Binary gendered expectations and pressures of racism, misogyny, and homophobia work in tandem and contribute to the erasure of queer Black female representation. This study asks: How do leading Black women musical artists express their gender identity and sexuality in ways that subvert mainstream ideas of typical womanhood? How are queer Black women challenging expectations of traditional femininity for Black women? To explore these questions, I examine musical artists Janelle Monáe’s and Syd’s song lyrics and music videos and analyze how they communicate their queerness through their physical presentation and their artistic expressions. I find that they reimagine femininity and womanhood by: 1. denying stereotypes of Black femininity and of normative expectations of queerness; and 2. expressing their sexual freedom. Finally, I address the social and historical impact these expressions have as they enter mainstream media.
Standards of femininity and female sexuality are exceedingly explicit in Western culture, particularly for Black women, due to the layered pressures of gendered racism. I explore how the pressures of gender expectations are limiting in more complex ways for Black women, and how this is reflected in the lack of representation of queer Black women in music and other contemporary media. This is tied to the fact that social mobility is often reliant on one’s level of “respectability” or adherence to the heteronormative, white-adjacent, misogynistic standard to which Black women are held.
As my case studies, I analyze the music and expression (through hair and fashion) of artists Syd (age 28, lead singer of the band The Internet) and Janelle Monáe (age 35, solo artist). Janelle Monáe is widely known for her disruptions of traditional “womanhood” through fashion and songwriting. Monáe is known for sporting daring silhouettes and bold colors, natural hair and dramatic up-dos, and, most famously, a wide array of suits which have positioned her as a leader in experimental, gender non-conforming style. In contrast, the up-and-coming Syd is known for her “boyish” look: t-shirts, hoodies, baggy pants, little, if any, makeup, and her signature natural mohawk or close buzzcut. Syd has been overt about her queerness since the start of her career. She is one of few masculine-presenting women musicians currently in the public eye and is not hesitant to express her lesbian identity in her songwriting.
As musicians, Monáe and Syd exist in a field known for perpetuating and heavily encouraging limiting ideas of sexualized womanhood. Both artists uniquely challenged these expectations through their individual physical and artistic expression. Ultimately, my analysis will shed light on ways gendered racism, misogyny, and homophobia are being challenged by women like them in contemporary media, and especially how their authorship and creative control of their image gives them power to define themselves.
In the classic article “Doing Gender,” Candace West and Don Zimmerman discuss the Western binary gender system as rooted in constructs created by society, and describe the specific traits and behaviors attributed to presentations of “male” or “female.”1 This will be helpful in dissecting the gender expectations that Syd and Monáe break. Ideas of gender presentation are often tied to heteronormative expectations; women are often valued by their desire for men and how successfully they receive heterosexual male attention. But what changes when we consider gender identity in a Black, queer context? The article “Lipstick or timberlands? Meanings of gender presentation in black lesbian communities” explores gender roles of Black queer women in New York. In this article, Dr. Mignon Moore, whose scholarship revolves around topics of Black womanhood, sexuality, and relationships, analyzes how presentation is not only part of developing and expressing self-identity, but in creating relationship dynamics and hierarchies within queer Black communities. The roles often, though not necessarily, parallel heteronormative structures of masculinity and femininity, as outlined in “Doing Gender.”
This research will aid in my analysis of both Monáe and Syd’s individual presentations—where they fit on the spectrum of gender expression and what expectations they bend. Mainstream contemporary femininity is rich with diversity, however, extremely white-centric. While “Doing Gender” is quite comprehensive in its analysis of gender and culture, it does not explore how added pressures of race or ethnicity interact with gender expression and sexuality. Moore’s article is extremely important to this study because it provides a background for the range of Black queer women’s ideas of femininity in relation to their queerness. This will be particularly important for exploring Syd’s gender presentation. As a “stereotypically masculine” presenting person there is far less representation for individuals with identities like hers in popular music.
