Nicki Minaj and ‘Marilyn Monroe’: Is she perpetuating white female beauty standard?

OPINION - Because it is Black History Month, Minaj's flaunting of her internalized white American standards of beauty stand out more.

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Nicki Minaj has made it no secret that mega-pop stardom is her ultimate destination. So her leaked song “Marilyn Monroe” channeling one of American culture’s super beauty icons should come as no surprise. Because it is Black History Month, however, Minaj’s flaunting of her internalized white American standards of beauty stand out more.

While it is doubtful that the entertainer, who just shared the stage with Madonna for the Super Bowl half-time show, is mindful of her perpetuation of age-old American beauty standards that largely exclude black women, she has been rewarded plenty for celebrating them.

Last month, nail salons throughout the nation began officially selling the Nicki Minaj by OPI collection featuring such hit single-inspired colors as “Did It On ‘Em” and “Superbass Shatter.” In December, Mattel created an official Nicki Minaj Barbie for a charity auction that sold for $5,605.

When her debut album Pink Friday was released in 2010, MAC successfully sold limited edition “Pink Friday” lipstick to commemorate the occasion. And this month the official MAC 2012 Viva Glam campaign featuring Minaj and Ricky Martin as spokespersons launched.

If that weren’t enough, she’s also been getting work as a fashion model. She was on the November 2011 covers of both W and Cosmopolitan as well as an alternate Elle May 2011 cover and there are talks that she might just cover Vogue in the not so distant future. Just last month, the coveted Sunday edition of the New York Times pondered “Nicki Minaj as a Rising Style Muse.”

All the mainstream attention Minaj’s self-proclaimed “Harajuku Barbie” image has attracted is extremely problematic. Her Barbie-like small waist coupled with her Venus Hottentot backside and almost-always Marilyn Monroe blonde hair certainly sends mixed messages regarding black beauty values. The fact that Minaj has generated so much success by merging the typical mainstream beauty standards of Barbie and Marilyn Monroe with the outlandish “ghetto booty” that so many black men celebrate speaks volumes.

In an age when black beauty continues to be questioned, with several polls and even once-reputable publications like Psychology Today proclaiming black women as less attractive, not to mention the consistent insults dished out over first lady Michelle Obama’s looks, Minaj’s success reiterates that, in the United States, even in 2012, black needs to step back.

Therefore the anointing of Nicki Minaj as an emerging fashion icon encourages young black girls especially to manipulate their looks. The more fake and outrageous one appears, the better. The less that look resembles more common black features the more acceptable one becomes in mainstream arenas.

While it is indeed true that black women come in various shades and shapes and have a long history of doing outlandish things with their hair, Minaj’s image as a hip-hop blow-up doll of sorts is dangerous. Minaj’s emphasis on her manipulated body image and willingness to embrace mainstream standards of beauty that are almost completely white and exclusionary sends an underhanded message harkening back to standards of beauty even in the black community that exclude women with curvier shapes and darker skin hues.

During the Super Bowl, L’Oreal ran its most recent Beyoncé commercial but left the pronouncement of her various racial mixes on the editing floor. The adjustment is a result of widespread objections to the old “I’m not fully black” sentiment that has historically made certain black women more attractive than others.

Incidents such as the Rihanna “ni**a b*tch” tag by a Dutch magazine last year and the blackface French Vogue controversy in 2009 just reiterate how intensely undervalued black women are throughout the world. And, as much as many will argue otherwise, education is the only counter to such ignorance. Can we really blame Nicki Minaj for feeding into the mainstream beauty myth of Barbie and Marilyn Monroe being fairer than them all?

While she was born in Trinidad, Minaj (born Onika Tanya Maraj,) was largely raised in the United States, and thus similarly indoctrinated with the same beauty standards that we all, to some extent, also harbor. The appearance of the black Barbie doll Christie, may indeed date all the way back to the early 1970s but to this day, she still struggles to gain acceptance as a beauty in her own right, as evidenced by Minaj tagging herself a Barbie and not a Christie.

In the realm of real women and not dolls, it’s hard to point to a significant number of black women who have gained culture-altering mainstream acceptance for their looks, a la Marilyn Monroe and Farrah Fawcett. Even black women like Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge had a hard time gaining mainstream acceptance in their day. Halle Berry seems to have broken many of those barriers. So have fashion models like Iman and Naomi Campbell. Still, all of these women fit into the body image mold upheld and celebrated by the mainstream.

Until the contributions of people of African descent are accepted and universally exalted outside of Black History Month or targeted specials, there is little hope in stopping this perpetuation of a beauty ideal that excludes not just black women, but essentially all women who are not white (and even some who are).

Could Nicki Minaj play a bigger role? Most certainly she could. However unintentional she has been in the promotion of Barbie and Marilyn Monroe as this culture’s ultimate beauty ideals, she is indeed hurting the struggle for the advancement and appreciation of black beauty here and worldwide.

And though one can hardly blame her for figuring out that embracing Barbie and Marilyn Monroe come with much bigger paydays, there is indeed an even higher price to pay. Pop culture has beaten up black girls enough and, unfortunately, Nicki Minaj has elected to fuel the problem rather than solve it, and no amount of “Super Bass” chart-toppers or Super Bowl performances with Madonna can mask that.

Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @rondaracha