Intersectional Representation of Gender, Queerness, and Ethnic Identity in Janelle Monáe’s Discography

Keywords: Intersectionality, Hegemonic Masculinity, Emphasized Femininity, Queerness, Performativity, Third Wave Feminism

Janelle Monáe has become a modern rockstar; she is an artist that has infiltrated the ladder of mainstream popular music and re-energized it with her own essence and unique view as a queer black woman in America. Even when she caught the attention of music icon, P Diddy himself, he said in an interview,

“I was that were different and innovative. Because if you’re a leader in this industry you want to be helping to push it forward, and she’s an artist that would help to push it forward.”

After signing to Atlantic Records, she released her first EP in 2007, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) charting in at 115 on Billboard and was even nominated for a grammy for her song Many Moons. It was absolutely apparent that she had an ability to steer the industry in the new direction. Since then, she’s had three studio albums all charting on billboard. Over 20 music videos, and nominated for eight Grammys. She is so young and has a resume that would make the late great Biggie Smalls fall out his chair. How did this girl from Kansas City become a national phenomenon over the last decade? The answer is her unique view on gender, sexual representation, and activism.

This is an analytical essay that will dissect Janelle Monáe’s artistic representation through media and song as a means to promote queerness, break systematic hetero-generic stereotypes, and hegemonic masculinities rife in Contemporary R&B and Hip-Hop genres. Monáe’s particular musical styling includes elements of Pop, Contemporary R&B, Funk, Hip-Hop, and Psychedelic Soul. The following paragraphs will discuss how Janelle Monáe’s freedom of expression transcends the boundaries of music and art through third-wave feminist applications of the “self.” Monáe’s relationship with hip-hop and rap culture is consistent with modern third-wave feminism where she expresses personal narratives reflective of the unique crossroads of experience (Pough, 2007 p. 82). Contextually, a defining characteristic of third-wave feminism, according to Snyder, seeks to build an independent critique “that addresses […] different societal contexts and the particular set of challenges [… faced]” by feminist activists (Snyder, 2008 p. 178). This representation of “self” is the basis of intersectional ties, and through these songs, Monáe strictly seeks to address various notions regarding to her own experience. Monáe suspends much of her work within the essence of afrofuturism as a means to enforce dialogue regarding queer, feminine, and ethnic constructions. According to Bennett, Afrocentrism is not a clearly defined term but, for clarity and within the subject of this essay, can be defined as “artistic and critical works that combine science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentrism, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs” (Bennett, 2016 p. 92). In the case of Monáe, the use of afrofuturism is not necessarily apparent within every text of her work, but provides context for much in which she can express her views on black American history and gender and sexuality in modernity. These discussions regarding the intersectional nature of these attributes specific to Janelle’s character are highly detailed within her music videos “Q.U.E.E.N.,” and “PYNK,” in which Monae either enacts lyrical poeticism or visual imagery to discuss these constructs.

Q.U.E.E.N. – Janelle Monáe (ft. Erykah Badu)

Q.U.E.E.N. Music Video

“Q.U.E.E.N.” begins with an obvious suspension within an alternative world to preface the critiques that will later follow within the lyrical content of the track. As well, the music video narratively indicates that Monáe is a member of a collective entitled Wonderland who promoted activism through art and music. This collective, however, is now on display in a museum, having been lost to time and a relic of an era bygone. The lyrics within this song promote social discourse regarding African American history and modern race relations, as well as hinting at social acceptance in regards to gender and sexuality.

Monáe unabashedly embraces her performative queerness through her lyric “will your God accept me in my black and white,” giving notion that this God is judgemental in regards to alternative performativity in regards to perceived heterosexual and hegemonic gender dynamics. Here, Monáe questions the validity of religion on the basis of the hate it can create. As well, Monáe’s black and white menswear suit is representational for general otherness in a music demographic dominated by performed femininity and the traditionalized feminine physique. Ulterior to traditional feminine performativity, Monáe dons her menswear in pride. As well, Monáe iterates that “I will love who I am,” promoting self acceptance against societal pressures. This ushers emotional solidarity for her listeners as she embraces her own presentation regardless of how society views her appearance.

The Hottentot Venus

“Because the booty don’t lie
No, no, the booty don’t lie
Oh no, the booty don’t lie”

“Q.U.E.E.N.” by Janelle Monae

In regards to feminine presentation, the lyric the “booty don’t lie” emphatically embraces the hypersexualization of the black female body — common social assumptions indicate that black woman evoke sexuality for their curves. The inherent exoticism of the black female body as othered is seen in the representation of Sarah Baartman, The Hottentot Venus, as a specimen of allure and awe to the colonialist community. Baartman’s representation is consistent with other iconography of black womanhood, like the “Jezebel, Mammy, Welfare Queen, Sapphire”  images prevalent in Western society (Henderson, 2014 p. 494). Reclamation of stereotypes, however, can be powerful for communities, therefore Monáe has embraced this stereotype of black womanhood as a means to be proud of her intersectionality in regards to race and gender. Monáe ultimately constructs pride from negative oppressive representations.

Q.U.E.E.N. Music Video

“Hey sister am I good enough for your heaven?
Say will your God accept me in my black and white?
Will he approve the way I’m made?
Or should I reprogram the programming and get down?…

…Even if it makes others uncomfortable
I wanna love who I am
Even if it makes other uncomfortable
I will love who I am”

“Q.U.E.E.N.” by Janelle Monáe

The song then dramatically shifts to Janelle expressing her views regarding race relations in America, coupled with the visual cue of her position centered within the frame within a barren background. Here, in context of the video, the dialogue in which Monae is discussing is of utmost importance. Within this dialogue, she professes to “give back [her] pyramid,” prior referencing “Queen Nefertiti,” which is a direct criticism of the white erasure of black history and black historical figures due to the effects of colonialism. As well, she entices the viewer with other imagery relating to the abolitionist movement (“leading like a young Harriet Tubman”), the Vietnam War (‘tired of Marvin asking me, “What’s Going On”’), and social activism (“marching to the streets”). These inherent metaphors, though, are representative of how she views current race relations in America today, inferring that much progress is to be made before equality is true and racism is eliminated. “Q.U.E.E.N.” triumphantly embraces Monáe’s views on her own experience within America as a queer black artist and seeks to create activism and promote solidarity within her listeners.