In order to further explore this, I will reference Elena Kiesling’s “The missing colors of the rainbow: Black queer resistance,” which seeks to unpack the erasure of Black queer history in LGBT liberation movements. It centers on the “whiteness of queerness,” i.e. how such identities are more easily defined and accepted for white individuals than Black individuals.2 Kiesling succinctly describes the layered nature of gendered racism: “if the lens through which black life is most commonly framed is first and foremost assumed to be male, and the lens through which queerness is framed is almost always white, then black queer women are marginalized within both the fight for black liberation and queer equality.”3 My analysis will address how my case studies shed light on or subvert these layers of marginalization.
To explore how the artists’ authorship creates differences between how female actors and dancers in their music videos are portrayed in comparison to the “mainstream” representation of women in music videos, I refer to “The Essence of Res (ex) pectability: Black Women’s Negotiation of Black Femininity in Rap Music and Music Video,” by Shanara Reid-Brinkley. This article explores how Black women are affected by the objectified and oversexualized images in music videos. This research explores Black women’s voices on their representation in media- how it relates to respectability politics, misogyny, and racism. The article is framed around the fact that Black women’s autonomy over their image has been taken from them and has been made subject to the male gaze. By centering the voices of Black women, this article will strengthen my analysis by providing insight as to how Black women’s typical portrayal in music videos is contrasted with Monáe and Syd’s representation of themselves and the actresses/dancers in their videos.
Similarly, chapter six of Maxine-Leeds Craig’s Ain’t I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race discusses “the specifically gendered ways racial domination [expresses] itself in the lives of men and women.”4 Craig discusses how expectations of hairstyling for men and women differed in the 1950s and 1960s. Though these expectations were rooted in racism, the resulting oppression was different for men than for women, exposing how added pressures of sexism exacerbate expectations of Black women. Craig also analyzes how texturism and hair length are linked to judgments of femininity. Although the Black is Beautiful movement brought about an appreciation for some natural hairstyles, most prominently afros, those with naturally very tight, textured, or short hair were not embraced. Such hair types were seen as “unkempt” and lacking femininity and were not considered presentable without styling or processing. Considering this history puts contemporary expectations of length and straightness of Black women’s hair into context. Neither of my case studies seem to adhere to these styles, and as times have changed, strict societal expectations of hair have also loosened. However, Black women’s hair still has a powerful role in the performance of gender. Ingrid Banks discusses this in her book Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness. Black women are under greater scrutiny than other races because societal definitions of “femininity” require assimilation to whiteness. “Hair Matters” along with Ain’t I a Beauty Queen‘ will help me contextualize my case studies with expectations for the gender performance of Black women.
Methods and Data
Both artists utilize visual media to accompany their music and/or make statements related to the songs. For my research, I conduct a content analysis of several songs and music videos by (and featuring) Janelle Monáe and Syd. (Syd is a member of the band, The Internet, so data pertaining to her will be songs and videos of the band.) I will cover the lyrics and music videos of the following songs: “Special Affair” (2016) and “Come Over” (2018) by the Internet, as well as “Pynk,” “Make Me Feel,” and “Django Jane” (all released in 2018), by Janelle Monáe. I will be scrutinizing the imagery in their music videos as well as their song titles and lyrics to explore how each of my case studies’ styles connects to their identities and to standards of gender and beauty. I will explore how the videos contrast expectations of how women in music should appear and what themes they can discuss. My points of analysis include images related to race, gender, sex, sexuality, womanhood, femininity, masculinity, fashion choices, and the roles and choreography of background actors and dancers. I will be analyzing how each video uses these factors to express the individual’s identity and how those expressions are contrary to societal expectations of Black womanhood.
Janelle Monáe’s music video for the song “Pynk” raised a great amount of controversy when it was first released in early 2018 due to its bold visuals. The song, for the most part, has a soft pop style, which is reflected by a light pink color palette in the video. The lyrics of “Pynk” present a celebration of intimacy, femininity, queerness, and the female body. Throughout the video, a cast of all Black women cruise through a pink desert laughing and dancing together. They wear bright bold outfits in scenes where they are outdoors, and soft, lacey, light pink outfits in bedroom scenes. Most of the cast have natural hairstyles, including cropped cuts, puffed updos, locks, and box braids. Monáe sports more dramatic styles and outfits involving lots of accessories like flowers and stars in her hair.
