Gender Expression for Black Queer Women

Gender Expression for Black Queer Women

 
collage showing monochrome images of Janelle Monáe and Willow Smith
Janelle Monáe (left) and Willow Smith (right); collage original.

Introduction

How are some black women doing their gender expression today counter to historical expectations? I am interested in this as a research question because I would like to decode and expand upon “ideal” standards of femininity for black American women. By looking at music videos in which the artist strays from traditional modes of doing I will challenge what it means to be a “good” or “bad” black woman. I draw on scholarly sources to explain the concepts of “respectability politics,” “heteronormative assumptions” and “social desirability,” which each inform my analysis. There is an external and internal pressure on black women to perform their assigned gender identity based on normative standards of behaving as female. Each article studies “ideal” merits of femininity based on the use of cosmetics, dress-wear, demeanor and sexuality. If black women accept and perform these standards of beauty then they have a greater chance of being socially mobile in American society. For this reason, I will challenge dominant expressions of femininity with an intersectional lens that studies how one’s race and sexuality may affect their gender expression, specifically in modern music videos.

American Rap and R&B singers/songwriters like Willow Smith (age eighteen) and Janelle Monáe (age thirty-three) actively vocalize their nontraditional expressions of womanhood through their race, sexual encounters, and physical appearance. In their music videos, these two black and openly queer creatives engage in a political discourse that contrast ideal standards of femininity. I analyze two of Janelle Monáe’s music videos, “Make Me Feel” and “Django Jane,” both released in 2018, as case studies. “Make Me Feel” suggests Monáe’s feminine energy through “soft” clothing, the use of make-up and genteel gestures, whereas “Django Jane” has a more masculine tone. In this video, Monáe rests on a throne in a suit and a bow-tie. Monáe raps about the specific ways in which her own gender expression constantly fluctuates and how the choice to be “different” is self-fulfilling. I also examine two of Willow Smith’s  music videos, “Female Energy” (2015) and “Pretty Girlz” (2019). These videos express Smith’s gender identity as androgynous. In “Pretty Girlz,” Smith uses digital shape-shifting to readjust her facial structure, elongating and shortening it throughout the piece. This creative choice makes Smith’s physical appearance unidentifiable as male or female. Through their aesthetic decisions, Monáe’s and Smith’s expressions of femininity challenge the norm. This prompts the question as to whether or not  intersectional identity can complicate or transform the concept of femininity based on the relationship between blackness, sexuality, and one’s chosen gender expression.

Literature Review: How has this topic been studied thus far?

In order to approach my research question, How are some black women doing gender expression today?, I must refer to the existing literature on the intersectionality of a black women’s identity. The existing literature on the topic of “doing gender” or “doing race” study gender and race as political constructs that are reinforced by the systemic groupings of “men” and “women” or the act of labeling people with collective identities that are “Black” or “White.” The existing literature that challenges the act of viewing race and gender as binary include: “Doing Gender” by Candace West and Don Zimmerman (1987), “Black and White Women’s perspectives on Femininity” by Elizabeth R. Cole (2007), and “Ain’t I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty and the Politics of Race” by Maxine Leeds Craig (2002). These three works use an abstract lens to deconstruct  gender and race binaries and challenge the notion that they are fundamental aspects of the human experience. In brief, the existing literature studies the topic of intersectionality based on “respectability politics,” “heteronormative assumptions,” and “social desirability.”

Other existing literature on the topic of intersectionality and black femininity includes: “Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment” by Patricia Collins (2000), “Black Women’s Negotiation of Black Femininity in Rap Music and Music Video” by Shanara R. Rein-Brinkley (2008), “The Missing Colors of the Rainbow: Black Queer Resistance” by Elena Kiesling (2001), and “Theory as Liberatory Practice” by bell hooks (1991). Through a “holistic framework of liberatory activism”1 each of these scholarly sources complicate the oppressive hierarchies that limit black women in American society. When working to highlight the black feminist’s consciousness in American modern music videos, these theorists find a social relationship between sexuality, gender expression and race. This intersection of identities can liberate marginalized communities in multiple ways. For this reason, it is crucial to engage in conversations of queerness that center blackness in order to directly combat historical mechanisms of oppression.

