After watching the recently released music videos for Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" and J. Lo and Iggy Azalea's "Booty," lots of folks have pointed out that, as Kevin Fallon says, "butts are having a moment." But butts aren't all that "Anaconda" and "Booty" have in common. In "Booty," J. Lo and Azalea bump rears and slither all over each other; in "Anaconda", one of Minaj's dancers just about takes a lascivious bite out of the star rapper. If butts are having a moment, then so is girl-on-girl subtext.
So why do butt-shaking and lesbian imagery go together—in these videos and, for that matter, so many other times in pop culture? Think of Miley Cyrus's notorious VMA performance, where she twerked and groped her female dancer with equal awkwardness.
As with butts, girl-girl subtext isn't some new trend, of course. Lesbian eroticism as a supposedly (but not really) transgressive spectacle for the male gaze is plenty common, both in the culture in general and in hip-hop/pop videos in particular. So you could argue that making a fetish out of rear ends and making a fetish out of lesbianism are both just part of the commodification of female bodies and sexuality. Butts and female-female eroticism go together because butts and female eroticism are both things that most guys like to see. There's a standard array of porn tropes; these are two of them.
That's certainly part of what's going on in "Booty," which is, even for pop radio, a strikingly simple-minded song. At the same time, the video is not entirely, or even primarily, focused on a male audience. J. Lo and Iggy surely have substantial numbers of female fans. When lesbian scenes are staged specifically for men, there’s often a male stand-in for the audience; there’s not one in this video, though. The lyrics slip back and forth between addressing women ("Go on let them jeans touch you while you dancing") and addressing men ("The way she moves/I know you want her,") so that at points it's not precisely clear which gender is being spoken to. "Have you seen her on the dance floor… You wanna meet her, you wanna touch her," is obviously a tease to men, but when the line "you wanna touch her" is juxtaposed with Iggy and J.Lo grabbing each other, it's easy to see it as a come on to a female audience as well.
This isn't to say that the video is somehow breaking boundaries. On the contrary, female bodies are objectified and displayed for a female gaze almost as commonly as they’re displayed for a male one. Women's magazines are filled front to back with female bodies arranged and commodified for women consumers. Sharon Marcus, in her book Between Women, argues that during Victorian times, female-female erotic interest was seen as a standard part of heterosexual female identity. She points to Victorian fashion plates, where women were often drawn staring at other women's breasts; or to debates about birching, in which female readers wrote in to magazines describing in loving detail how other women should be whipped and chastised as punishment. To us, this may look like submerged lesbian desire, but at the time, women's interests in other women were assumed to be typical for all women. Same-sex desire didn't form the basis for a queer identity—it was just taken for granted.
Our own fashion magazines show that this hasn't necessarily changed all that much. Women can look at sexualized images of women all day every day—just as men can look at superheroes in spandex and have that be part of a heterosexual identity. The "Booty" video may be mindless titillation, but the mindless titillation seems deliberately aimed at women as well as men.
"Anaconda" is about titillation too, but Minaj engages her brain as well as her butt. As Katie Hasty points out, Minaj's face and eyes are front and center throughout the whole video, as opposed to "Booty," in which J. Lo and Iggy's bodies frequently gyrate with their heads cut off by the edge of the screen. So the girl-girl eroticism in "Anaconda" seems a good deal more self aware. The sheer staginess of "Anaconda"—the quick switches from jungle setting to aerobics to high fashion to bananas spinning on a turntable—emphasizes the extent to which Minaj is controlling the images. She may be objectified, but she wants you to know that whatever object she appears to be is subject to her own imagination. She also works to switch her own position in the video; at one moment she's about to luxuriously devour a banana, at another, one of her dancers is about to luxuriously devour her. She's both the consumable and the consumer consuming the consumable.
In The Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Sedgwick writes that "The typifying gesture of camp is really something amazingly simple: the moment at which a consumer of culture makes the wild surmise, ‘What if whoever made this was gay too?’" The same-sex eroticism in "Booty" never really prompts that question; J.Lo and Iggy present themselves as bodies, so how their brains identify seems largely beside the point. Minaj, on the other hand, winks at the camera (literally) one minute, slices a banana with castrating insouciance the next, and teases Drake with a lap dance before giving him a disinterested brush-off at the end. Minaj in "Anaconda" isn't just someone who's desired; she's someone who desires, which means that she has an identity. And however Minaj may see herself in her personal life, part of that identity within the song involves desiring women and not desiring men. Which provides plenty of campy fodder for the consumer of culture to ask, "What if …?"
Minaj's celebration of her butt, then, isn't just a celebration of, and pride in, her butt. It's also figured as a celebration of, and lust for, other women's butts. That Mixalot sample isn't just Minaj claiming to be the kind of woman Mixalot wants; it's Minaj claiming she wants that kind of woman too. "Anaconda" is a statement of pride—Minaj is saying that this feature, which is often denigrated according to popular beauty standards, is beautiful and sexy. But that pride in self slips almost inevitably into lust. If Minaj finds the female butt sexy, then she finds the female butt sexy. QED.
Again, Minaj is a lot more intentional about this, both in her use of camp and in her understanding of the racial issues involved, including the long history of degrading/fetishizing black women by obsessing over their rear ends (that over-the-top faux jungle setting in "Anaconda" isn't an accident). But, still, in its own pallid way, "Booty" picks up on the lesbian dynamic. The declaration of love for the butt accompanies same-sex erotics in part because porn is porn. But they also go together because desire and identity bump and grind together. How can you tell the difference between wanting that sexy booty and wanting that sexy booty?