changed aspects of social interaction, body language, self-awareness, privacy, and humour, altering temporality, irony, and public behaviour […they have] become a new visual genre—a type of self-portraiture formally distinct from all others in history. Selfies have their own structural autonomy.”19 Here, by restructuring an argument provided by the media scholar Anahid Kassabian, I would like to propose that the nature of selfies, in their increasing ubiquity, represent a form of phatic communication for late capitalism.20 However subject to widespread public and private scrutiny, shame and revelation, the performative nature of selfies persistently exist as subversive tools, allowing the user to construct their most ‘authentic’ versions of self-hood, despite what has been expected by society at-large.21

Aimée Tian

    1. Saltz, Jerry. “Art as Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie.” Vulture. New York Media, 16 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.
    2. Senft, Terri and Nancy Baym. “What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon.” International Journal of Communication 9 (2015): 1589.
    3. Ibid.
    4. Ibid, 1591.
    5. Ibid, 1592.
    6. Penny, Laurie. “Chapter 1: Fucked Up Girls.” Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. 37. Print.
    7. Shikhan, Amani Bin. “Why Princess Nokia Matters Now, More Than Ever.” Noisey. Vice Media, 30 Jan. 2017. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.
    8. Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” Feminism/Postmodernism (1990): 192.
    9. Senft, Terri and Nancy Baym. “What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon.” International Journal of Communication 9 (2015): 1595.
    10. Saltz, Jerry. “Art as Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie.” Vulture. New York Media, 16 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.
    11. Collins, Patricia Hill. “Get Your Freak On: Sex, Babies, and Images of Black Femininity.” Black Sexual Politics. New York: Rutledge, (2004): 120.
    12. Ibid, 121.
    13. Ibid, 121-2.
    14. Banks, Ingrid. Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness. New York: New York University Press, 2000. Internet resource. 42.
    15. Collins, Patricia Hill. “Get Your Freak On: Sex, Babies, and Images of Black Femininity.” Black Sexual Politics. New York: Rutledge, (2004): 123.
    16. Ibid, 124.
    17. “How to Be a Bitch 101 With Princess Nokia – TMI.” Interview. YouTube. VFILES, 23 Aug. 2016. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.
    18. Collins, Patricia Hill. “Get Your Freak On: Sex, Babies, and Images of Black Femininity.” Black Sexual Politics. New York: Rutledge, (2004): 122.
    19. Saltz, Jerry. “Art as Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie.” Vulture. New York Media, 16 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.
    20. Kassabian, Anahid. “Ubisub: Ubiquitous Listening and Networked Subjectivity.” Echo: A Music-Centered Journal 3, no. 2 (2001).
    21. Saltz, Jerry. “Art as Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie.” Vulture. New York Media, 16 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.

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