Why Janelle Monáe Needs To Rethink Her Strategy For Combatting Sexism

Photo: Jim Smeal/REX/Shutterstock.
Janelle Monáe has had a lot to say about vaginas lately. Last month, the singer-turned-actress used Women’s History Month as an opportunity to bring attention to the unnecessary stigma around menstrual periods. And Monáe is back at it again in a new interview for Marie Claire. Monáe, who is one of the magazine’s cover stars this month, told Marie Claire that “people have to start respecting the vagina.” She offered a familiar, but controversial strategy to get us there. “Until every man is fighting for our rights, we should consider stopping having sex.” She isn’t the first one to conceive this idea — it was made popular in a classical Greek play called Lysistrata, written by Aristophanes in Ancient Greece. However, in contemporary America there are major issues with this approach that cannot be overlooked.
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Erykah Badu’s second most iconic line is that “pussy and bullshit run the world.” Black pop culture has long fed into the idea of “pussy power” as a catalyst for promoting change in the world. When famed director Spike Lee felt inspired by the sensationalized stories of violence in Chicago — a place that he has never lived, mind you — his creative take on the situation was that a woman-led sex strike would encourage peace in the city. The result was 2015’s Chi-Raq. And before that in 2003, rapper Trina made her acting debut in A Miami Tail, in which her character Alicia and her friends refuse sex to their gang-banger boyfriends in order to bring about an end to violence and misogyny.
The main problem with the Lysistrata technique is that it relies on cis- and heteronormative ideas about women and sex for its strength. It assumes that all misogynists are straight men and that systemic sexism rests solely on their individual shoulders. What then, do we do about the internalized sexism that women use against other women? And when trans women are being killed at rates much higher than that of any other group of women, how responsible is it to be relying on respect for “vaginas” as the baseline for a more equitable society? Why do women who have sex with men have to sacrifice our own pleasure in order to appeal for fair treatment? And in a society where “no” is unfortunately still up for interpretation when it comes to sex with women, why are we assuming that this is the safest viable option? Who even has a choice in the matter?
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In the answers to these questions, you will find the complications of Monáe’s proposal. Generally speaking, feminism rejects the idea that men are actually baseless creatures driven only by a desire for sex — in the same way that we reject the idea that all women are domestic nurturers only put on Earth to cook, clean, and reproduce. We know that women and gender nonconforming people like sex just as much as cis-men — and are better at it. We know that in terms of talent and intelligence, there aren’t any notable differences between people who identity as men and women. And we also know that gender itself is simply a series of learned behaviors and subsequent consequences that we’re taught throughout the course our lives. In other words, gender is all nurture, not nature.
With this in mind, if we rely on the same stale tropes about men for our liberation, we’ve already lost. They reinforce the same ideologies that created gender inequality in the first place. As Audre Lorde wisely prophesied, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
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