My Intervention in this Study

The underlying connection between each of my sources is the internal and external pressure on black American women to perform their assigned gender identity in order to be socially mobile in their given race. This behavioral performance challenges the relationship between a black woman and societal standards of femininity. For this reason, I will question which aspects of one’s individuality and authenticity are lost when we choose to view parts of society such as race, gender, gender expression, sex and sexuality as “fundamental” or “natural” notions within the human experience. This is an important question to consider because if society creates spaces for individual forms of expression then the pressure that one may feel to represent the entirety of a group based on unattainable benchmarks of femininity (or based on the White hegemony) will begin to be alleviated. When studying the standards of “appropriateness” for black women, it is important to highlight the significance of dialogical art such as modern music videos. Dialogical art includes grassroots, commercial, and creative artwork that sparks humanitarian action through a political, literal, collaborative, and relational exchange. Through communal conversation, differing networks of identification coexist in an aesthetic experience that works to foster a participatory forum between separate classes, religions, nationalities and races. For this reason, American Rap and R&B singers/songwriters, Willow Smith and Janelle Monáe create dialogical art that challenges the formation of their “concrete identities” as black women through their “non-traditional” songs and performances about sexuality and gender.

Method and Data

My methods and data include a content analysis of Smith and Monáe’s song lyrics and performance in their modern music videos. American Rap and R&B singers/songwriters like Smith and Monáe actively vocalize their non-traditional expressions of “womanhood” through their race, sexual encounters, and physical appearance. This is appropriate data for my topic because music videos give musicians the platform to detangle the complexities of an intersectional identity and their feelings of pain or struggle through their lyrics and creative visual performance.

An artist is able to create space to imagine structural constructs through an explorative practice that allows the individual to theorize or imagine a “new reality.” For instance, Bell Hooks emphasizes the importance of “word[s] as action.” The words that Smith and Monáe organize to simultaneously liberate themselves and marginalized communities creates a political conversation that ordinary people can actively engage in. Smith and Monáe challenge societal standards of femininity through their dress wear, gestures, demeanor, race, gender expression and sexuality. It is important to note that the very essence of being a black female is already deemed as being “less acceptable” or “undesirable” in American society. For this reason, Smith and Monáe’s choice to explore the complexities of their queerness in modern music videos will allow me to analyze a “holistic framework of liberatory activism”2

Findings

Make Me Feel” suggests Monáe’s feminine energy through “soft” clothing, the use of make-up and “delicate” gestures. In this music video, Monáe dances with another woman as she unapologetically describes her act of “feeling good” as “so good, so good, so fuckin’ real.” Throughout the video, Monáe powerfully struts around in stiletto heels and a polka dot pantsuit. The ways in which Monáe chooses to express her feelings of tenderness for another woman seem explosive and in many ways uncontrollable. Monáe challenges what it means to be a “good” or “bad” black woman. This is an interesting point to consider because although Monáe is expressing her feelings of “goodness” through a feminine demeanor which includes the use of makeup, dress wear and societal standards of beauty, her “queerness” contradicts parts of Monáe’s feminine performance when compared to a heterosexist ideology. According to Rein-Brinkley’s study (2005), black womanhood can be expressed through an intersectional lens which simultaneously contrasts and highlights ideal standards of femininity.3

In “Django Jane,” Monáe and her full female-presenting cast highlight a more traditionally masculine tone. In this video, Monáe rests on a throne in a suit and a bow-tie. Monáe raps about the specific ways in which her own gender expression constantly fluctuate, and how the choice to be “different” is self-fulfilling. It is important to note that there is a contradiction of Monáe’s gender expression throughout the music video. For instance, Monáe is wearing a pantsuit, her nails are painted, and she is wearing earrings, and red lipstick. However, Monáe’s gestures are more aggressive, sharp, and stoic, which lend a masculine presence as she sits on her throne surrounded by other women. Monáe makes references to “pussy riots,” “pussy diets,” and urges her audience to “Let the vagina have a monologue” as she asks her listener, “Member when they said I looked too man-ish?”

Elizabeth R. Cole’s “Black and White Women’s perspectives on Femininity” lists five elements of dominant femininity: “beauty, demeanor (traits), marriage, family arrangements, and the White race which acts as the ‘benchmark’ of femininity for Black and White women.”5 Monáe’s music videos support the notion that one’s ability to properly express their assigned gender identity is viewed as an “achievement” or a “role enactment and display.”6 This is because “Gender is . . . routine, methodical, and recurring” and Monáe’s choice to contradict her given sex (female) and gender expression (feminine and masculine) allows one to notice the fluidity of these terms.

In comparison to Monáe’s music videos, Willow Smith’s  “Female Energy” (2015) and “Pretty Girlz”(2019) express Smith’s gender identity as androgynous. It is important to note that Smith has not endorsed or released the music video, “Female Energy,.” Therefore, the choices of representation in this music video aren’t explicitly hers/theirs, but a fan’s. Smith sings about different aspects of her/their life being “out of [her/their] control.” As Smith claims to be “lost” and in search of an escape in an alternate universe where she/they can work to save the world. Throughout this fan-made video, the editor cuts to different clips in which Smith is wearing loose T-shirts, baggy pants, a short hairstyle, and a baseball cap. One could argue that the energy in which Smith is working to artistically exude is androgynous or fluid as she sings, “How you feel is not my problem” and “Stop trying to make it complicated.”

