I spent years in undergraduate and grad school learning how to pursue cultural criticism, and once I started focusing on it more through the lens of Black feminist thought, I found that not only did I have more clarity on all the problematic things I tended to enjoy but also found new ways of looking at things I may have otherwise dismissed previously. Still, I sometimes find it difficult to carry through with critiques for a variety of reasons. So while I prepare for the only public discussion space I get to participate in all year, WisCon, I want to think more about why it’s difficult to critique, especially through a Black feminist lens, but why it’s also necessary.
The link between sexuality and Black women’s agency has had a history as long and tenuous as mass media consumption itself. Black women have had a uniquely adverse relationship to sex and sexuality ever since legal and societal conventions have deemed Black women unrapeable and not even human. Black women have been called unattractive and unfeminine, manly and masculine, especially when compared to non-Black women. Yet the first Black female superstars in pop culture such as Josephine Baker were sex symbols, selling Black sex and sexuality as a commodity and often playing into myths of that sexuality, sometimes in critique, sometimes in the service of capitalist gain. In any case, Black female sexuality has been a driving force in pop culture whether or not Black women and femmes have been in control of the means of production.
Unsurprisingly, more recent pop culture history has shown that many Black women in music (and other areas of entertainment) attempted to distinguish themselves by playing with images of respectability. This is especially true of many Black teens and young women who sought to appeal to a wider mainstream audience when they reached a more mature age. Black women who do not present an overtly sexualized exterior are often seen in contrast to women who do in an often problematic comparison that plays into notions of respectability.
In her essay “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sista” from her influential work Black Looks: Race and Representation, bell hooks challenges Madonna’s ability to reinvent herself throughout her career in a political economy in which “Mainstream culture always reads the Black female body as a sign of sexual experience.” Even Black women who fall in line with notions of respectability are still coded as sexually available. Black women have remained fully aware of the criticisms they receive when they present a sexy image, even when they appear to have full agency over their own image creation, which makes Madonna’s ability to play with sexuality as she constantly reinvented herself even more infuriating. As hooks further explains, “In part, many Black women who are disgusted by Madonna’s flaunting of sexual experience are enraged because the very image of sexual agency that she is able to project and affirm with material gain has been the stick this society has used to justify its continued beating and assault on the Black female body.”
While hooks explains that Madonna (and other white figures like her, i.e. Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry) owe a cultural debt to Black women, what should also be mentioned is how Madonna’s sexual agency comes at the expense in Black women’s and Black queer culture. White women like Madonna are free to take what they like from Black cultures without having to deal with the repercussions the very ones who created the cultures face and are often ridiculed for. Instead they are seen as progressive, as the models of female empowerment. So it should come as no surprise that many Black women may be reluctant to use sexuality as a selling point in their art. However, a few take this route and manage to assert an amount of agency over the image they create.
Black women in music specifically have found ways to make “sex sell” as part of their brand. We saw it in the early 20th century with Josephine Baker. We saw it in the 1960s and beyond with Tina Turner. We saw it again in the 1990s with Lil Kim. In each case, all these women played on a stereotype of aggressive Black female sexuality. However, in all their cases, cis men were instrumental in developing that image for them.
More recently, several Black women have reached the pinnacle of success when they abandoned previous girl-next-door images for a brand that blatantly played on sexuality and pushed it to the forefront. Of all these women, it was probably Janet Jackson who created the blueprint in the early 1990s. During the 1980s, Jackson was a counterpart to her megastar brother in terms of pop success. She had top-selling albums and a videography that remains influential to this day. That phase of her success culminated in 1989 with her concept album Rhythm Nation 1814.
Many of us who were children or coming of age during that time still remember the many images that changed the game for Black women in music. Jackson’s choreography in videos such as “Escapade” and “Miss You Much” have been copied and spoofed many times over. “Rhythm Nation” presented a dystopian, militaristic landscape reflecting lyrics of a world gone wrong but still finding hope while we dance.
Then there was the janet (period) era. Four years after the Rhythm Nation era, Jackson re-emerged with a new persona. Gone was the masculine garb from videos such as “Alright” and “Rhythm Nation.” In its place was an ab-bearing siren singing openly about sexual pleasure and not in the sweet romantic way we heard with “Love Will Never Do Without You.” No, this Janet Jackson focused on the act itself with a demand for her pleasure from her partner. This would be the persona that has since colored Jackson’s music career with her lyrics reflecting her sexuality even after dressing more “modestly” after her marriage.
