Am I Good Enough for Your Heaven?: Freakishness in Janelle Monáe’s “Q.U.E.E.N.”

By Gabriel Barr

Our society is one that prides itself on its differences but still chooses to judge others on the ones that stick out the most in relation to restrictive norms. There are stigmatizing labels for everything from sexuality to gender to whether or not one enjoys certain foods. One way that people battle the stigmas created through these terms is reclamation. Many groups (racial, sexual, gender, etc.) take back and claim the slurs that have been used against them. It’s difficult to learn about any topic related to social justice without learning about how a group has reclaimed any number of words as a form of pride. From racial slurs to homophobic names, the reclamation of derogatory labels is a great force in civil rights arguments today. In our society, the internet and similar forms of communication have made it easier to find others who share similarities with them. People are thus more easily able to organize marches and festivals around their differences from mainstream society.

One term to be reclaimed is the word “freak.” The recording artist Janelle Monáe uses her song ”Q.U.E.E.N.” to turn the word “freak” around on those who impose it on others. Monáe uses “Q.U.E.E.N.” as a declaration of independence from a society that tells her, and so many people like her, that the way they are is unacceptable.

Monáe’s “freaks” aren’t what one would normally think of when they hear the word. The connotations of the word “freak” relate back to the freak shows of the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. It conjures images of one-armed men, bearded women, and people whose gender is not identifiable with the binary system of male and female. Instead of relying on these tropes, Monáe uses both queerness and blackness as examples of modern “freakishness.” The “”freaks” here are people whose identities have been stigmatized and marginalized throughout history. The lyrics to “Q.U.E.E.N.” declare those differences as things to be proud of and to be loud about. “Q.U.E.E.N.” is a song that claims difference and individuality as prideful assets.  Monáe and fellow recording artist Erykah Badu illustrate the ways in which their blackness has been “freakified” within the larger culture by acting out parts of their largely black culture. In modern discourse, fun had by black people is often seen negatively because of racist stereotypes. The hook of “Q.U.E.E.N.” highlights these feelings, asking:

“Am I a freak for dancing around?

Am I a freak for getting down?

I’m cutting up, don’t cut me down.

Yeah I wanna be, wanna be Queen.”

Here, Monáe and Badu illustrate their confusion as to whether or not their behavior is “weird” enough for them to be called “freaks.” They use slang to build familiarity with the audience and then cause the question to be turned on the listener as to what “freakishness” entails.  “Cutting up” is a black slang term that means “having fun,”  and it’s used here to ask whether or not their joy and celebration is out of the ordinary (“Cutting+up.”)

The first verse of the song sees Monáe facing judgement from others, saying

“I can’t believe all of the things they say about me

Walk in the room they throwing shade left to right

they be like, ‘Ooh, she serving face’

And I just tell ‘em cut me up and get down.”

Here, Monáe and Badu introduce queerness as a sort of modern “freakishness,” using terms from both queer and black communities. ‘Throwing shade” is a term particularly coined by black queer persons that means “to insult in a coy manner” (“throwing+shade”).  “Serving face” is another term that means that the makeup or appearance that one has is perfect (“serving+face”).  Later on, Monáe asks “Am I a freak because I love watching Mary? Hey, sister, am I good enough for your heaven?” Here we see Monáe introduce queerness into the argument, asking point-blank whether or not queerness necessitates alienation and discrimination.  Throughout the song, Monáe doesn’t freakify queerness or blackness herself, but instead dares the listener to do it for her. By doing this, Monáe makes the listener analyze just what would make these things “freaky.” Throughout her work, Monáe has used the idea of “androids.” In a 2011 interview, Monáe stated that she sees “androids” as the “new other,” a symbol for blackness, queerness, or any other differences that society sees as worthy of discrimination (“RnB sensation Janelle Monae…”).

Monáe uses terms that are used very prominent in black queer communities to highlight the ways in which society ostracizes and excludes black, queer, and queer black persons. She proposes that what is being freakified is the act of being true to one’s self. She asks, “am I a freak?” repeatedly, forcing the listeners to answer (even if just to themselves) yes or no. If yes, the listener must analyze why Monáe is a “freak.” If no, the listener has accepted self-expression, individuality, and community as completely valid in any form. Monáe uses “Q.U.E.E.N.” as an anthem of self-love and independence in a world where people would rather have compliance than individuality. She brings queerness and blackness to the forefront in tandem, dancing, singing, and celebrating pride in herself even when the world tells her to fail.

 

Works Cited

“Cutting+up.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2016

Monáe, Janelle, and Erykah Badu. Q.U.E.E.N. Nate “Rocket” Lightning, 2013. MP3.766.

“Serving+face.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.

“RnB Sensation Janelle Monáe Is Here Because We Need Her.” Evening Standard. N.p., 04 July 2011. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.

“Throwing+shade.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.

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American Horror Story Freak Show: A Current Adaptation of Tod Browning’s “Freaks”

By Olivia Germann

The freak shows of America may not exist in their original forms today, but their memories live on in film. The quintessential film Freaks is not only considered to be a groundbreaking film, but also one that redefined the genre of horror. Using real performers from the freak show, the movie caused a sensation among viewers and invited both criticism and praise from the masses.

