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By Stephane Dunn | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Thursday, October 11, 2012.

Think I'm playin? Think this sh*t is a f*cking joke? Think it's a joke? . . . Say one more disrespectful thing to me, if you say one more disrespectful thing to me-- off with your headNikki Minaj [off screen about Mariah Carey]

Maybe it’s just about the ratings. Behind the scenes drama, real or made up, can derail or propel a television show to new heights. Like it or not, the Kardashians keep reminding us of this. Popular culture has always loved to see girls playing or working badly together whether over men or first diva bragging rights. We can watch reruns of the catfights between Crystal and Alexis on the old Dynastytelevision show to see how much it delights in it. Some epic diva to diva tensions have played out in black popular music culture. Remember Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim and Faith Evans and the imagined or real tensions between Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston?

The recent Nikki Minaj rant on Mariah Carey may keep American Idol lovers holding their breaths until the new season premiere and attract new viewers –more young women of color in particular, but it’s unfortunate for those young women and all of us. It’s time we have some real talk about the meanings and representation of the Diva. ‘Diva’ came to signify a larger than life talent and performer. Now it doubles for another word – the ultimate diss one woman or man can give another or call a troublesome or out of control female egomaniac [think Scarlet O’ Hara]: bitch.

At different times in American culture, the “B’ word has challenged and perpetuated the use of its literal meaning [female dog] to demean women. Some early-70s feminists embraced the identity as a defiance of patriarchal authority or a refusal to play by the established gender hierarchy and the rules of so-called proper feminine behavior. The word was a staple in black action movies where badd ass heroes and underworld kings owned stables of women. The women jockeyed over number one‘ho’ status hurling ‘bitch’ at each other while snatching wigs off and clawing each other. There was also Pam Grier’s Foxy Brown, which flipped the script by presenting a real “badd Bitch’ who got to turn the tables on all the crooked men and fight off a lot of jealous ‘bitches’ in between.

Later, there was Lil ‘Kim and rapper Foxy Brown’s duel over baddest ‘Bitch’ bragging rights and the emergence of pop songstresses who could ‘sang’ that became reigning divas. But the term got so watered down, it lost that special implication of a phenomenal vocal talent and career.

On cable and network television these days, ‘bitch’ is thrown around as a term of endearment, a proud self-title, and an ultimate diss—no bleeps and gasps.‘Diva’ can be tagged to anybody on the charts or off who is famous and having beef with somebody else famous, causing too much trouble, or famously getting into trouble, or any sista living large within fame and fortune who demands that things be her way or no way. Mariah has certainly long been deemed ‘Diva’for reasons worthy of applause and critique. Clearly, ‘diva’ and ‘bitch’ have become sides of a same coin, each perpetuating tired notions about women we’ve at times challenged and resisted. On the behind the scenes tape, Nikki lays down the battleground for a full-on ‘diva’ vs. ‘bitch’ war with herself behaving like a diva and at the same time embodying the ‘I’m the real Badd Bitch’ persona in part defined by Lil Kim and Foxy Brown.

In rap music, lyrics about shooting have been metaphors in lyrical battles and references to a real violent street mentality as well as lived experiences of violence. Nikki has denied bringing a gun into her rant about Mariah. The alleged statement was not caught on tape or overheard by everyone. Nikki was probably letting off some steam in the style emblematic of the culture she reps. Maybe there has been some real troublesome diva-tude from Mariah that riled her up. Regardless, how and what Nikki did say, ter ‘bitch’ and ‘her fucking highness’ should cause us serious pause. How has ‘diva’ become interchangeable with ‘bitch’ with both being used to disrespect women or demonize femininity?

Audiences, especially those most impressionable, young girls and boys, will tune in to witness some real drama between the divas they want to be like. Unfortunately, they won’t all be consciously checking the possible distance between the real thing and the performance. Neither will a lot of grown folk who cringe at the“N” word but don’t think twice about calling somebody the “B” word.

Stephane Dunn, PhD, is a writer and Co-Director of the Film, Television, & Emerging Media Studies program at Morehouse College. She is the author of the 2008 book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas : Black Power Action Films (U of Illinois Press), which explores the representation of race, gender, and sexuality in the Black Power and feminist influenced explosion of black action films in the early 1970s, including, Sweetback Sweetback’s Baad Assssss Song, Cleopatra Jones, and Foxy Brown. Her writings have appeared in Ms., The Chronicle of Higher Education, TheRoot.com, AJC, CNN.com, and Best African American Essays, among others. Her most recent work includes articles about contemporary black film representation and Tyler Perry films.

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