Janelle Monae’s new single poses, for us, a question: is an android performing as a woman any less drag than a man doing the same?
In the year 2719, the android Cindi Mayweather falls in love with a human, an offense for which she is condemned to immediate disassembly and the seizure of her cyber-soul. Amidst the inequality and unrest of Metropolis’s divided population, Mayweather rises as a dissident savior.
The story of Mayweather’s transformation is recounted in musician Janelle Monáe’s albums, including Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) (2007) and The ArchAndroid (2010). When The ArchAndroid was released, critics celebrated Monáe’s musical talent, notably the range of genres she incorporated into the album.
In the months following that release, I hoped I was not alone in wishing, unsuccessfully, that Monáe’s work would find a more vocal gay fan base. Monáe is a black woman from a working class family, so her engagement with female, racial, and class oppression was widely discussed. The queer resonance of Monáe’s android metaphor—the android who dares to behave as a human woman—remained more latent, less celebrated.
Monáe’s new single Q.U.E.E.N. seems set to change this. The opening lines could easily have been taken from the 1990 documentary of New York ball culture and darling of contemporary drag queens, Paris is Burning:
I can’t believe a lot of things they say about me
Walk in the room they throwing shade left to right
They be like, ooh, she’s serving face
And I just tell em cut me up and get down
Whether or not the speculation that this shift is an admission of Monáe’s own sexuality proves to be accurate, Q.U.E.E.N.’s evocation of the predominantly black and Hispanic performers of 1980s New York demonstrates that queer issues were never out of place in Monáe’s metaphor of android liberation. Monáe has been poised to come into her own as a queer icon for years, but that position is made far more explicit by adopting the lingo – “shade,” “twerking.”
The popularity of ball culture has surged in a way divorced from the marginal context in which it arose, notably in mainstream gay culture outlets like the reality television show RuPaul’s Drag Race. In fact, Drag Race is an appropriate digression from Monáe’s music. In the promotional video released in advance of the fourth season, the contestants are cast as cyborgs that are engineered and controlled by RuPaul. Despite the aesthetic gap between RuPaul and Monáe – high glamour against a refined monochrome – the two share a certain sensibility. Cindi Mayweather and RuPaul are both performing a female android, both part of a cybernetic sisterhood. Monáe’s character has been a drag queen from the start.
While the queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race are competing to construct a glamorous image of femininity, Monáe is willfully indifferent in that gendered regard. In that her standard androgynous outfit is a formal nod to the working uniforms of her parents and her time spent as a maid, Monáe’s performance does not aestheticize or obscure legitimate plights and murky boundaries. Rather, she embodies Donna Haraway’s positioning of the cyborg as an “argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction.” Q.U.E.E.N. closes with the final verse:
We rising up now, you gotta deal you gotta cope
Will you be electric sheep?
Electric ladies, will you sleep?
Or will you preach?
Q.U.E.E.N. may be a coming out of sorts. It may also be Monáe attempting to position herself to become a larger queer icon. But in recalling queer culture of the 80s, Monáe summons it as a moment before drag culture had been assimilated into the sleepiness of mainstream culture, as a moment when preaching and rising up still seemed valid, before the most widespread form of drag abandoned its status as a dissenting gesture in favor of generating cultural capital.
Whether Monáe identifies within the boundaries of “queer” is in many ways irrelevant to her future as a queer icon. Through Cindi Mayweather’s narrative of salvation, Monáe has always had the potential to become the queer icon we wanted. We just didn’t yet know if she wanted to be it.
Samuel Draxler: Ice Queen.