In “Doing Gender,” West and Zimmerman state that, “A society is partitioned by ‘essential’ differences between women and men and placement in a sex category is both relevant and enforced, doing gender is unavoidable.”7 This is a significant point because Smith wrote this song about “female energy,” and yet she openly identifies as androgynous or fluid. Therefore, it is crucial to discuss the ways in which “Women can be seen as unfeminine but that does not make them un-female.”8 and how Willow Smith’s sex and chosen gender expression support this claim.

In “Pretty Girlz,” Smith also creatively challenges societal standards of femininity through alternative visual effects. For instance, throughout the music video, Smith uses digital shape-shifting to re-adjust her facial structure as elongated or shortened. This creative choice makes Smith’s physical appearance seem unidentifiable as male or female. Smith sings:

They want the girls with the hips, they want the girls in the movies, want the girls with the prettiest smile, seemingly perfect life . . . Little do we all know that the vanity we see, we all share, we all share.9

And later:

I want a girl who’s got a light that makes me squint when I look in her eyes. She doesn’t give a fuck when emotions run amuck . . . Want a girl who knows herself like her favorite book right on the shelf that she’s read a million times.10

Smith’s use of “they” versus “I” highlights the significance of her own sexual desire which is said to be for women who are a particular type of “pretty girl.” The “perfect” girl that Smith desires is someone who “knows herself” rather than a superficial design of a girl who has a seemingly “perfect life.” Through Smith’s discussion of her/their interests in women, the listener can then infer the queer perspective that Smith imagines having on another “planet” or in another life.

Relevant in interpreting Smith’s music videos is “The Missing Colors of the Rainbow: Black Queer Resistance” by Elena Kiesling (2001). This is because Kiesling argues that there are there are, and historically have been crucial intersections between blackness and queerness that are constantly overlooked. However, Kiesling states that the black voices in queer activism are often silenced throughout American history.11 For this reason, Kiesling hopes to study the social relation between sexuality, gender expression and race.  If one were to engage in a political recognition of multiple identities, then a conversation of queerness that centers blackness can simultaneously liberate queer black women in American society.

 

Discussion and Conclusion

In conclusion, I have found that aspects of one’s individuality and authenticity are lost when we choose to view parts of society such as race, gender, gender expression, sex and sexuality as “fundamental” or “natural” parts of the human experience. Janelle Monáe and Willow Smith inherently challenge these “fundamental aspects” of the human experience such as gender, gender expression, sexuality, and race. This is because as black and queer women, Monáe and Smith, fail to achieve Cole’s five attributes of femininity: “beauty, demeanor (traits), marriage, family arrangements, and the white race which acts as the ‘benchmark’of femininity for black and white women.”12 According to social constructs of beauty and respectability politics, as a result of Smith and Monáe’s queer identity, black race, and fluid gender expression, Smith and Monáe are socially devalued in comparison to other White and black American women who conform to America’s heterosexist hegemony. The concept of queerness allows for individual forms of expression. For this reason, through the use of dialogical art such as modern music videos, Smith and Monáe create political conversations that ordinary people are more likely to access and understand.

  1. bell hooks, “Theory as Liberatory Practice,” Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, no. 4.1 (1991): 1-12.
  2. bell hooks, “Theory as Liberatory Practice,” 8.
  3. Shanara Reid-Brinkley, “The Essence of Res(ex)pectability: Black Women’s Negotiation of Black Femininity in Rap Music and Music Video,” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, 8(1): 236-260.
  4. Elizabeth R. Cole, “Black and White Women’s Perspectives on Femininity,” American Psychological Association, 2007: 1-9.[/f9] Otherwise, if an American woman fails to achieve these five attributes of femininity then this will result in her social devaluation.  Also relevant is Candace West and Don Zimmerman’s statement that “A society is partitioned by ‘essential’ differences between women and men and placement in a sex category is both relevant, enforced and doing gender is unavoidable.”4Candace West and Don Zimmerman, “Doing Gender,” Gender and Society, 1987, 1(2): 125-151.
  5. West and Zimmerman, “Doing Gender,” 125.
  6. West and Zimmerman, “Doing Gender,” 137.
  7. West and Zimmerman, “Doing Gender,” 137.
  8. Willow Smith, “Pretty Girlz”posted by willowsmith on YouTube, Juluy 18, 2019.
  9. Willow Smith, “Pretty Girlz.”
  10. Elena Kiesling, “The Missing Colors of The Rainbow: Black Queer Resistance,” European Journal of American Studies, 2017 8(1): 1-18.
  11. Cole, Cole, “Black and White Women’s Perspectives on Femininity.”
 
Back to Top
CONFLUENCE