Janelle Monae in her latest video, Pynk (Photo: Wondaland Arts Society and Atlantic Records)

OPINION

Janelle Monáe’s pink pussy pants are a glorious vision

The singer’s new video has been accused of being “vagina-centric.” It’s not the first time women who have created art about vaginas have faced criticism, says Lynn Enright

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By Lynn Enright on

Ten years ago, in April 2008, Katy Perry released I Kissed a Girl. An undeniably catchy number, it spent weeks at number one and was a hit all over the world. The lyrics, however, with their suggestion that a kiss between women is a cheeky little sideshow that should titillate a man, were always pretty troubling. Even Perry has gone on to admit as much, telling a magazine in February of this year: “If I had to write that song again, I probably would make an edit on it. Lyrically, it has a couple of stereotypes in it.” 

Now, a decade on from I Kissed a Girl, we have a summer hit that genuinely celebrates female sexuality and sexual fluidity. Released this week, Janelle Monáe’s Pynk (featuring Grimes) is a sweet-sounding, but deeply empowering, ode to the vagina.  

The lyrics are loaded with innuendo – the song opens: “Pink like the inside of your, baby / Pink behind all of the doors, crazy” – while the video is unequivocal. Monáe and an all-female crew (including Tessa Thompson, the Thor actress who previously collaborated with Monáe on the Make Me Feel video) arrive in a pink-hued desert valley driving a pink convertible. They sit around the “Pynk rest inn”, clicking their fingers to the music, and then… well, then they line up in a formation and it becomes obvious that five of them – including Monáe – are wearing pink vagina pants.

If we are going to get anatomical about things, it’s probably more correct to say that they are wearing vulva pants, with the space between their knees representing the vaginal opening and the billowing folds of pink fabric representing the labia. Either way – whether you want to go with vagina or vulva pants, or the raunchier pussy pants – the result is glorious, a vision that is strangely, mesmerisingly beautiful, with just a hint of knowing ridiculousness.

When Thompson pops her head through Monáe’s knees (or vaginal opening), it’s unclear whether she is standing in for a newborn or a clitoris, but it’s a brilliant moment – her coy smile timed with the lyric “Pink when you’re blushing inside, baby”.  

Since it landed online on Tuesday, I have watched the Pynk video at least 80 times – and it’s not just me: it racked up almost two million views on YouTube in less than 48 hours. It is clever, it is arch, it is catchy, it is empowering. And, also, it is just really, really nice to come across vagina content on the internet that is neither porn nor a story of pain.

As soon as I saw it, though, I wondered: will this video be accused of being aligned with “vagina-centric” feminism, a concept that is much maligned online. Will Monáe’s paean to pussy power lead to accusations that she believes in a feminism that places too much emphasis on the biological differences between the sexes? After all, the pink knitted pussy hats of the Women’s March have been called transphobic, and some have argued that by positioning reproductive rights at the heart of feminist protest, we exclude women without vaginas.

Monáe herself said on Twitter that Pynk was celebrating women “no matter if you have a vagina or not”, while Thompson announced: “to all the black girls that need a monologue that don’t have vaginas, I’m listening.”

It is just really, really nice to come across vagina content on the internet that is neither porn nor a story of pain

At women’s website Broadly, the video got the thumbs up for celebrating black women and queerness, but not before the writer asserted that “pussy-centric feminism is rightly derided as cis-sexist, reductionist, and simply tired. Relying on the notion that ‘women are united by their vaginas’ is a shallow and basic reading that centers white cisgender women.” On Twitter and Tumblr, some users accused of Monáe of being a trans-exclusionary radical feminist (or TERF).

It is not the first time women who have created art about vaginas have faced criticism. Last year, Vice called Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, which examine sexual abuse and rape as a weapon of war, a “play that empowered suburban moms across America” and said it was “dated in a loveable Phoebe-from-Friends kind of way”.  

It was a depressingly arrogant dismissal of a hugely significant project. And, it begs the question: can’t we do better than this? Can’t we see that making art or staging a protest about a crucial aspect of women’s rights does not mean that we are denying other aspects of women’s rights? Can’t we see that female biology is not just a concern for privileged women, some unseen “suburban” or “white feminist” woman? And can’t we see that belittling feminism that involves the vagina and the vulva risks further stigmatising the vagina and the vulva?

I am a woman but I have not gone through childbirth. I know that this does not make me any less of a woman. Likewise, I know that ovaries or a vagina are not an essential component of womanhood. I know that a trans woman is a woman. I also know that girls in Leeds are missing school because they cannot afford period products. I know that a suicidal rape victim in Ireland was forced to deliver a child by caesarean section because abortion is illegal there. I know that FGM affects millions of girls and women every year. I know that labiaplasty is the fastest growing type of plastic surgery internationally, with girls as young as nine reporting that they hate their vulvas.

I know that women’s biology is used to oppress them. And so, I know that when a major international pop star, like Janelle Monáe, dresses up as a vulva it feels significant and comforting and funny and brilliant.

Social media and the internet generally – with its millions of switched-on, educated and articulate users who don’t have their voices amplified enough in the mainstream media – have helped to enlighten so many of us. I wouldn’t be surprised if Katy Perry first started to realise that I Kissed a Girl was actually a bit problematic as she browsed Twitter or Tumblr. But it is also a place where gentle discussion becomes cruel debate in an instant. It is a place where, too often, it becomes too difficult to acknowledge the more complicated questions of protest and activism, and too easy to dismiss and denigrate each other.

I want my feminism to work for trans women and recognise the specific and intersecting challenges women of colour and disabled women face. I want my feminism to acknowledge the ways in which capitalism and racism and strict gender roles work alongside misogyny to oppress women. 

I also want there to be room for us to discuss vaginas without being called "basic". And I want to see women dancing in pussy pants all summer long. 

@lynnenright

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Janelle Monae in her latest video, Pynk (Photo: Wondaland Arts Society and Atlantic Records)
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