PYNK – Janelle Monáe

Within Monáe’s track “PYNK,” much of the video emphasizes yonic imagery reminiscent of Georgia O’Keeffe’s floral paintings. This direct relation to the vagina through artistic representation politicizes imagery that would otherwise be demonitized or banned on the media platform Youtube. Although promoting sexual liberation, including sexual rhetoric such as the imagery of female sexual bodies remains privy to the objectification of the hegemonic male gaze. The possible hegemonic subjugation of proper feminist analytical discourse can be understood, but the feminine gaze from Monáe’s perspective created by the video’s imagery inferences that this is a queer and feminist piece.

Thompson and Monáe are fondly looking towards one another across multiple bodies where the buttocks is clearly framed. Both woman do not taunt these bodies, rather they share a subtle emotional experience and these bodies are representative of the emotional and sexual intimacy of the two characters. Comparing this shot to one seen in the recently popular song “Thotiana” by Blueface, hegemonic masculine identity codes the female body as a tool for male pleasure. Where both videos include the feminine figure, the way in which the definitions of these bodies are coded are vastly different. Monáe embraces womanhood and modern sexuality whereas Blueface promotes tired objectification both lyrically visually. These women in “Thotiana” dance seductively around the male artist who raps of gratication recieved by the female subject of the song. Similarly to the case of Sarah Baartman, the representation and commodification of the black female figure is historically continuous and can be damaging, systematically promoting a hypersexualized image of black femininity (Henderson, 2014 p. 951). Hip-Hop and R&B feminist rhetoric chooses to dismantle these oppressive stereotypes but also provide women with the means of owning their sexual identity. Counter to this, Pough notions that women’s agency to be provocative within these oppressive male settings should not be demeaned, rather the problematic rhetoric rife in the hip-hop music scene should be contested (Pough, 2007 p. 86). It can be further assumed that these representations of black femininity again are not monolithic, and there is a spectrum of presentation and personal agency that should be embraced. The imagery within “PYNK” is however largely supportive of the black female body especially in its means to reclaim the negative stereotypes that have become consistent in media. This music video is for queer women and women in general, and the nuances and artistic flourishes deem that the intentions are further than simple sexual gratification. The female body is accepted for the self, similarly with the sentiments of anecdotal personifications of third wave feminist practice.

“Pynk, like the inside of your… baby (we’re all just pink)
Pynk, like the walls and the doors… maybe (deep inside, we’re all just pynk)
Pynk, like your fingers in my… maybe
Pynk is the truth you can’t hide
Pynk, like your tongue going round… baby”

“PYNK” by Janelle Monáe

Lyrically, Monáe politicizes her song particularly in her verses where grammatically, the ends of the sentences are left open, leaving the listener open to personal interpretation– this interpretation is more significantly understood as sexual in nature. Again, Monáe is toying with her own view on sexual experience as well as being pro-sex. Counter to the previous example of “Thotiana,” Monáe is incredibly suggestive within her representation of sex without being derogatory to the individual she is speaking about. Monáe is sharing a sexual experience with another as expressed through her lyrics “like your fingers in my” and “your tongue going round,” which are imagery for common cunnilingus. However, when compared to a lyric from “Thotiana,” the artist clearly states “I beat the pussy up, now it’s a murder scene,” inferring male dominance over women which is the traditional expectancy in hegemonic sexual behavior. As well, the grammatical omission works on two levels — it both acknowledges the taboo nature that feminine sexuality is understood in society as well as targets traditionalist viewpoints against sexual expression.

Overall, “PYNK” proves to be the most provocative and pro-sex track of the two works discussed. It recounts and relishes in the intersectional gendered constructs specific to Monáe and promotes sexual inclusiveness in media. Other images includes a play on words, “sex cells,” and the middle finger framed poignantly within a shot. In every essence, Monáe uses this piece of art as a means to dismantle traditional notions of gender, queerness, and black female presentation.

Summary:

Monáe has proven that intersectional representation is necessary to deconstruct the negative representations of women in the media. Her unique view as a queer woman of color is apparent in her work, and her activist approach to the curation and creation of her music is artistic and socially conscious. These specific voices are necessary within media as this feminist work critiques the hegemonic powers at play and offers discourse to deconstruct the status quo. Traditional masculine approaches to gender, especially in hip hop culture, has proven damaging to black womanhood and propagates white colonialist views of the black woman. Monáe presents a dissenting opinion that offers a necessary trajectory for intersectional feminism.

Bibliography:

Bennett, M. (2016). Afrofuturism. Computer, 49(4), 92-93. doi:10.1109/mc.2016.99

Henderson, C. (2014) AKA: Sarah Baartman, The Hottentot Venus, and Black Women’s Identity, Women’s Studies, 43:7, 946-959, DOI: 10.1080/00497878.2014.938191

Pough, G. (2007). What It Do, Shorty?: Women, Hip-Hop, and a Feminist Agenda. Black Women, Gender + Families , Vol. 1, No. 2 (Fall 2007), 78-99

Snyder, R. (2008). What Is Third‐Wave Feminism? A New Directions Essay. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society,34(1), 175-196. doi:10.1086/588436