Released in 1932, the film was quickly banned in multiple countries, and many movie theaters refused to show it, describing the nature of the film as disgusting and unfit for viewing (Wilson). While initial responses were mixed, when it was re-released to a new audience, it took its place of honor in the horror hall of fame. Freaks defined a genre of film and inspired many works to follow. One particular television show, American Horror Story, has taken much of its inspiration from Freaks and not only makes frequent references to the film but incorporates many of the same elements that made Freaks so groundbreaking; this makes American Horror Story season four, Freakshow, a modern adaptation of Browning’s movie.

Just as Freaks showcased people who actually performed in the freak show, American Horror Story chose to use actors with rare conditions that would have enabled them to perform as “freaks” in the days of the classic freak show. The show showcases the smallest woman on earth, a woman with no legs, and a man with phocomelia (who performs as a flipper boy), as well as another little person. The film Freaks was able to use people who were actual performers in the freakshow. Creator of American Horror Story Ryan Murphy greatly admired how Freaks stayed authentic in a time where disabilities were often hidden and covered up, he attempted to do the same for American Horror Story. The show was treated as a “period piece,” formed and shaped by intense research done by Mark Worthington in order to create the authentic atmosphere that Freaks had (Stack).

American Horror Story also had to live up to what David Church, acclaimed film critic, saw as the progressive nature of Freaks. According to Church, Freaks was progressive in that it used the “normal” characters as stand-ins for normate audience members in order to show the similarity between the audience and the “freaks.” He points out, “Nondisabled people often engage in mundane conversation with the freaks in these scenes, but the speaker is typically off-screen, leaving the lone freak framed front and center in a stationary shot.” (7) This tactic is also used in American Horror Story as the audience gets to see the innermost workings of the freak show with scenes of celebration and sickness, as well as typical chores such as cooking and cleaning. Such scenes allow the audience to get to know and love the members of the freak show.

In this way, American Horror Story becomes more than a story about “psycho clowns, bearded ladies and lobster hands” (Venable) but one with heart. Too long have people with physical differences been treated as though they are second-class citizens or less than human. The horror genre offers an avenue in which people are willing to watch characters different from the norm and then the show maneuvers the audience into sympathizing with them. For example, American Horror Story introduces multiple love stories between both “freaks” and normates, forcing the audience to view love in a different way. We swoon for the love of Jimmy Darling the Lobster Boy and the con artist Esmerelda. It is impossible to not feel emotional as you watch members of the show that you loved and cherished brutally murdered and killed. To demonstrate that this imitation of Freaks is a purposeful move done by the show, the movie Freaks itself plays in the background as the horrifying plot carries out; slaughtering characters left and right leaving you heartbroken over the mass of bodies left in the show’s wake. When Freaks originally hit the theatres, it was considered monstrous for its depictions of murder and violence that were far tamer than the first fifteen minutes of the carnage in American Horror Story, showing just how far the show went live up to the legacy Freaks began.

But while Church may see Freaks as a progressive piece, it has been highly criticized for reaffirming harmful stereotypes. Especially in the ending, which shows the once beautiful Cleopatra turned into the very thing she detested, a “freak.” The television show also has a complication of interests: while in many ways the film pushes back against stereotypes and tries to make strides toward recognition of human rights, there are still moments where the freaks are presented two dimensionally or used as a gag instead of an actual character. For example, Desiree, a woman with three breasts, is initially portrayed as a strong and independent woman. But, by the end of the show, she declares that all she wants is surgery to make her body “normal” and a nice husband with the typical American life. Picket fence included. It is in these instances that both Freaks and American Horror Story may seem to support these stereotypes. But, in reality, they are trying to capture not only a cultural phenomenon but also a time period and a specific group of people. These “complications” of the progressive nature serve as reminders of how people with disabilities are often treated and the limited options they have had over time. For Desiree, marriage may seem the least progressive (and even anti-feminist) route. But in the time period the show is set, it’s a reasonable way for her to escape the freak show and live the type of life she’s been denied.

The entire show is chock full of blood, gore, torture, and pure fear that Freaks could never have attempted in its day and age. So for those who have a strong stomach, and a love for horror, both pieces are a must see. While Freaks still holds up in the scare factor to today’s shows and movies, modern fans will love how American Horror Story takes the old and makes it new and even more frightening than before. American Horror Story Freak Show is available for streaming now on both Netflix and Hulu and Freaks is available on Amazon Video.

 

Works Cited

Church, David. “Freakery, Cult Films, and the Problem of Ambivalence.” Journal of Film and Video 63.1 (2011): 03-17. Web.

Freaks. Dir. Tod Browning. 1932. DVD.

Murphy, Ryan. American Horror Story. Television.

Stack, Tim. “Ryan Murphy on ‘AHS: Freak Show‘: ‘This Season, Once You Die, You’re Dead'” Entertainment Weekly. 15 Sept. 2014. Web.