The most contested scenes of the music video are when Monáe stands with other women in the desert wearing pink leotards and oversized, pink, vulva-shaped pants. Their movements highlight the symbolism of the pants; they signal downwards in accordance with lyrics like, “pink like the inside of your—” In some scenes, a woman peeks her head out from between the legs of Monáe’s pants, making the pants appear caricature-like. Though somewhat jarring, the pants do also function as a beautiful piece of fashion, perhaps to demystify the vagina, which is referenced to only in euphemisms in the lyrics such as “pink like the tongue that goes down, pink like the paradise found.” Most of the outfits in the video are quite revealing. One group of clips show the women enjoying each other’s company in both playful and sexual ways—without the obvious, flattening sexualization typical of female dancers and background actors in popular music videos.
These depictions of Black women’s bodies highlight women’s sexuality as defined by themselves and their relationships to each other, not that of the male gaze. The song builds off of the common idea that colors are gendered—blue being for boys and pink for girls. Monáe references the gender binary and heteronormative expectations, exclaiming that “boy it’s cool if you got blue, we got the pink—” suggesting that if her womanhood means she cannot have access to other aspects of “boyhood,” then she and other queer women have everything they need within their own femininity and queerness. Although the video appears to be grounded in images of “femininity” and biological womanhood, the subtext of the song is set in sexual freedom.
This video is in great contrast with the Monáe’s “Django Jane.” In this song, Monáe leans into expressions of masculinity in both her lyrics and her visuals. Musically, the song is far more intense; whereas Monáe whisper-sings in “Pynk,” she raps with full force in Django Jane, tackling topics of the silencing she has experienced as a Black woman as well as the value of women’s empowerment. The video includes darker colors and indoor sets where Monáe is at the head of a table or seated on a throne surrounded by a cast of Black women wearing sunglasses and black leather jackets. In terms of style, she is set in her masculinity and femininity simultaneously- paralleling the themes of the song. She wears a suit and tie matched with high heeled boots, bright red lipstick, colorful nails, and a long synthetic braid.
Her body language contradicts that of the “Pynk” video dramatically. While she is extremely poised in both, she is far more still in “Django Jane.” Her movements and positioning can be considered far more masculine than in other videos. In many shots, she speaks directly to the camera using her hands for emphasis and gesticulation. She addresses her style in the lyrics, saying, “remember when they used to say I looked too mannish?” In the past, Monáe has been the subject of ridicule for not presenting feminine enough due to her signature affinity for pantsuits. However, in this video, Monáe embraces the masculine and feminine aspects of her personality and uses them both as sources of power to exclaim that women are not to be taken for granted: “We gave you life, we gave you birth, we gave you God, we gave you Earth, we fem the future, don’t make it worse, you want the world? Well, what’s it worth?” In this song and video, Monáe is loud, direct, and self-possessed in her intentions. This bold reclamation of space through fashion and songwriting addresses the expectations that women should be quiet, subservient, and complacent by being the complete opposite.
In her song, “Make Me Feel,” Monáe expresses the sexual freedom she touches on in “Pynk” with the forwardness she expresses in “Django Jane.” The “Make Me Feel” video does not engage in subtlety or subtext; Monáe is outright in her assertion of her queerness and her right to sexual exploration and erotic freedom. The premise of the video involves Monáe engaging with romantic/sexual interests at a dance club. Every aspect of the video is loud and colorful. Upon entering, the singer wears a sequined black and white striped jacket with a bejeweled bustier top and a straightened pixie cut hairstyle, and her female romantic interest wears a similarly bold outfit. They are met by another version of Monáe who seems surer and more confident in her sexuality, sporting sunglasses, a bleached-blond pixie cut, and a multicolored pantsuit.
Her male romantic/sexual interest wears Bantu knots and a colorful leather jacket. During the pre-chorus, Monáe runs to and fro between her romantic interests, dancing sexually with each of them. Then, the three come to dance together, illustrating Monáe’s sexual fluidity as “an emotional sexual bender,” as she claims in the song.
