Missy Elliott

5 Feminist Lessons From Missy Elliott

Madeleine Holden

By Madeleine Holden

on 07.07.14 in Features

Missy Elliott — destroyer of one-minute men, big [elephant trumpet] searcher and unapologetic freak — is woefully underrated as a feminist icon. She busted through the boys’ club of rap in the late ’90s, clearing a space for the Nickis and Azealias of today. But even in when judged against the people who followed her, Elliott’s career has been uniquely woman-positive. During her peak run from the late ’90s to the mid ’00s, Elliott provided a crucial counterpoint to the media’s steady onslaught of women-hating messages.

Here are Missy Elliott’s top five feminist messages:

1. Other women are not the enemy.

From birth, women are socialized to regard other women suspiciously. The media bombards us with subtle and not-so-subtle models of women as divided: Mean Girls stereotypes of female friendship as catty and backstabbing as well as the perennial myth that women are in constant competition for the attention of men. This feeling is heightened in the rap world, because it’s a space where few women participate as artists; there seems to be an unspoken idea that the charts only really have room for one female rapper at a time, leading to women in the industry being constantly compared to and pitted against each other.

Missy Elliott’s career is devoid of this dynamic. Despite having strong links with some of the most influential men in the industry — among them, Timbaland, Jodeci, Puff Daddy and Ginuwine — she avoided playing the “one of the boys” role, forging strong and open friendships with other female artists in her lane. She’s frequently collaborated with and produced for women, boosting their careers and cosigning them enthusiastically. Elliott doesn’t behave as though success for women is a zero-sum game, and that’s a crucial counterpoint to a society that tells us otherwise.

2. Your self-esteem is not contingent on your compliance with bullshit beauty standards.

Missy Elliott is not the music industry’s idea of a babe. She thinks she’s a babe, though; spitting lines like “Whatchu know about that / so cute and fat” and refusing, in every sense, to shrink herself; perhaps most famously by wearing a billowing black sack in the “The Rain” video, a creative decision she explained as follows: “I’ma be big, and I mean literally.” It’s not like she wasn’t discouraged: One of Elliott’s earliest professional successes was producing Raven-Symoné’s 1993 hit “That’s What Little Girls are Made Of,” but she was axed from the video because she “didn’t quite fit the image” producers were aiming for, a euphemism that amounted to “hating on the big girls,” as Elliott herself puts it. She was pressured early on to pursue a behind-the-scenes career of writing and producing, but in the end she wasn’t buying it.

Missy Elliott thinks she’s hot, and she is hot; and the lesson is that you’re hot, too — you just need to think it.

3. Sex work is a valid career that shouldn’t attract shame.

Sex workers often lament the fact that non-sex-working women are their most virulent critics. Women don’t need to be degraded by engaging in sex work, whether it’s stripping, doing porn or being a full-service escort. Arguing otherwise denies sex-working women their agency and feeds into ancient, sexist ideas about who women should “give” sex to and under what circumstances (namely, a boyfriend or husband, for free and because he wants it). I can distinctly remember watching the “Work It” video as an early teen and being jarred by the following lines: “Girls, girls, get that cash/ If it’s 9 to 5 or shaking that ass/ Ain’t no shame ladies do your thing/ Just make sure you ahead of the game.” It was so unusual to hear a woman talk about sex work non-judgmentally that it took permanent root in my brain.

On a song that became a worldwide hit and sat at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 weeks, Elliott gave unflinching support to women who shake their asses for cash. That’s subversive, and it matters.

4. You can survive abuse and shouldn’t be ashamed to discuss it.

Missy Elliott has spoken openly about the abuse she witnessed and suffered growing up; it’s the kind of depressingly common story to which millions of women can directly relate, and it’s a topic that’s still under-discussed. There’s a stigma around talking about abuse; people (particularly men) are reluctant to believe survivors, so it’s often triggering to speak up, plus it’s not exactly a fun topic; it’s the kind of “burn it all down” ugly reality we’re all reading Soulja Boy’s tweets and drinking thot juice to avoid thinking about.

It’s nice, then, to have the model Elliott provides. She doesn’t cohere to our traditional perception of the abuse victim: She’s not “broken” or permanently devastated; she’s vibrant and thriving and uncontainable. She still talks about abuse, though, which is important; and she puts her money where her mouth is to help protect other women.

5. You can be a boss even in male-dominated industries (and that’s pretty much all industries).

Society still feeds women tired messages about money: that it’s uncouth and unfeminine for us to pursue it openly and hungrily, and that marriage and babies should be a bigger priority (or at least co-priority). Missy Elliott responded to that particular cultural nugget by becoming a multimillionaire with no kids. And she did it in the rap world, traditionally barren territory for a woman to thrive.

Most of us aren’t pursuing rap careers, but Elliott encourages us to be the best we can be in our respective fields, whether it’s stripping, surgery or selling houses. She knows the value of financial independence for women, and her whole driving force was to make sure she and her mother never had to rely on ain’t-shit men again.

Whether it’s refusing to hate her body, supporting other women or ensuring her independence from abusive men, we could all afford to take some cues from Missy Elliott. We’re lucky to bear witness to her firm, fundamental belief in her own worth, which is, after all, the most important feminist lesson of all.