Venable, Nick. “American Horror Story Freak Show Review: The Most Grotesquely Fun And Bizarre Season Yet.” Cinema Blend. 2015. Web.

Wilson, Karina. “Freaks 1932.” Horror Film History. 2005. Web.

Jennifer Miller: Disrupting the Normative

“The circus aesthetic is born in a queer world from queer artists and disrupts the normative at every turn. The lady with the beard is the ringleader and not in the sideshow… a bridge into this magical world.”

 Jennifer Miller (Hou, “Queer Spectacle…”)

I was initially introduced to Jennifer Miller through reading “Live From New York,” the epilogue of Sideshow USA by Rachel Adams. Miller is a performer, a playwright, a professor, and an activist, just to name a few of her accomplishments – but, if that were not enough to impress you, she has also chosen to defy gender norms and embrace the fact that she has a beard. While many women,  myself included, choose to remove almost all of their body hair, Miller has not. This defiance is what primarily peaked my interest in her. In discussing Miller and her popular performance group Circus Amok, Adams states, “Miller’s goal is to empower women to refuse time-consuming, expensive, and painful beauty regimens, or at least to recognize them as choices rather than necessities” (221). This is just one of the many arguments made by Miller that really drew me into researching her circus-activist mindset.

Jennifer Miller has accomplished many things in her fifty-four years of life, such as winning two awards for her work with Circus Amok and touring two solo shows (Morphadyke and Free Toasters Everyday) as well as starring in multiple documentaries regarding politics and “otherness.” Among these many achievements, Circus Amok is the Jennifer Miller production that stood out to me the most. This street production began in 1989 and is based in New York City. With regards to the performer’s’ intentions, Circus Amok’s website makes this compelling statement “Circus Amok invites the audience to envision a more empowered life of community interaction while enjoying a queer celebratory spectacle” (Circus Amok). Their performances are an anomaly within both the circus and freak show community. Instead of being exploited for their differences as many were in original freak shows, the performers of Circus Amok utilize diversity as a way to draw people together and uses the “freak show” as a platform to discuss and examine social and political issues relevant to society today, particularly those relating to sex and gender.

In “Queer Spectacle: Jennifer Miller and Circus Amok,”  Christine Hou makes the argument that “making art is not the same as political action, (although it is not uncommon for them to overlap), nor should it replace it. Instead, political – and in this Circus’s case – public art can be seen as the equivalent of planting a seed, a means of prompting curiosity and asking questions.” Through performance and entertainment, Jennifer Miller is not telling people what to think, but inviting them to question societal norms. After reading further about Miller and her various activist performances, I wish there were more people like her back when the freak show was a main form of entertainment in society.

I would argue that Miller is bringing to the table something that people desperately need: the ability to think for oneself and to question what one is being told. In my opinion, people, myself included, don’t ask enough questions about the things happening around them. For example, after becoming more familiar with the history of freak shows and human zoos, I see that, for centuries, supposedly “exotic” people were displaced from their home countries and locked in zoos to be on display at World Fairs, while human beings who were without limbs,  fatter or shorter than average, disabled, or otherwise non-normative were exhibited as entertainment. No one stopped to question it.

Jennifer Miller is redefining  the sideshow platform. She is turning the tables on the audience and making people question why they want to be entertained by a woman with a beard. Miller and her fellow performers create skits that aim to make people think. For instance, one specific skit is described as follows:

“In an act called “The Rope of Death,”  a male clown mounts a tightrope, where he sheds a layer of clothing one piece at a time, balancing precariously all the while. Underneath his baggy Chaplinesque suit he is wearing a full-skirted women’s gown, to which he adds a pair of high-heeled shoes. The balancing act may be read as a metaphor for the laborious and unstable construction of gender; the “rope of death” is anchored by cast members at either end, the struggle suggesting the extreme difficulty of keeping the entire system in the air.” (Adams 223).

This is just one of the many metaphors that are woven throughout the show, metaphors that make the audience think in a very subtle and non-abrasive manner. Miller and her colleagues use Circus Amok to question a plethora of issues including blurring the lines of sexuality, gender, and identity as well as issues like racial profiling and the distribution of wealth. These are the type of questions that  really make people think about the world around them instead of being yet another passive citizen.

I think that I find this subject so interesting because I am always ecstatic to discover someone who is questioning  social and political issues. Jennifer Miller and her group of performers are using their performance skills to get people to listen to them. This stands in stark contrast to how a sideshow used to be when a showman would exploit so-called “freaks” in order to make money. With all of the ugliness and hate in the world, Jennifer Miller and Circus Amok give me a breath of fresh air that I believe people desperately need.

 

Works Cited

Adams, Rachel. “Live From New York.” Sideshow USA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Print.

Circus Amok. Circus Amok, 2015. Web. 16 November 2015.
Hou, Christine Shan Shan. “Queer Spectacle: Jennifer Miller and Circus Amok.” Hyperallergic. 2 September 2012. Web. 10 November 2015.