Updated: Feb 24
Earning a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, Janelle Monáe’s well-received Dirty Computer obtained a 7.7 and an 8.6 out of 10 on Pitchfork and Metacritic, respectively (“Dirty Computer”; Haile). With Pitchfork stating that “Dirty Computer affirms that we are never more naked than when we stand in our joy. The whole of it is a testament to inclusivity both verbally and sonically… Monáe’s love is liberation, for her and for us” (Haile). Visually, Monáe represents this deliverance by accompanying their album with a film; Dirty Computer, explores the afrofuturism prevalent in the album and Monáe’s previous works, setting up an extended metaphor of “dirty” and “clean” computers. The film takes place in a dystopian society that purges “dirty” computers: those who do not conform to the societal standard of being heterosexual and/or cisgender. The music video for "Django Jane," the second single released from the album, occurs within the Dirty Computer film.
Surrounded by black women clad in black leather jackets and sunglasses, Janelle Monáe sits atop their throne in a red suit and white heels in the music video for "Django Jane." By combining clothing traditionally assigned to men with shoes traditionally assigned to women, Monáe blurs their identity. The song’s lyrical composition, however, imposes an identity upon Monáe. By singing “Remember when they used to say I looked too mannish” in a suit, Monáe emphasizes that they do not completely fit into the identity of a woman; however, Monáe follows that line with “Black girl magic, y’all can’t stand it," accepting a woman’s identity (Monáe Robinson). Referring to themselves as a woman verbally while presenting a more masculine perception of womanhood visually, Monáe hints at an underlying complexity to their own gender identity.
Is Janelle Monáe a woman?; a man?; or a “dirty computer?” A “dirty computer” represents queerness; however, the analysis surrounding the album institutes this queerness solely in terms of sexuality. In January of 2020, Janelle Monáe came out as nonbinary. What was once viewed as merely queer aesthetics may now represent Monáe expressing their gender identity; however, Monáe refers to themselves explicitly as a woman in their 2018 album. Will future performances of Monáe’s song "Django Jane" constitute as Monáe misgendering themselves? Can a nonbinary person utilize gendered terms without infringing on their own identity?
In order to comprehend the justification for Monáe’s using feminine terms, one must acknowledge that our sense of gender identity exists under patriarchal pretenses. We divide gender expression into two: masculine and feminine; male and female; penis and vagina. With a two-fold division comes power, allowing one group to possess primary power over the other. In his essay “Panopticism," Michel Foucault, a French Philosopher, conveys a binary power complex stratifying and its consequences. Via lepers and individuals placed under the great confinement, Foucault relays the transformation of a binary division’s effects as the division’s power complexifies. After exile, lepers were “left to [their] doom in a mass among which it was useless to differentiate” (Foucault 4). Foucault argues that “individual differentiations were the constricting effects of a power that multiplied, articulated, and subdivided itself” (4). We can relate this phenomenon to the gender binary. Although the patriarchy still exists, the ideology once dominated extremely, granting no mercy or civil rights to women. The American patriarchs' so-called “mercy'' began with the 19th amendment, granting women the right to vote. Framed as the end of sexism rather than a means to an end, the 19th amendment allowed those perpetuating misogyny to formulate a justification for their less blatant bigotry and prejudice. In other words, the amendment not only granted more freedoms for women, but also granted more opportunities for misogynists in power to enact gendered discrimination. The patriarchal structure once expressed itself solely through enforcing the idea that a woman only exists as a mother and wife; however, as a woman’s role in society grew in complexity, the patriarchy also grew in complexity. Whether within her career, her homelife, or her relationships, misogyny plagues the modern woman: the wage gap; the persistent expectation to fulfill motherhood; sexual healthcare. With or without the 19th amendment, a gender binary still exists; thus, the power structure that grew from said binary still exists.
In fact, that gendered power structure subjects more minority groups than just women to its reign. The power structure subdivided itself, as Foucault said, into several entities to suppress women; however, these new forms of suppression have major repercussions: complexifying a woman’s role in society. As the boundaries between a man’s role and a woman’s role fade, the distinctions between men and women fade, increasing gender’s fluidity. Outside the conventional gender binary, this fluidity allows for a new gender identity: nonbinary. Without Foucault’s argued consequence of a subdivided power structure, Monáe would be unable to express themself androgyonously in “Django Jane” or identify as nonbinary. The term nonbinary used to solely entail the intersex population: those whose sex characteristics—hormornes, chromosomes, genitals—vary; however, there now exists a population “who do not have an (observable) intersex/DSD condition, but who nonetheless identify outside of the gender binary” (Richards 95). Just as humans have evolved, so has our understanding of the world, ourselves, and language. Consequently, the majority of psychology academia no longer views the terms sex and gender as synonymous; sex implies biological mechanisms while gender refers to the sociocultural descriptions assumed to have biological origins (Unger 1085). Thus, gender is a phenomena determined by one’s self. But how can the patriarchy suppress non-women? Patriarchal cisgenderism refers to the “system of oppression that privileges toxic masculinity and denigrates femininity and gender variance” (McKee 3). Anyone unwilling to conform to this system—women, nonbinary people, feminine men—is oppressed by the patriarchy.
