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Eliza Steinbock examines style, gestures and queer iconicity in the videos of Madonna, Prince and recent music videos. This talk was part of For the Record: Performing Genderheld on January 31st, 2019 in Het Nieuwe Instituut.

Looking at iconic genders in music videos, I will focus on the queer figures of Madonna, Prince and their contemporary inheritors Hayley Kiyoko and Janelle Monáe. I take queer here to mean a suggestion or activation of non-normative sexuality (outside the range of vanilla, monogamous heterosexuality), and also gender expressions that go beyond the range of hyper feminine or masculine, but here especially androgyny, butchness, and vamp.

We can talk about gender in every social context, but in a music video the gender of the performers is usually the lead singer who interacts with a variety of other band or cast members. Many music videos act out a storyline to guide the viewer in their interpretation of the song. Queer genders can signal delicious deviant sexuality and attract queer viewers, but we must remember that with these iconic musicians of Madonna and Prince, their self-portrayal is always filtered through their celebrity status and persona. Think of Whitney Houston whose blackness and gospel upbringing was downplayed to make her into a nearly white pop star. Hence, I’m not referring to the actual gender or sexual identity of any of these stars, but to their cultivated personas.

However, for us and for them, gender is not voluntary. It is scripted, adapted, adopted and processed as a complex web of expressions that might be repeated, or not. The everyday performance of gender that is sanctioned by one’s social context to be permissible (for example, topless beaches), or not (such as women driving), is doubled in cultural representations – that might literally be censored or break laws.

Music videos allow the performer to test cultural sanctions, but they are also vehicles for selling music. So while Katy Perry’s I kissed a Girl video flirts with the bi-sexy image of the modern day hetero-flexible woman to attract fans, and gain some press through shock, her gender performance is otherwise fairly stable as a femme heterosexual woman.

Typically, masculine actors look and feminine actors are to be looked at. The notion of ‘the gaze’ has been conceptualized in many different ways, but famously by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey who examined classic Hollywood narrative films and tracked how male actors were aligned with the eye of the camera, giving them an masterful overviews of scenes, the ability to look surreptitiously at women, and to stare down masculine competitors. Mulvey called this the MALE GAZE. It splits the visual field into gendered ways of looking and being. This dominant representational script also informs music videos, especially narrative ones.

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U Got the Look is a duet by Prince with female singer and a cast of high femmes. Who has the look? In this video both of them cast looks around, and most notably exchange approving, desirous looks with each other.

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In Kiss, Prince is dressed in a tight outfit that is slowly stripped off. In his gestures and overall look Prince seems to twin, or double, with the lesbian guitarist. While she quietly strums her guitar while sitting on the stool, he prances around, plays up the feminine status of to be looked at. She rolls her eyes at his preening, letting us know she’s not all that interested in his kind of femininity. The camera is interested most of all in her expert hands, not her pretty face.

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Hayley Kiyoko has become a massive lesbian pop icon, and this is reinforced through the camera’s interest in her hands. Echoing the lyrics, “I want t touch ya,” the camera’s eyes follows the soft brushes, gripping hands and embraces between women happening almost surreptitiously at this LA party. Like Kiss, the video Curious is also super funny in its hamming up the flirting script that leads to hooking-up. In Curious, Kiyoko follows the similar seduction by song and music, borrowing dancing and longing gestures from Prince. Differently than the forever delayed hot and heavy kiss in Kiss, Curious does climax with a wet hot kissing scene in a bathroom.

“Dyke camp is a movement directed not by the tastes of gay men but gay women: a specific brand of humor, manners, and sensibilities guided by lesbian identity,” writes Mikaella Clements in her webarticle “Notes on Dyke Camp.” Gay camp as-we-know-it glorifies kitsch and irony; think for example of RuPaul and Bette Davis. It thrives on theatricality, exaggeration, and is all about style. The content is negligible.

Dyke camp is not just inverted, from a man in a dress to a woman in a suit.

Clements argues that dyke camp overlaps with gay culture derived camp: If camp is the love of the unnatural, dyke camp is the love of the ultra-natural, of nature built up and reclaimed, of clothes that could be extensions of the body, of desire made obsessive, of lesbian gestures or mannerisms maximized by a thousand.

Clements explains, “Rather than drag, which parodies what is real, dyke camp takes the real and magnifies it, so that it becomes absurd or funny or simply attractive in its own right. “ A recent example can be found in Janelle Monáe’s video for PYNK, with its vagina pants.

Echoing the politics of being a dyke rather than a lesbian, “Dyke camp doesn’t care what others think,” writes Clements. She offers the contrasting example of the mainly straight-identified Madonna who kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera during the MTV Music Video Awards in 2003 while performing a medley of Madonna’s music together.

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Straight women often flirt with lesbian eroticism for the male gaze, but Clements asserts that dyke camp is different in that it is explicitly dominated by women who know just how to touch, and to want, other women.

To clarify, we can compare Madonna’s Erotica video with a recent clip from Janelle Monáe’s Make Me Feel, both anthems of free-thinking sexuality, but in their cinematography seem to treat the experience of bisexuality differently. Look out for the lollipop prop. 

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Whereas Madonna’s video demonstrates her overt embrace of promiscuity, and kinky sexuality that necessarily also includes making out with women, Monáe shows her love of women as being equal to her love of men. The lollipop she sticks into her femme lover’s mouth is an enjoyment for them alone; the man who tries to interfere is rebuffed. This demonstrates the scene is a shout out to other dykes, rather than a call for the male gaze to approve and get off on their lesbian scene.

Kiyoko’s mini-film music videos are also careful to craft and embed codes into them for other queers. She is more fun, more commercial and easier to applaud than previous lez pop stars, perhaps because she is unabashed in just making dykiness sexy and real through including goofy physical mannerisms.

In this last clip from What I Need, Kiyoko falls in love with her best friend, played by pop starlet Kehlani, winning her over by simply being there for her. 

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The mini-film recalls scenes from Thelma and Louise, and plays on the yellow pussy wagon that Beyonce and Lady Gaga drive off in together in Telephone. But Kehlani and Kiyoko are not running away from any bad men. They are choosing to be with each other, to fall in love, and in doing so that involves refusing the male gaze/savior (the potential ride from a sleazebag that Kehlani at first takes, then leaves). The video was the first in a long time that brought tears to my eyes because it dares to linger, not too close, on the burst of emotion that fuels a passionate, falling down to the ground kiss, one that goes on and on, into the rolling credits. With queer love presented like this, the dyke camp signal that these maximized audio-visuals are for us queers, solidifies a new era of queer iconicity.

Further reading:

  • Mikaella Clements, “Notes on Dyke Camp,” webarticle posted on The Out Line, May 17, 2018 09:09AM EST. Available here
  • Jack Halberstam, Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017.
Marina Otero Verzier, Director of Research Katía Truijen, Senior Researcher
Vere van Gool, curator Emma Macdonald, curatorial assistant
Shay Kreuger, moderator Koos Breen, set design and graphic design Jeannette Slütter, set design Tanja Busking, film production