There are few musical artists whose work I anticipate as eagerly as I do a film, or the new episode of a television show: Janelle Monáe is one of them. I stumbled upon her song “Q.U.E.E.N.” a few years ago in a Youtube spiral, and was hooked not only by the driving bass line, but by the entire concept behind her first EP and two subsequent full-length albums, The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady. Taken altogether, the three albums tell the story of Cindi Mayweather, an android from the future sent back in time on a kind of reverse-Terminator mission: Cindi is chosen to save Metropolis from a secret society called “The Great Divide,” which (much as its name indicates) uses “time-travel to suppress freedom and love throughout the ages.” Cindi Mayweather, herself a time traveler, is a messianic figure. Monae explains that she chose this android character as the axis for her concept albums because:
“to me the android will represent a new ‘Other’ – just like any of us who’ve ever been considered ‘the minority’ at some time can feel like ‘The Other’! And so I’m basically asking people to think about whether we’d DISCRIMINATE against this new ‘Other’… And what makes The ArchAndroid herself [Cindi] very special is that she represents the MEDIATOR between the have’s and the have not’s, the minority and the majority… And basically her return will mean freedom for the android community.”
As an android, Cindi represents an “other” beyond race, gender, class, ability, etc — a kind of final frontier for who society will and will not accept as a person. The question of whether androids are persons is not a new one for speculative science fiction, but Monáe offers an interesting slant on the question — daresay, a Christological take on it. Cindi is not only a prophet sent to proclaim love and freedom, she is also a kind of communicatio idiomatum between persons and “non-persons” in the social order of Metropolis.
I give this background on Monáe’s previous work because it helps frame the shift she made with her most recent album, Dirty Computer, released at the end of April. In this album, Monáe has shed the Cindi character and storyline and started to inhabit her own complex identity as a speaker on the album. But in the accompanying “emotion picture” that Monáe released alongside the album, she retains an ambiguous “android” identity (it’s not clear if she’s actually a computer, or if this is how her technocratic society views citizens) — now called Jane 57821. Still playing on themes of personhood, technology, and transhumanism, now Monáe is no longer playing a savior figure, but someone simply trying to survive. Resistance has taken the place of salvation.
While I encourage viewing the entire picture (available free on Youtube), in which Monáe explores sexuality (and the criminalization of it), memory, and desire, I want to focus on just one of the subtle theological threads in the work — in particular the shift I just named from salvation to resistance. Where “The Great Divide” is a secret, trans-temporal society, in Dirty Computer the enemy is an authoritarian government openly operating with impunity. The set-up of the “emotion picture” is that Jane 57821, a “dirty computer” is no longer compliant with her original programming. The videos that appear throughout the film are her memories of the adventures that have reshaped her identity (her “programming”). After each video is played, technicians systematically delete them.
In between sessions of “cleansing” she speaks with another “computer” who resembles her former lover, Zen (Tessa Thompson), but this fellow computer does not acknowledge their history. That is, until Jane 57821 refers to a tattoo that Zen once needled into her skin. The tattoo consists of a feminine form hanging on a cross — not unlike the Christa sculpture that was once installed at the Episcopal Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. This tattoo proves to be the crucial means by which Jane 57821 can retain her memory, her sense of self.
Monáe has frequently named herself a “womanist” — and in this image of a crucified woman I see strong resonances with the discussion of surrogacy in many womanist theologians. Surrogacy, in womanist theology, is a way of capturing the multiple, intersecting forms of oppression that women of color have experienced: as slaves, as domestic workers, as mothers of all stripes, black women have consistently found themselves shouldering the physical and emotional labor that neither white women nor black men have wanted. Dolores Williams, in her book Sisters in the Wilderness, uses the biblical story of Hagar — sexually given to Abraham against her will as a surrogate for Sarah’s infertility — to show the implicit acceptance of surrogacy within theology. Williams illustrates that Hagar’s story is not a story of victory, but of sheer survival. This kind of story is even visible in Monáe’s earlier work through Cindi Mayweather’s story. Cindi is the surrogate for salvation in the Metropolis trilogy; Jane’s resistance in Dirty Computer is captured through the image of a woman of color literally hanging on a cross.
Williams goes on to famously question whether a soteriology based in surrogacy can save black women:
…Jesus represents the ultimate surrogate figure; he stands in the place of someone else: sinful humankind. Surrogacy, attached to this divine personage, thus takes on an aura of the sacred. It is therefore fitting and proper for black women to ask whether the image of a surrogate-God has salvific power for women or whether this image supports and reinforces the exploitation that has accompanied their experience with surrogacy (162).
Rather than some of the tradition doctrines of the cross, like substitutionary atonement or ransom theory, Williams proposes that for the oppressed, and especially for black woman, “salvation is assured by Jesus’s life of resistance and by the survival strategies he used to help people survive the death of identity…(164).” It is important, then, that Jane’s tattoo is not salvific in and of itself in the story. Rather, it is the memories of what that tattoo represents, the identity that Jane clings to, the cleansing she resists.
While the film ends on a hopeful note, it does not end on a victory. The climax of the film is actually Jane 57821 (seemingly) succumbing to her reprogramming. Hope appears when another lover and companion from Jane’s memories is captured and about to be put through the cleansing process. Jane (and Zen, who also now remembers) break this fellow computer out, and the last shot we see is of them escaping. This isn’t a revolution, per se. It is resistance, it is survival. Perhaps there will be another chapter in Jane’s story in a future album. For the moment, Monáe simply leaves the viewer with lyrics that claim her own space in this world, and hope for someone more:
Hold on, don’t fight your war alone
Halo around you, don’t have to face it on your own
We will win this fight
Let all souls be brave
We’ll find a way to heaven
We’ll find a way