Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus, and the VMAs: A Tone-Policing Palooza

Though it wasn’t pretty, Minaj was really teaching a lesson in civility.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Nicki Minaj didn’t, in the end, say much to Miley Cyrus at all. If you only read the comments that lit up the Internet at last night’s MTV Video Music Awards, you might think she was kidding, or got cut off, when she “called out” the former Disney star who was hosting: “And now, back to this bitch that had a lot to say about me the other day in the press. Miley, what’s good?”

But to really understand the moment, you need to watch the tape.

To summarize: When Minaj’s “Anaconda” won the award for Best Hip-Hop Video, she took to the stage in a slow shuffle, shook her booty with presenter Rebel Wilson, and then gave an acceptance speech in which she switched vocal personas as amusingly as she does in her best raps—street-preacher-like when telling women “don’t you be out here depending on these little snotty-nosed boys”; sweetness and light when thanking her fans and pastor. Then a wave of nausea seemed to come over her, and she turned her gaze toward Cyrus. To me, the look on her face, not the words that she said, was the news of the night:


It’s fitting that the moment was more about delivery more than content. After all, the entire battle had turned into one about manners. In July, Minaj had sent out tweets implying that her work hadn’t been nominated for Video of the Year because, unlike favorites such as Taylor Swift, she wasn’t white and skinny. For an article published days before the VMAs, The New York Times’ Joe Coscarelli asked Cyrus for a reaction. “If you do things with an open heart and you come at things with love, you would be heard and I would respect your statement,” Cyrus said about Minaj’s tweets. “But I don’t respect your statement because of the anger that came with it … What I read sounded very Nicki Minaj, which, if you know Nicki Minaj is not too kind. It’s not very polite.”

This was a textbook example of what’s come to be known as “tone policing,” a common term in feminist and anti-racist circles—shifting the focus from what was said to how it was said, using the pretext of concern that someone’s style might undermine substance to, well, undermine that substance. It’s also an example of an opinion that appears informed in part by stereotype (BET: “Miley Cyrus Basically Calls Nicki Minaj an Angry Black Woman”) or maybe some un-publicized bad blood; Minaj’s initial tweets about being snubbed were laden with smiley faces and LOLs and jokes—passive-aggressive, perhaps, but not outright angry. Cyrus’s comments were also, ironically, pretty rude: She went beyond the scope of the question she’d been asked to make a comment about Minaj’s character in general, telling one of the biggest newspapers in the world that a popular guest at the ceremony she was about to host is “not too kind.” Was Minaj supposed to go on the same stage as her and not respond?

If the moment was, as some have speculated, “faked”—ratings-chasing collusion between all pop stars involved—it was a bad PR move for Cyrus. She looked legitimately freaked out when Minaj said her name; her reply was incoherent and shaky, blaming the press for manipulating her words (even though the Times had published her comments as part of a lengthy Q&A in which she ignored the reporter’s invitations to de-escalate). Then she tried to claim moral superiority by saying that she never thought it was a big deal when she lost VMAs, a move that ignores the racial and physical component of the point Minaj had tried to make.

For an example of what it looks like when MTV openly tries to capitalize on intra-celebrity beef, check out the various, stilted Taylor Swift moments of the night—squashing the tension that arose over the same set of tweets Cyrus had referred to by performing with Minaj, putting to rest any resentment from the famous “Imma let you finish” moment by presenting a lifetime achievement award to future presidential candidate Kanye West. But for an example of an actually classic awards-show moment, one that reveals some unspoken rules about civility, and race, and speech, watch the clip of Minaj’s acceptance speech—and be glad that in that moment you weren’t Miley.