Why I'm Thankful for Janelle Monáe
by Anna Renfrew. Anna has recently finished her undergrad in Edinburgh and is now pursuing female empowerment, advocacy, and human rights projects. She loves Marvin Gaye and glitter.
Just when I thought Monáe the Bae couldn’t get any cooler after her incredible speech at Grammys earlier this year – she did. Back in January, Monáe took to the stage to address the industry and the world at large on issues regarding the #MeToo phenomenon and Time’s Up:
“To those who would dare silence us, we offer you two words: Time's up.... We have the power to undo the culture that does not serve us well," Monáe warned. "Let's work together, women and men, committed to creating safer work environments and equal pay."
I shared her powerful warning that ‘we are human beings … We come in peace, but we mean business’ on every social media platform at my disposal and fell in love with her forever.
A few months down the line and Monáe is once again proving herself to be pop culture’s biggest feminist icon of this year. 'PYNK', the second single on her new album Dirty Computer, preaches body positivity, champions female sexuality and undermines strict gender binaries – I didn’t realise quite how much I needed a vagina anthem until now. Judith Butler-esque in her expression of the fluidity of gender, she sings ‘deep inside, we’re all just pynk’, both challenging the binaries prescribed to constructs of gender and celebrating a universal, human quality that transcends rigid categories. This human quality, for which Monáe’s representation of the vagina comes to embody, could also allude to the ‘not all pussies are pink’ discourse. As a woman of colour, accompanied by women of a diverse range of skin tones in the video, the subversion of pink/pynk can be understand in the same context as women/womxn; namely, that ‘pynk’ does not refer to a singular understanding of female sexuality but to an intersectional, multiplicity of sexualities and identities. 'PYNK' provides a space for her to express female sexuality unashamedly. She refers to the ‘pynk’ as both the ‘tongue that goes down’ and ‘fingers in my’ and through this uplifting anthem captures a joyous celebration of female sexual pleasure. Identifying as pansexual, Monáe suggested that this album is for the young people who are struggling with their sexuality. The role of Tessa Thompson as Monáe’s lover in the video, opens up the possibilities for a celebration of queer women’s bodies.
Finally. Those trousers. In the video for the single, Monáe and her dancers are fashioned in very large, very pink, flowering trousers, for which the symbolism is glaring. This overt normalization of the vagina is so rare in mainstream pop-culture; yet, so crucial to women embracing their bodies through media representations free from the male gaze. The best thing about this intersectional, feminist iconography is that the design of every woman’s trousers is different, with a several of them not even wearing any. Here Monáe reinforces the idea that to be a woman can encompass a diverse range of experiences, body types and identities and that this is a wholly positive thing. She redefines the symbol of the vagina in terms in a trans-inclusive understanding of female pleasure.
Throughout the video she also sports pants reading empowering slogans such as ‘I grab back’. This explicit reference to Donald Trump’s infamous, misogynistic insistence that the way to interact with women is to ‘grab them by the pussy’ provides a glimmer of hope. Exposed in a soundbite in the lead up to his election, Trump’s policies and social commentary have lived up to this taster of his attitudes towards women. Monáe and her ever increasing popularity gives me hope that in this climate of sexism, women will continue to fight against oppression and inequality in creative, intelligent and humorous ways. Artists like Monáe are just one indicator of the ways in which the feminist movement continues to grow and reinvent itself.
As Monae states in her third single, 'Django Jane', ‘let the vagina have a monologue’. Finally.
For further discussion on the impact of Janelle Monáe and 'PYNK', get your hands on a copy of BOSHEMIA MAGAZINE // ISSUE 03: BODIES.