Haraway’s ‘Cyborg’ and Non-Homonormative Queerness
Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg,’ as defined in ‘The Cyborg Manifesto,’ is a “cybernetic organism” (Haraway, 2016, p.5). It exists in a post-gender world, unrestricted by the nature-culture binary, and transcends human-animal-machine boundaries. It represents both lived experiences, as well as social fictions (not unlike utopian societies). The ‘Cyborg’ has no typically Western origin story, in that it has no previous development or history to get to what it currently is, and is detached from nature due to the lack of a “phallic mother” (Haraway, 2016, p.8).
Haraway’s version of the ‘Cyborg’ as an alternative to homonormative definitions of queerness will be examined, by looking at one example of the ‘Cyborg’ as seen in one experience of queerness, namely, that which is depicted in Janelle’s Monaé’s ‘Dirty Computer – an emotion picture.’
Homonormative will be assumed to be western-centric definitions of queerness, this definition will be expanded upon later. Queerness will be defined as a term which encompasses the spectrum of sexual and romantic orientations, as well as gender identities, with the exclusion of the heteromantic, heterosexual cis-gendered identity (Lewis, 2012, p.520), which is excluded on the basis of all three identities being present simultaneously, and intersectionally. Simultaneous presence is specified as, existing all at once, or being in the state of heteromantic AND heterosexual AND cis-gendered. Non-simultaneous presence can be having one or two of these, but not all three. For example, one can be trans and subscribe to heteronormative ways of performing cis-gendered-ness, but this does not invalidate one’s queerness; or one can be heteromantic and asexual, but still validly queer. This definition takes the universal umbrella term definition of ‘queerness’ (Braidwood, 2018) and modifies it slightly to clarify what does not constitute queerness, not for the purpose of gatekeeping what is means to be queer, but for the sake of clarity in this essay.
The fact that the ‘Cyborg’ is not as Western-centric as many other representations and definitions of queerness will be linked to how it rejects homonormative structures and ideals. Homonormative refers to Lisa Duggan’s definition of ‘new homonormativity,’ which is a “politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumption and institutions, but upholds and sustains them,” while being depoliticised and demobilised, and “anchored in domesticity and consumption” (Duggan, 2006, p.179). The ‘Cyborg’ is inherently political, not only because of its mere existence as a body of ‘Otherness’, but also because it was illegitimately born out of “militarism and patriarchal capitalism,” as well as “state socialism” (Haraway, 2016, p.9).
Homonormativity is a “privileging set of hierarchies, social norms, and expectations that causes the oppressed to oppress one another” (Flores, 2017). Homonormativity is why we see only one type of representation (white, gay cismen) of queerness, 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. It creates a hierarchy and puts one type of queerness at the top, the representation of queerness which is more likely to be tolerated, if not accepted, by the general public. In short, homonormativity takes heteronormative ideals and superimposes them on queer lives (Pride, 2017).
Queerness a political concept:
Just as the ‘Cyborg’ is a political being, ‘queerness’ is also political; the mere existence of a queer body is by definition a political act. This can be associated with ‘queerness’ as a political concept, which became widespread during the 1980s around HIV/AIDS activism, and currently has two political connotations: “a utopian promise of an alternative social reality” (Kornak, 2015, p.199), similar to the ‘Cyborg’s existence in social fictions, and its interconnectedness with radical left politics. The ‘queer’ identity was born out of the exclusion of women of colour, trans people of colour, the working class, and other marginalised groups, from the mainstream LGBT movement. The gender, class, and race separatism, that occurs in mainly white LGBT communities, forces people to choose between their identities, and prioritise their ‘gayness’ over their class or racial backgrounds, and prevents an intersectionality of one’s identity and the various oppressions one faces because of the multitude and interconnectedness of one’s identities (Alimahomed, 2010, pp.152-155). ‘Queerness,’ as a redefined and reclaimed term by queer women of colour and trans activists and communities, is inextricably linked to achieving social equality, by looking at the intersectionality of oppressions faced by the people in these communities, which has led to the politics being seen as that of the radical left variety, even though all that is being asked is for equal social rights and the same basic human decency that is afforded to white, cis-het men. This ties in to the message of Janelle Monáe’s ‘Dirty Computer.’
Dirty Computer – an emotion picture’:
Firstly, context must be provided on Janelle Monáe’s ‘Dirty Computer – an emotion picture.’ It is a narrative film set in a dystopian future (with the album of the same name providing the soundtrack and backdrop to the story), which portrays snippets of Jane 57821’s life. Jane is a femme-presenting, queer android who has relationships with fellow ‘dirty computers,’ Zen and Ché (portrayed by Tessa Thompson and Jayson Aaron, respectively). Jane and her friends have created a queer black community for themselves, as a safe haven from the oppressive government, which also functions as an underground resistance. Jane has been deemed a ‘dirty computer’ by the powers that be, and subsequently has her memories deleted one-by-one, which is where the audience finds themselves as the film opens.