As Foucault argues that a binary power’s increased complexity induces individual differentiations, psychologist Angela D. Ferguson argues that these individual differentiations affect one’s experiences and societal perception greatly. Ferguson explains that
individuals do not possess one identity or experience their lives through a single identity. Instead, individuals occupy multiple intersected identities simultaneously and integrate these complex identities in their daily life. Experiences of oppression, stigma, prejudice, and discrimination influence the ways in which respective identities will be integrated into a sense of personal and group identity. (Ferguson)
Janelle Monáe’s identifies as a black, queer, nonbinary person; however, several aspects of this identity are not visible at first glance in the “Django Jane” music video. As a result of hetero-cis-normativity, many viewers regard Monáe as a straight woman, adding complexity to Monáe’s oppression: Monáe experiences racism like any black person would; sexism like any cisgendered woman would; transphobia like any transgender person would; and homophobia like any gay person would. Does Monáe’s reference to their perceived gender further hetero-cis-normativity, manifesting misgendering? Subjected to she/her pronouns constantly by fans, interviewers, journalists, etc., Monáe has expressed contempt, claiming that people can call Monáe whatever they want because Monáe knows who Janelle Monáe is. Although Monáe identifies with any pronouns, they still experience misgendering. By referring to someone strictly as the pronouns that they look like to you, you attempt to place them in the gender binary, erasing the gender that person identifies with. Unless you are prepared to vary pronouns when referring to Janelle Monáe, she/her pronouns misgender Monáe. Although calling them a woman would normally constitute as misgendering, Monáe cannot misgender themself. Any personal reference to one’s perceived gender is an act of resistance, expressing a transgender person’s multiplex experience. Until society acknowledges the existence of nonbinary people, nonbinary people may acknowledge their percevied gender without infringing on their own identity.
Although Monáe cannot misgender themself, some might claim that Monáe is contributing to the misgendering of themself as a whole. By referring to themself as a woman in “Django Jane," Monáe might further the assumption that they are a woman; however, gender is an entity that cannot be assumed. Gender performance does not equate gender identity: wearing heels does not make them a woman; wearing a suit does not make them a man; sitting on a throne does not make them a monarch. Assuming someone is a man or a woman eliminates gender identities that do not conform to the gender binary. When Monáe mentions a common perception that others oppress them with, they do not contribute to said oppression. It is not Monáe’s fault that this assumption occurs. Transphobia is at fault for the assumption that everyone is cisgendered, not transphobia’s victims. Patriarchal cisgenderism must end for transphobia to end; thus, Monáe may identify with certain gendered terms without contravening their selfhood or aiding transphobia.
In conclusion, Monáe cannot misgender themself or contribute to the transphobia they face. Until the assumption that everyone is cisgender ceases, nonbinary people may refer to or identify themselves with gendered terms without inflicting transphobia upon themselves. Although Monáe identifies with any and all pronouns, using purely she/her pronouns to describe Monáe infringes on their identity. Currently, there are a little over 10,000 Google search results from 2020 in which Janelle Monáe and she or her are referenced without referencing they or them. Without deliberately acknowledging Monáe as nonbinary, using she/her pronouns contributes to the assumption that Monáe is a woman. Together we can end cisgenderism. Accept that other people’s identities may differ from your expectations. Do not assume anyone’s pronouns; instead, clarify them. In order to battle stigma, allow people to correct you by directly informing them that they may. If you witness someone misgender someone else, correct them. In order to end transphobia, there can be no cisgender bystanders. Be active in your activism. Protect and support transgender people; their livelihoods depend on it.
“Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe.” Metacritic, 27 Apr. 2018, www.metacritic.com/music/dirty-computer/janelle-monae.
Ferguson, Angela D. "Cultural and Clinical Issues When Working With Sexual Minorities of Color." The Professional Counselor's Desk Reference, Mark A. Stebnicki, Springer Publishing Company, 2nd edition, 2015. Credo Reference, http://ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fsearch.credoreference.com%2Fcontent%2Fentry%2Fsppcd%2Fcultural_and_clinical_issues_when_working_with_sexual_minorities_of_color%2F0%3FinstitutionId%3D1878. Accessed 27 Oct. 2020.
Foucault, Michel. "Panopticism" from" Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison." Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 2.1 (2008): 1-12.
Haile, Rahawa. “Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer.” Pitchfork, Pitchfork, 1 May 2018, pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/janelle-monae-dirty-computer/.
McKee, Lyra. White supremacy and patriarchal cisgenderism in US nation-building and resistance by transgender and nonbinary people of colour. Diss. University of British Columbia, 2018.
Monáe Robinson, Janelle. "Django Jane." Dirty Computer, performed by Janelle Monáe, Wondaland records, 2018.
Richards, Christina, et al. "Non-binary or genderqueer genders." International Review of Psychiatry 28.1 (2016): 95-102.
Unger, Rhoda K. "Toward a redefinition of sex and gender." American Psychologist 34.11 (1979): 1085-1094.