In a way, Janet Jackson provided the blueprint for contemporary Black women in music who decided to use sexuality as a prominent part of their personas in their music and visual imagery. This was where Kelis turned when she found that being cute and quirky did not provide her with the commercial success she thought. After making her name with the rage in “Caught out There” and the gothic creepiness of “Get Along with You,” Kelis also did a 180 with “Milkshake,” a song with a catchy hook and its fair share of sexual braggadocio. Like Jackson, Kelis also made a body transformation, working out to make it appear more toned. Even though it appears Kelis has traded her music career for a culinary life, she still has a respectable fan base who notes her influence in music and as a style icon, particularly in her earlier years when she presented a view of the “alternative” Black girl.
Interestingly, Rihanna and Beyoncé have both had a similar trajectory in selling sexuality in their work. Rihanna had her persona shaped as a girl next door type with just enough sexiness to make her palatable to Middle America. However, a more blatant sexiness and sexuality became her formula with her album A Good Girl Gone Bad. Gone were the dinner party dresses and the innocence of the old persona. In its place came leather and props from S&M shops, French maid costumes, and full on body-painted nudity. And with this persona, Rihanna also began to take more time with her art, releasing music at a slower pace but with more coherence in line with concept albums and not just a few hit singles with filler. And in addition to her music, Rihanna has become a mogul in other areas and a champion for women’s empowerment.
Perhaps Beyoncé has been most successful in her transformation although it should be noted that presenting an “acceptable” amount of sexiness in her younger years was part of the formula set out for her with Destiny’s Child, kind of the next evolution of Black middle class respectability sexiness. However, with the release of her self-titled album, dropped at midnight with no fanfare, Beyoncé changed the game of the entire industry in terms of promotion and visual images accompanying music. The album mostly focused on her relationship with her husband including sexual fantasy and her own gratification.
She would continue this line between music and image with Lemonade, which premiered on HBO as a visual album then followed with the release of album streams. But whereas her previous album was a celebration of her marriage, Lemonade dealt with the pain of infidelity and forgiveness within the context of Black women’s wider experiences and history in the United States. Beyoncé also continues to explore areas of Black empowerment and Black female experience in her stage shows and other visual images.
While Janet was the blueprint and women such as Kelis, Rihanna, and Beyoncé have followed in her footsteps, one woman has taken that path and perhaps made the most necessary progress on this path while deviating from it.
When Janelle Monáe released with her first widely distributed EP Metropolis, Suite I of IV: The Chase in 2007, she presented an image that blatantly played with science fiction tropes with an Afrofuturist leaning and perhaps had the most success in playing with an obvious persona. As the android Cindi Mayweather, Monáe explores issues of identity, citizenship, sexuality, romance, and humanity among others. And so for a 10-year run, she used this persona with her black-and-white clothing motif to create an entire scifi universe in which Cindi Mayweather becomes a rebel in her quest to live free and love who she chooses.
A combination of concept albums and music videos gave us an idea of Cindi’s world. For instance, we saw something up close and intimate with “Cold War” in which Monáe appears from the neck up singing the lyrics and at points breaking into tears. We saw an acknowledgment of historical context with “Many Moons” that depicts a fashion show/slave auction. We saw more of a celebration of Black womanhood and loving the self with images in “Yoga,” “Electric Lady,” and “Q.U.E.E.N.”
Through it all, many took Monáe’s affinity for suits and tuxedos as a sign of de-sexualizing and an attempt to differentiate herself from other artists who presented more sexualized images even though Monáe herself explained her chosen look had nothing to do with anyone else and was meant to be an homage to her parents who worked in service to provide for their family. Monáe incorporated this history of servitude into her work with themes of resistance and liberation sometimes through dance and the ability to be one’s self in the face of tyranny.
However, Monáe’s scifi universe is not the only thing that differentiated her from her predecessors who used sex to reinvent themselves (and it can be argued that Janet Jackson’s dystopian imagery in “Rhythm Nation” puts her in line with scifi imagery). When Monáe released her album Dirty Computer in April 2018, she did not simply present and celebrate her sexiness in a more unabashed way in “The Way You Make Me Feel.” She came out as queer. Pansexual specifically.
While women like Meshell Ndgeocello were always openly queer, Janelle’s declaration of pansexuality had the air of a metamorphosis, a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. She waited until she was ready to come out and made it part of her new work, which included a 48-minute emotion film based on the music from her album. With it, many noted that the Dirty Computer film felt more like a precursor to Cindi Mayweather’s rebellion, which found her on the run for daring to fall in love as an android.
The fact that Monáe outed herself while shedding the black-and-white part of the Cindi Mayweather persona is crucial in the line of Black women using sexuality to reinvent themselves. In her case, it is because Monáe actually presents queer sexuality, not just overt sexiness. Black women who are openly sexually queer in the mainstream are still few and far between, particularly within music. Monáe made a space for herself within Black spaces and does not shy away from Black experience in her work. However, queering that space as well outside of her persona has crucial implications for Black entertainment and social justice issues.