The dancers have a wide range of outfits, from full bodysuits to tank tops with cropped jean shorts, and many wear their natural hair. As in her other videos, Monáe highlights Black women dancers in ways that do not oversexualize them. In one scene, Monáe crawls through the dancers’ legs, all in colorful tights, as she reaches through and touches them—a playful illustration of her sexual exploration. Ultimately, “Make Me Feel,” is a celebration of Monáe’s sexual fluidity. The lyrics describe her jubilance in discovering this sexual freedom as “so good, so good, so fuckin’ real,” while expressing the sentiment that she cannot control the way she feels: “That’s just the way that I feel, yeah. Please! I can’t help it!” In addition, her femininity as expressed in the three videos referenced here does not deny her queerness in any way, challenging ideas expectations that to desire women one must be masculine. “Make Me Feel” has a triumphant tone, demonstrating the pride the artist feels in her identity. The expressive styles, bright colors, eclectic scenes, and joyful dancing appear to be an embrace of the self. Monáe explores her body, her gender expression, and her queerness, which are individual to her- and in doing so provides representation for Black queer women and queer women of color in general who identify similarly.
The way Syd’s self-identity is expressed is completely different from Monáe’s. As opposed to being outright and intentionally political with her expressions of gender and queerness, Syd is far more understated. This is exemplified in the music video for the song, “Special Affair.” The simple black-and-white video is quite similar to other R&B or rap videos. It consists of Syd, the front-woman of the band, singing about wanting to have sex with a girl after a party. In the background, a party ensues with people dancing, drinking, and smoking.
The only atypical thing about the video is the lack of sexualization in shots of background dancers, as one would expect in a video with this premise. Syd wears a black sweatshirt and dark jeans, with her hair shaved into her signature mohawk. Besides her traditionally feminine voice, nothing about the song, lyrics, or music video would be considered unorthodox if Syd were replaced by a heterosexual male lead singer. Her queerness is expressed in her style and hair, her body language, and her lyrics, which align with standards of typical masculinity.
The same is true in the music video for “Come Over,” though it has more narrative content than “Special Affair.” In the video, which Syd directed, each of the band members connect with dreamgirl or dreamboy-like characters, for which each member’s personality is perfectly matched. Syd recreates the trope seen in many teenage romantic comedies where typically a male love interest throws rocks up at a female protagonist’s window, hoping to get her attention. Syd’s position as a protagonist in the video among her male and mostly heterosexual band is political in that it is a unique representation of a Black masculine-presenting lesbian woman in a video, but not necessarily in that the intent was to be political. As the video cuts through each band member’s relationship, it becomes clear that all of them are portrayed as parallel to each other.
Though the romantic/sexual tension between Syd and her romantic interest is shown more than the other pairings, in no other way are they presented any differently from the other relationships in the video. All of the band members and romantic interests are Black, aside from one romantic interest who is a white male. Each of the “dream girl” characters have natural hairstyles, and the band members, including Syd, have close cut or shaved styles, aside from two members who have locks.
Syd’s expression through lyrics and videos differ from Monáe’s in that they are not outright in their political intent. Syd is simply acting freely in her personal identity, expressing her queerness as nothing more than it is—a characteristic about herself, not her entire being. She subverts most ideas of what a woman in R&B looks and behaves by existing in her true self and expressing it with the platform of her music. In doing so, Syd provides representation for “unorthodox” who do not adhere to the standards of heterosexuality or femininity that women in music are often held to.
Visual culture and identity politics have become ever more present in large scale political discussion. Many celebrities and artists use markers of identity as political tools, meaning personal presentation through fashion and visuals have become a more and more important vehicle for political commentary. For musicians, this means that they as artists rely equally on their music as well as their music videos and fashion choices to express themselves. As Black women in the music industry, there is a long history of expectations for presentation that artists like Monáe and Syd face when it comes to expressing their individuality. Both use their fashion and visual media to exist in their truths which deny these expectations. Monáe and Syd’s unique self expressions as Black, queer women contribute to the diversity of Black women in the mainstream. They re-contextualize womanhood and femininity by denying stereotypes of Black femininity and of normative expectations of queerness and by expressing their sexual freedom.
