‘Dirty Computer’ is Janelle Monáe’s masterful self-portrait, ode to self-love

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Janelle Monáe’s most recent album is more than an album, and to simply listen to Dirty Computer is to miss so much of the genius of Monáe’s vision. In addition to the album, a film was posted on YouTube titled “Dirty Computer [Emotion Picture].” An emotion picture is “a narrative film and accompanying musical album,” as defined in the description of the video.

The film follows Jane 57821, played by Monáe. She is a woman who refuses to conform and is now facing severe punishment as a result. She has been apprehended by the state after being identified as a “dirty computer.” To be “made clean,” she must be purged of her memories. The person assigned to her case is Zen (Tessa Thompson) — the two were lovers, along with a third partner Ché (Jayson Aaron), before the state found them. The story that unfolds from there is a protest, a declaration and a celebration.

The album is a celebration of womanhood, of queerness and of blackness — a celebration at the intersection of these three identities. Monáe formally came out as queer in an interview with Rolling Stone. Monáe said of the album, “I want young girls, young boys, nonbinary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time dealing with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you. This album is for you. Be proud.”

For an album and film set in a dystopian police state, there is so much joy in Jane’s memories, each of which is represented by one of the album’s tracks. “Pynk,” one of the standout songs, is an audio and, in the film, a visual ode to the vagina that features flashes of footage showing women dancing together freely, happily intercut with images that invoke the vagina.

Dirty Computer is a declaration of the power and beauty in its protagonist’s identities — Jane knows she’s the shit. “Django Jane” is an anthem of confidence meant to carve out a space for Jane’s queer black self. Her womanhood, blackness and queerness all inform one another and can’t be fully understood independently. The track is full of moments reminiscent of the power of black people — Monáe slips in references to Shonda Rhimes, James Baldwin and her own parents. In this sense, Monáe also affirms the power of her sex and sexuality.

Dirty Computer is a protest against the systems of oppression built to subject these identities. Sporting shirts that read “Subject Not Object” and singing lyrics such as “Remember when they used to say I look too mannish/Black girl magic,” Monáe is constantly aware of and in opposition to systemic oppression. The oppression of Jane’s world may be slightly more explicit and entrenched than our own, but not by much.

But perhaps most of all, Dirty Computer is a representation of intersectionality. It would have been easy for an album littered with references to “pussy power” to provide a reductive view of womanhood — a cis-centric portrayal. This is not the case for Monáe’s work. There are multiple instances of phallic imagery associated with womanhood, including a pink bat hanging between the legs of one of the dancers in “Pynk.” Early in the emotion picture, Tessa Thompson wields a trumpet like a strap-on. Thompson also posted a tweet vocalizing her support for women without vaginas.

At the end of the day, Dirty Computer is a beautiful love story, in every sense of love. In “Screwed,” Monáe sings about sex and power, concluding that “power is just sex.” And while the album certainly demonstrates the power of sex, there is also an acknowledgment of the power of self-love. Jane’s love for herself, for sex, sexuality, love, gender, for Zen and Ché, all combine to give her the power to withstand the dystopian state, both fictional and real.

Danielle Hilborn covers LGBTQ+ media. Contact her at [email protected].