Monáe being a highly visible queer Black woman who does the work beyond her music puts her in line with queer and trans figures such as Marsha P. Johnson, Miss Major, Janet Mock, Audre Lorde, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, Opel Tometl, Johnetta Elzie, and other QUILTBAG women who have done so much for Black liberation while existing as queer in these spaces, overlapping with existing as Black in queer spaces. And it feels crucial that Monáe marked her place in Black music first before she felt comfortable and safe enough to come out on her own terms.
Monáe’s coming out also had repercussions beyond opening up a visible Black queer space. She has also made many in the industry as well as fans consider what it means to be a genius, a label that has eluded Black women creators for far too long. For the nearly ten years of her career, Monáe has carefully presented a performative identity in which she revealed herself to those who knew how to read between the lines to find all angles of her android analogy. As this profile explains, “Monáe presents liberation and identity as a performance. But it’s performance as a means of communication. If ever it served well to make an artist into an [sic] paragon for whichever intersecting lanes of black identity, she is a good fit for it. A black, queer woman and creator— a new breed of pop star.
Monáe didn’t find her voice in this new age of black political art; her voice was amplified.”
Black women playing with notions of sexuality and persona is nothing new in entertainment and popular culture. With the new Betty Davis documentary making the rounds, we are now seeing the woman who created one of the more recent pioneers in music pre-dating Janet Jackson by more than 20 years. However, the primary difference with Davis is that she made sex appeal part of her persona from the beginning. A recent release of some of her earlier unreleased work shows that Davis had just as much creativity and spark as her male contemporaries, but she would not release her self-titled debut until 1974, shedding the more melodic voice in favor of her trademark growl that fit more readily with the assertive and often lyrics that often got her banned.
Unlike Davis, the women discussed here at some point or another presented a type of girl next door or innocence that was subversive in its own way. It could be argued that Beyoncé as part of Destiny’s Child always had sexiness as part of her formula, but it was still presented in a way that allowed them to appear approachable in ways that sex symbols are not. Black women who make their own agency in presenting themselves sexually challenge how we consume them, not as passive objects of fantasy but as active subjects with their own demands in how they experience their own sexualities.
Considering Black women’s relationship with sexuality and the ability to own our own bodies and display pleasure with them when our bodies are constantly fetishized as sites of suffering, hardship, and pain, presenting ourselves as sexual beings with our own desires (or lack of) is not only subversive but also risky in its challenge to the gaze. Where non-Black women (and others) have often used Black women’s sexual expression as a means to affirm their own privilege and power, Black women have found our own liberation.
This is not to say that there are not still issues with respectability and those who will still see sexual deviance in Black women’s bodies regardless of how they are presented (i.e. Michelle Obama’s arms). We have always had to contend with notions of “fast-tailed girls” and what we did to deserve instances in which we are assaulted and abused. So Black women who use sexuality as part of the formula walk an intricate balance because Black women are simultaneously reviled and fetishized.
But Black women who continue to challenge notions of sexuality and “acceptable” expression are entirely necessary in providing a space to explore Black sexuality in all its expression. It is when heteronormative expressions are the dominant and only narrative that this becomes an issue, which is why Janelle Monáe’s openly queer sexual expression is so crucial.
I can’t help but let my mind wander that afternoon. I need noise. Sometimes any background noise will do, and as much as I like podcasts and music, it’s relatively easy to find background noise. But on this Sunday afternoon while you need noise to deep condition your hair, you’re all out of podcasts on your podcatcher. So for some reason, you decide to listen to an album you’ve only listened to once before and found it actually pretty good. I go into my music library and cue up Solange’s A Seat at the Table.
Coming Home is the story of Sally Hyde and Luke Martin, Sally the wife of a Marine who has just been sent off to Vietnam and Luke a veteran whose experience in the war has left him paralyzed. Even though the film takes place in 1968, Sally is the perfect example of the ideal American housewife that we think of from the 1950s, making her entire life around her husband Bob. However, when he leaves, she goes to volunteer at a veteran’s hospital even though she knows Bob would not approve. There she reconnects with her high school classmate Luke.
This past February marked 40 years since Coming Home‘s release. Definitely time for a reflection on it and the effect it’s had on me, especially since I finally saw it all uncut since those days before TCM aired films “uncut and commercial free.” This film was the one that made Hal Ashby my favorite American filmmaker for years.
Disclaimer: This essay was written 2 years ago soon after the loss of one of the most influential music artists of my time. A few things have been updated since then, but the original version still remains on my blog.