For queer people, outward presentation is of particular gravity because presentation often holds great insight into a queer person’s disposition. These markers, such as “clothing, hair, physical stance, the presence or absence of makeup,” become symbols utilized by queer women to control how they are perceived and where they fit in the spectrum of lesbian archetypes.5 Monáe shows a great range of gender-coded imagery to express the variety that “womanhood” represents to her. She never seems to subscribe to either the masculine or feminine extremes of expression; even in “Pynk,” dressed in a pink leotard and with feminine makeup, Monáe expresses her sexual freedom with a boldness that completely challenges expectations of female silence or complacency. Her unique forthrightness in her demand for queer, Black female sexual autonomy strays completely from typical depictions of femininity in music and media.
Expressing gender nonconformity as a Black woman is particularly difficult, since the times of colonization and slavery, Black women have had to strive to achieve standards of white femininity to survive and combat one of two major misogynistic stereotypes: 1. the flattened, over sexualized “jezebel,” who is ridiculed for being too feminine and appealing to the male gaze; and, 2. when she fails to make herself attractive to men, the “mammy,” a masculinized, altruistic caregiver. “Black women need to perform or mimic some degree of white femininity to gain patriarchal protection,” and when they achieve this “proper” standard of femininity they are applauded as prime examples of Black womanhood.6 Contemporarily, when women “fail” to attract men because of their outspokenness or non-feminine fashion sense, i.e. rejection of standards of heterosexual femininity, they are often called “lesbians” by those who seek to “reduce them to silence.” According to these patriarchal standards, the ultimate failure for a woman is to fail to desire men. This is why presenting masculine traits as a woman, specifically as a Black, visibly queer woman, can be extremely dangerous: because of how such representation challenges the very structures that put men in positions of power to begin with.7
In “Django Jane,” Monáe sports a suit and tie, which have been her signature since the early days of her career, and highlights a strong, forward sense of self, which can be attributed to a masculine attitude. She asserts herself and her demands for Black women to be heard through visuals of herself and dancers sat around a long meeting table paired with the lyrics, “hit the mute button, let the vagina have a monologue.” She recalls “when they used to say I look too manish,” referencing how not only she but also queer women who do not adhere to strict feminity, like Syd, experience ridicule at their lack of femininity.
While it may appear as though Syd’s expressions of love and self are not political in comparison to Monáe’s, every expression of gender, especially in such a carefully curated context like music videos, communicates something meaningful and specific about the artist. Her nonchalance creates a sense of ambiguity, however, “‘ambiguous’ sex indicators are sex indicators nonetheless.”8 Although it is simpler to assume that even in queerness one must adhere to either a masculine or feminine identity, such binary structures only exacerbate racist and misogynistic assertions about marginalized people.
In the same way our body language and fashion choices can deliberately or subconsciously say something about ourselves, allowing those who see us to make snap judgments about the type of people we are, Syd simply exists in her masculine physical presentation and feminine artistic sentiments, representing, like Monáe, a point on the spectrum which is neither one or the other. Standing tall in these ambiguous identities is powerful not only because of the representation they provide, but because of the sexual freedom they stand for. “The calculated, nonrandom use of gender display suggests they are enacting a public, visible manifestation of women who are in control of their own sexuality, and it represents behavior that is at the very core of a philosophy of women’s liberation.”9
These expressions of sexual freedom are also unique because of how they differ from most representations of Black women’s sexuality in music videos. Typical representations tend to depict women’s body parts as accessories to appeal to either the viewer or male artist’s gaze.10However, many heterosexual female artists also depict themselves and their background dancers in similar ways.
Because they center queer women, my case studies exist in a difficult position. As women, Monáe and Syd are familiar with the objectification women in music and media often experience, yet, as queer people expressing their romantic and sexual attraction to other women, they are in a position to sexualize them. Syd’s visuals do not contribute to the objectification of Black female bodies. In “Come Over,” connections are represented through substantial quality time in each relationship, despite the song having obvious sexual connotations. In the video for “Special Affair,” which has even more overtly sexual musical tones, none of the sexualized bodies typical of such music videos are present. Syd’s work seems to highlight sensuality and the beauty of Black queer love without the use of objectification. Monáe, however, takes a completely different approach. Her videos do include visuals of close ups of dancers’ legs and buttocks in revealing clothing.
