A digital illustration of an old dirty computer screen with a pac man style game on the screen.

Janelle Monáe’s ‘Dirty Computer – an emotion picture’

Cameron Perumal 

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Artwork by Maia Abayomi

‘Dirty Computer – an emotion picture’ is a narrative film accompanying Janelle Monáe’s 2018 album of the same name serving as a backdrop to (and catalyst for) its plot. It depicts the story of Jane 57821 – a femme-presenting, queer android – in a seemingly dystopian future. ‘Seemingly’ because the film almost scarily imitates an all too familiar contemporary political landscape and its relationship with the Other (including, as mentioned by Monáe in interviews, queerness, being minoritised, and the experience of being a Black woman). Jane 57821 is a queer android – inferred from her relationships with Zen and Ché (portrayed by Tessa Thompson and Jayson Aaron, respectively). Jane is also part of an underground resistance and is captured by the oppressive government, deemed a ‘dirty computer’ that needs to be cleaned, and has her memories deleted one by one – but not before the audience gets to relive each one. 


We don’t need another ruler

All of my friends are kings

I’m not America’s nightmare

I’m the American dream

Just let me live my life (Janelle Monáe)

The first pre-chorus of ‘Crazy, Classic Life’ is a bold proclamation to the world that we do not need to live according to society’s judgements and ideals, that we could just live for ourselves and our own happiness. This anthemic song plays during the first few minutes of ‘Dirty Computer – an emotion picture’, during a sequence interspersed with carefree party scenes, and memories of Jane and her friends singing along while driving along a highway.

I first came across ‘Dirty Computer’ during one of my university’s BME group’s events. We all gathered in the Dining Room of Teviot House for a (partial) screening and discussion of it, after which I left the room both full of emotion and slightly overwhelmed. I had never seen queerness depicted in such a real, emotion-filled way before. Everything I had previously watched, hoping to find myself reflected in at least one of the characters, had always ended up being a depiction of queerness through a straight (and heteronormative) lens. 

The queer-positive themes present in the film also deal with the intersectionality of identities. Janelle Monáe commented on the film, during a Billboard interview with Gab Ginsberg, that “there’s an interconnectedness that I wanted to be at the center of this project: I’m a black woman, but I still understand your pain and how you feel as someone who has felt pushed to the margins of society because of where they come from” (Monáe). The film is drawn from Monáe’s personal experiences, as a “young, black, queer woman from America who grew up with working class parents” (Monáe) but also shows that it is just as relevant to everyone else’s experiences, so that it feels as if “we have a community” (Monáe). In ‘Dirty Computer’, Jane and her friends take refuge from the political, from the danger of being outside, in the Black, queer community they have built for themselves. With ‘Dirty Computer’, I could see myself represented by Jane and her friends, her community reflected the sense of community I felt after discovering spaces at university where I felt welcomed, and where I could finally fit in.

As the film opens with a montage of ‘dirty computers,’ the voiceover explains, “You were dirty if you looked different. You were dirty if you refused to live the way they dictated. You were dirty if you showed any form of opposition. At all. And if you were dirty… it was only a matter of time” (Monáe 00:00:12 – 00:00:28). Queerness is thought of as ‘dirty’, but Jane’s (queer and Black) community shows that simply existing is a revolutionary act, and ‘being dirty’ is reclaimed as a positive description. That act of reclamation really resonated with me and, at the time, it felt like the first step to reconciling my queerness with the rest of my identity.

After my first encounter with ‘Dirty Computer’, I spiralled down a rabbit hole of ‘non-homonormative queerness’ and came across Donna Haraway and her concept of the cyborg. 

Homonormativity is the reason why we see only one type of representation (white, gay cismen) at a time, why same-sex marriage is advocated for and prioritised over trans rights, and why so-called ‘racial preferences’ in dating are not called out for the racism it is. Homonormativity creates a hierarchy and puts one type of queerness at the top, that is the representation of queerness which is more likely to be tolerated, if not accepted, by the general public. ‘Homonormative’ is, in short, heteronormative ideals superimposed on queer lives, while ‘non-homonormative’ lives outside those constraints (Flores).

The concept of androids, or ‘cyborgs’, was first introduced by Donna Haraway in A Cyborg Manifesto. The Cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world, free of nature-culture binary restrictions, human-animal/machine boundaries and inherently political (Haraway 5). In ‘Dirty Computer’, the idea of the cyborg is invoked to move past the limitations typically used to define traditional gender, (white) feminism and politics, to convey a broader message of community and defiance (for personal acceptance) to the audience. 

I had to do my own research to find works such as ‘Dirty Computer’, to find writers and academics like Donna Haraway. I had the chance to apply Haraway’s concept of the Cyborg to non-homonormative queerness in one of my essays for an undergraduate Queer Studies course, during which I was allowed to develop my own essay prompt. If we had more diverse reading lists in courses, more students would be able to see themselves represented in the course materials; they would thus be able to connect and engage with the course more enthusiastically. Personally, I was certainly able to understand more complex concepts and theories mentioned in class once I could apply it to contexts I understood and related to. 

Contemporary science-fiction works such as ‘Dirty Computer’ can be used and applied to so many different fields, not just Queer Studies courses. Film and Media courses, Black Studies courses, Gender Studies courses and, of course, the Sciences themselves, can all benefit from a not-normally-seen depiction of queerness, Blackness, gender, class, and ‘otherness’, which counters many of the stereotypes and stigmas perpetuated by mainstream depictions of queerness and intersecting identities.

‘Dirty Computer’ provides a contemporary lens through which to view the relevance of acknowledging non-homonormative forms of queerness. Being able to see myself, or my queerness, represented in mainstream media, while watching ‘Dirty Computer’ and having an intersection of science-fiction (and Afrofuturism), music, and most importantly, celebrated queerness all encapsulated perfectly in the short film, is immensely important not just to individual experiences such as mine, but also in expanding the way in which ‘queerness’ as a theory can be engaged in academic settings.

Works Cited

“Dirty Computer – an Emotion Picture.” Youtube, uploaded by Janelle Monáe, 27 April 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdH2Sy-BlNE&t=2s

Flores, Buffy. “Everything You Need to Know About Homonormativity.” Pride, 12 October 2017, https://www.pride.com/firstperson/2017/10/12/what-homonormativity.

Framke, Caroline. “Janelle Monáe’s Exhilarating Dirty Computer Celebrates Queer Love as Defiance.” Vox, 27 Apr 2018, http://tinyurl.com/y2wdld88.

Haraway, Donna J. A Cyborg Manifesto. E-book, University of Minnesota Press, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://tinyurl.com/y7lhog6s

Monáe, Janelle. “Janelle Monáe On Owning Her Queer Identity With ‘Dirty Computer’: ‘It’s Important to Speak from That Perspective.’” Interview by Gab Ginsberg. Billboard, 29 August 2018, http://tinyurl.com/y5dq6uc5

Janelle Monáe. Lyrics to “Crazy, Classic, Life.” Genius, 27 Apr. 2018, https://genius.com/Janelle-monae-crazy-classic-life-lyrics.

Cameron is currently a Gender Studies and Maths undergraduate student at the University of Cape Town, and previously studied Astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh. She is interested in the intersection of science and gender, particularly in anti-colonial science policy, and how it affects and could (and should) be co-produced by society.

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