Janelle Monae’s pussy pants and the double standard of Black female sexuality

Theres been a lot written about the pants Janelle Monae wears in her video for Pynk, the third single off.

Theres been a lot written about the pants Janelle Monae wears in her video for Pynk, the third single off her album Dirty Computer (out April 27 on Wondaland and airing as an emotion picture on BET and MTV the day before).

But Im not so interested in the pants themselves as much as the word you chose to describe them. Did you use the word pussy? Or did you use one of the other words Ive seen tossed around in the press to tiptoe around it: vagina pants, pink vagina pantsuit or chaps reconfigured as hot-pink labia?

Its important to recognize the difference, because it speaks to the words we feel comfortable using when describing female sexual expression, particularly when we take into consideration whos doing the expressing.

In what has become the defining image of her upcoming album, Monae essentially draped her bottom half in a giant pussy and had actress Tessa Thompson (her rumoured girlfriend) slide her head through it. I think its safe to say the singer upped the ante on the pussy hat, worn ubiquitously by protesters in the 2017 Womens March, and the Gucci pussy bow, worn subtly by Melania Trump in protest of her husband. The media had no problem calling those items of clothing what they were: pussies.

But many outlets are taking the polite route with Monae.

The difference in how theyre described comes down to how threatening the unregulated expression of Black female sexuality, to borrow a phrase from bitchmedia, still is in a culture teeming with patriarchy and white supremacy. Better to tamp it down with a non-threatening word even as Monaes video, featuring a Pussy Power neon sign and underwear emblazoned with I grab back, defines what shes talking about with crystal clarity.

On the other hand, Melania Trump is arguably the most privileged white woman alive right now as First Lady of the United States, and the pussy hat is the predominant expression of white women. (It excludes transgender women and gender non-binary folk, who may not have typical female genitalia and Black women, whose genitalia are more likely to be brown). While Monae isnt entirely off the hook in that regard with her pink-coloured pussies, the media felt more comfortable using such a risque word only when affixing it to white womens revolution. For example, the New York Times ran the headline The Second Lives Of Pussy Hats. Yet its recent profile of Monae wiped the word out completely, limply opting for [Expletive] Power.

Pussy is the vulgar cousin of vagina. Its a word women are taught not to say, alongside those childhood lessons instructing us not to talk about our pussies, vaginas or what have you. I remember one time buying pads and the cashier, a woman who looked to be in her early 50s was scandalized because I didnt want to put them in a bag, opting instead to be walking evidence that I bleed from my vagina.

Yet in popular culture, Black women have been at the vanguard of proudly declaring the goings-on in our pussies for decades. One of the boldest scenes in the 1992 Eddie Murphy film Boomerang features Grace Jones, as eccentric model Strange, announcing that no man can turn down this pussy. She hikes her skirt up, props her leg on the table and shouts Pussy, pussy, pussy, puss-puss-pussy to the shocked patrons of an upscale restaurant.

Hip-hop artists Lil Kim and Foxy Brown, who rapped about having the illest pussy on the planet, were often called out for name-checking brands but rarely credited for name-checking pussy. Despite Nicki Minajs popularity, her inventiveness as a lyricist still gets questioned and shes definitely not given her due for rhymes like Pussy dis, pussy dat / pussy thick, pussy fat / break me off a piece a dat / pussy-kit, pussy-kat.

Of course, these women can and have been written off as crass. But in this era of pussy grabbing back, pussy shouldnt be too concerned about how she comes off in polite company, and Black women should be recognized every time we strip all pretenses and bring her to the forefront of the conversation.

Janelle Monae plays Rebel on July 16. Details here.

christiner@nowtoronto.com | @missrattan

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