As someone with an ambiguous sexuality and gender expression, Monáe herself has experienced the sexualization placed on Black women. However, as demonstrated best in “Pynk,” she frames Black women as the holders of a sexualizing gaze toward other women who invite and reciprocate it. Her authorship subverts the perspective from which music videos are normally viewed.
In “Make Me Feel” she explores her own sexual fluidity freely and celebrates the beauty of Black women’s autonomy over their sexuality. As Reid-Brinkley aptly describes, “Black women’s bodies become exchange resources in a heteronormative black culture. A black woman’s treasure”—i.e., her body, particularly her sexual body parts—“[are] to be exchanged for a black man’s protection and honor.”11 In “Pynk,” Monáe addresses the objectification of women’s private body parts literally through wearing oversized, vagina-shaped pants, as if to create a caricature of sexual objectification. In some points of the video, Monáe’s rumored partner at the time, actress Tessa Thompson, peaks her head out between Monáe’s pant legs, another nod to queer sexual enjoyment. Monáe denies the transactional nature of sexual objectification in this video. She addresses men throughout the lyrics without ever including them on screen, highlighting women and her voice as the focus. When the queer imagery in her work is considered beyond surface level appearance, it can be seen that Monáe’s videos are a celebration of female epowerment, Black beauty, and queer desire.
Janelle Monáe and Syd are just two examples of artists entering the mainstream who create positive or empowering representations of Black queer expression. As women, they have a particular value because of how deeply representations in media affect young girls in such a visual and media driven society; as an interviewee in Hair Matters contests, “growing up in America may indeed shape black women’s habits given the images of beauty they see in the media.”12 Human beings are creatures of comparison; “individuals and groups often gauge their identity in relationship to those who are not like them, which can provide insight and understanding of who they are and how they fit into society.” By expressing their unique interpretations of womanhood, my case studies not only provide representation for those who identify closely with them, but for people who relate in that they have been silenced by the weight of various marginalized identities.
As described by Elena Kiesling, “a colorblind society that leads to the exclusion of people of color, some of them queer, often goes hand in hand with a homonormative structure in which the norm is not only marked by sexuality, but also by race.”13 No factor of oppression functions independently. This is why it is vital to use a scope of intersectionality when examining current patterns of gendered racism: because to consider Black women’s present reality, without looking through the lens of the various modes of historical, deep-rooted, systemic oppression Black women have faced, is to choose to view only a surface layer, to minimize large-scale patterns which are a direct result of white supremacy in global society. Addressing Black, queer women’s experiences can aid in unpacking the various, layered symptoms of a long history of fear and inhumanity, and is vital to approaching how to best move forward in the hopes of intersectional, humanistic empowerment.
- West, Candace and Don Zimmerman, “Doing Gender,” Gender and Society 1, no. 2 (June 1987): 125-151.
- Elena Kiesling, “The Missing Colors of the Rainbow: Black Queer Resistance,” European Journal of American Studies 11, no.3 (2017).
- Kiesling, “The Missing Colors of the Rainbow: Black Queer Resistance.”
- Maxine Leeds Craig, Ain’t I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race (Oxford University Press, 2002).
- Mignon R. Moore, “Lipstick or Timberlands? Meanings of Gender Presentation in Black Lesbian Communities,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 32, no. 1 (2006): 113-139.
- Shanara R. Reid-Brinkley, “The Essence of Res (ex) pectability: Black Women’s Negotiation of Black Femininity in Rap Music and Music Video,” Meridians 8, no. 1 (2008): 236-260.
- Moore, “Lipstick or Timberlands?
- West and Zimmerman, “Doing Gender.”
- Moore, “Lipstick or Timberlands?”
- Reid-Brinkley, “The Essence of Res (ex) pectability.”
- Reid-Brinkley, “The Essence of Res (ex) pectability.”
- Ingrid Banks, Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness (New York University Press, 2000.)
- Kiesling, “The Missing Colors of the Rainbow,” 27.