I recently spent an afternoon on YouTube watching pop and r&b music videos from the 80s. I shooped and snaked along with two of my favorite female artists of all time: Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson, I made my debut in time to catch only a few months of the 80s, so the unfamiliarity of the 80s aesthetics caught my eye. I studied the big hair, bright makeup, and the fashions. Both of these incredibly successful black women performers wore, essentially, street clothes in their videos and performances. And when they opted for flashier attire, their costumes were downright demure. Strikingly, both ascended to international superstardom without sartorial references to their sexuality.
Much has changed in the 30 or so years since Whitney and Janet became household names as solo performers. Though Whitney tried to maintain her performance persona of Dignified Diva, Janet evolved from baby-faced little sister to Ms. Jackson (if you're nasty) to bondage queen. I, personally, came to know and love Janet Jackson well after she made her final transition. At 12, I witnessed a male dancer simulate oral sex on Ms. Jackson live during the All For You tour. Though I was too young to completely process the scene, I recognized that Janet unrepentantly indulged in sexual taboos in public. Janet was a free woman.
In liberating herself, Ms. Jackson chose to shake off centuries old restraints -- many of which black women imposed upon ourselves to counter a long history of bodily and sexual exploitation. It it that history that too often compels the female descendants of enslaved Africans to adopt conservative sexual mores. I needed Janet to tell me that open expression and exploration of my sexuality wasn't just for white girls. Black women love sex too -- the nasty kind.
During her era, Janet provided a revolutionary figure in the pop culture imagination. Janet's sexuality (not to mention her open armed embrace of gays and lesbians) subverted societal expectations in a way we haven't seen from a black woman cultural icon in some time.
Currently the two biggest pop stars in the world are Black women, but their aesthetics reaffirm societal expectations. There's nothing liberatory in the ways Beyonce or Rihanna present themselves or their sex in public. Both women are more products of the commercialization of hypersexuality than trail blazers.
That's not to say that I don't enjoy what they do. As a grown woman myself, I love their work. But I do wish that the little black girls coming of age right now could see that wildly successful and revolutionary can go hand in hand.
In 2013, could a black woman become a major celebrity without invoking her sex appeal in familiar ways?
If there's any hope, it lies in the hands of Janelle Monae. Though her style has been termed androgynous, she, in her tuxedo uniform, embodies a soft, almost girlish, femininity. Wide eyed and well manicured, Monae radiates womanhood. A striking beauty, but her wardrobe and demeanor enable her to avoid entrapment in cages set for young, women musicians marked "Sex Kitten" and "Bombshell." Instead she crafted her own form of sexual expression -- one that did not rely on validation by the male gaze.
According to Monae, her self-presentation is a deliberate rebellion of expectations placed on women artists. In the May 2013 issue of ESSENCE, she explains that she wants to "redefine what it means to be sexy and what it means to be a woman. Showing my skin is not what makes me sexy. I like skirts and dresses just like everyone else, but I had a message I needed to put out there. It was up to me to show people and young girls there was another way."
Janelle possesses an alluring sexuality. Her confidence draws in men and women, but it also confounds. Shortly after the release of her first album, speculation began. While doing press for the brilliant work "The ArchAndroid," Monae refused to assume a defensive position about her sexual attractions. She told Rolling Stone, “The lesbian community has tried to claim me, but I only date androids." The remark is neither a condemnation of lesbians nor is it an acquiescence to an inquiry that is, frankly, irrelevant to her artistry. While Monae refuses to paint herself as asexual, she creates an undefinable expression.
The first single from her upcoming project offers similarly cryptic insights into Janelle as a sexual being. In "Q.U.E.E.N." she hints at homosexuality.
Say is it weird to like the way she wear her tights?
And is it rude to wear my shades?
Am I a freak because I love watching Mary? (Maybe)
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 while she chooses not to dress provocatively, she presents her aesthetic without judgements. In the video, we see Janelle in her typical pantsuit flanked by women two-stepping in black and white mini-dresses. She even dons one for a few shots (though we only see her from the waist up.) You see women can be many things. And the artist embraces duality. It's in her lyrics as well. How often are private twerk sessions ("Is it peculiar that she twerks in the mirror?") mentioned alongside capitalist critiques ("They keep us underground working hard for the greedy.") The two exist together and Monae presents neither as right or good.
This is why there's no need to pit the Rihannas against the Janelles. Both can represent a healthy sexuality. While Janet, Rihanna, and Beyonce show us that black women can choose to employ their desires. Janelle demonstrates how black women can also opt out -- that our actions and work need not be governed by the overt sexualization that has become the norm. Janelle critiques the dialogue that often surrounds a woman's choice to bare all. Her statement: increased sexualization does not necessarily accompany an increase in sexual agency. In fact, stripping down in a culture in which women are valued by their sexual desirability often reinscribes their marginalization.
Janelle Monae may never become a mass cultural icon. There's something about her defiance I can't see catching on. She will, however, be a pivotal figure for young, black women. We flock to her. While Beyonce and Rihanna are fantasies, Janelle is your home girl; a reflection of your fly best friend; a young woman who sets her own rules in a way few of us have seen before. That's Janelle Monae's revolution.
Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or Follow @KimberlyNFoster