By Sylvia Warren and Katherine Warren
Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift received abundant attention last week over a series of tweets about the Video Music Awards (VMA) nominations.
On Tuesday, Minaj tweeted about not receiving a VMA nomination for Video of the Year and said, "If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year." Swift felt this message was directed at her, and responded: "I've done nothing but love & support you. It's unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot." Minaj clarified that she was not referring to Swift, but rather much larger issues. The pair exchanged several more tweets.
Popular media responded by calling the Twitter exchange a "feud," "spat," "spar," "war," and many other belligerent names -- failing to acknowledge that both artists claimed to love and support each other in those same tweets.
Many celebrities, such as Katy Perry, weighed in with their own thoughts and reactions. Most egregiously, Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars -- two nominees for the Video of the Year award -- created a fake Twitter feud that completely trivialized Minaj and Swift's discussion. Collectively, the public reaction made light of the serious problems that Minaj intended to highlight.
The issues raised by Minaj, and many others following her first Tweet, are real: racism in the music industry, inability to recognize white privilege, and the more insidious flaws of a feminism dominated by white, heterosexual women. Fortunately, the Twitter exchange did inspire some people to discuss these issues in a substantive way. Unfortunately, the media and popular response unearthed another real issue: the widespread failure to recognize and discuss a serious issue at face value -- especially when inspired by two women writing 140-character posts.
Some would argue that a tweet with thirteen Emojis (e.g. Minaj's original post about the industry celebrating women with slim bodies) does not merit serious reflection. However, Minaj and Swift are savvy businesswoman who know how to leverage their brands to make a point. It would be a mistake to diminish their tweets to a "catfight," which conjures the image of two thirteen-year-old girls fighting over a boy, not two serious artists discussing their careers.
Twitter -- with or without Emojis -- has become a serious medium for communication in the modern world. Sure, people post about food, shoes, boyfriends, and breakups. But Twitter has also become a staple for every well-respected news organization and many of our country's leaders. It helped fuel the Arab Spring. With 236 million monthly active users, its audience is massive.
Nicki Minaj has 20 million Twitter followers; Taylor Swift has 61.1 million. Both of their audiences are larger than the New York Times' 18.3 million. Minaj's original post was retweeted by 55,000 people and favorited by 81,000. Swift's apology to Minaj -- implicitly acknowledging the issues of bias that Minaj intended to illuminate -- was retweeted by 88,000 people and favorite by 180,000. According to 2012 statistics, the average active Twitter user has 208 followers. If you do the math, Minaj and Swift's messages likely reached over 100 million people through Twitter alone, without counting coverage in the mainstream media.
It is a rare moment when the entire world can witness a mistake, a provocative discussion about the mistake, a public apology to 61 million people, and in the end, a learning opportunity much bigger than any of the individuals involved. Discussing race and other entrenched issues is a Catch-22 situation: many people know the issues exist, but are hesitant to participant in open dialogue or to admit their own biases. Yet as the Huffington Post wrote last week, "nothing productive can come out of no dialogue at all."
As Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter followers, it is our responsibility to figure out how we can process and reflect on a difficult conversation (citation: Minaj, Swift) without reducing it to petty fight between two celebrities.
Otherwise, we aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
Sylvia Warren lives and works in Washington D.C. Katherine Warren is a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford.
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