Throughout the film, the hedonistic, liberated, scenes of Jane 57821 and friends, rebelling by expressing their queerness, are juxtaposed with jarring, clinical memory-deleting scenes. Being different, and openly expressing your identity, as Jane and her friends are seen doing during their regular celebrations, is an act of defiance. The government deems them dirty computers and strips them of their memories, which could be equated to stripping them of their identities, their political and sexual freedom, destroying the community they’ve built, and undermining their queerness.
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, 2018). Queerness is thought of as “dirty,” but Jane’s queer, black community shows that simply existing is a revolutionary act, and “being dirty” is reclaimed as a positive description, just as the word ‘queer’ has been reclaimed by various communities, albeit mostly in English-speaking communities. Instead of meaning ‘strange,’ or ‘weird,’ being used as a slur and regarded as a ‘dirty’ word, queer is now a fluid umbrella term, as previously defined. I now personally consider it a word that signifies a community, a comfort word, even though I had also thought it to be an insult. Being a ‘dirty computer’ has been reclaimed just as ‘queerness’ has been reclaimed, and are both words of liberation.
Jane as a ‘Cyborg’:
In a 2013 interview, Janelle Monáe spoke about why she uses ‘androids’ in her lyrics: “I speak about androids because I think the android represents the new ‘other’.” She mentioned how androids are comparable to being gay, or being a black woman (Evening Standard, 2011). In the same vein, ‘androids’ can be likened to being ‘queer,’ and therefore the ‘android’ is just another term to describe the ‘Cyborg.’
The human-machine boundary must be mentioned to elucidate on how extraordinary the ‘Cyborg’ really is. Machines, or at least modern electronics, are more portable and lightweight; while humans are “material and opaque” (Haraway, 2016, p.13). The ‘Cyborg’ is fluid and utopic, “ether and quintessence” as Haraway describes it ((Haraway, 2016, p.13). Since, the ‘Cyborg’ is so fluid, the same can be said of the definition of queerness. There can be no essentialism to the definition, as there is no one thing that makes one queer (other than not being heteromantic, heterosexual and cis-gendered simultaneously). Haraway uses this same argument to describe the inessentialism of “being female” (Haraway, 2016, p.16). The category of ‘women’ has a social definition of only including middle class, white cis-women, so the ‘Cyborg’ includes all class, race, gender categories, to make ‘women’ a more ‘innocent’ category, as Haraway puts it.
In ‘Dirty Computer,’ the dirty computers are not defined or identified by one thing, but their queerness is what connects them, even though their definitions of it may differ. The umbrella of a queer community empowers them, and joins them in their shared political goal of achieving freedom - both literally from the government’s vicious campaign against them, or via sexual liberation.
In ‘Screwed,’ the song which plays during interchangeable scenes of Jane and her friends dancing both in an abandoned art gallery being watched by government surveillance drones, and in an underground club with strobe lights (lending to an erratic underlying tension culminating in the government storming the party), while Jane sings:
“And I, I, I hear the sirens calling
And the bombs are falling in the streets
We're all screwed
And ah, ah, ah, it's not perfect, baby
But I go sex crazy
But I feel so screwed
We're gonna crash your party” (Genius, 2018),
the word ‘screwed’ is used as a sexual innuendo as well as to describe the political state of the dystopian world (which could be extrapolated to be reflective of the state of American politics at present). Additionally, the song references Octavia Butler’s ‘Wild Seed,’ specifically where the protagonist has to “survive alongside her oppressor through a combination of sexual sagacity, empathy, and shape-shifting” (Romano, 2018). Haraway also highlights parallels between the protagonist in ‘Wild Seed,’ and the role of a ‘cyborg’ in “pitting her powers of transformation against genetic manipulations” (Haraway, 2016, p.62).
The liberation that Jane and her friends have been fighting for culminates in the climatic end scene, where it seems as though Jane has had all her memories deleted and has succumbed to the government’s brainwashing in believing she is a dirty computer that needs to be cleaned. As she interacts with Zen, who has witnessed Jane becoming increasingly more robotic and programmed as her memories have been deleted, it seems as though all hope has been lost and the rebellion has been destroyed. When Ché is brought in to be ‘cleaned’ of his dirty memories, it is revealed that Jane has been resisting the entire time, and the three escape, while celebrating and in a celebration of their ‘dirtiness’ or queerness. This resistance to be cleaned could be likened to the ‘Cyborg’ and the protagonist in ‘Wild Seed,’ with Jane using her “powers of transformation against genetic manipulation,” and freeing her friends, to become a “dissembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self” (Haraway, 2016, p.33), just as the ‘Cyborg’ is.
Jane as a symbol against homonormativity (and other western-centric definitions of queerness:
It is important to note that the dirty computers are all either queer black or of colour androids, which starkly contrasts the typically homonormative representation of queerness seen in most media (as well as opposing the very white cis-male view that is always fed to consumers of mainstream sci-fi media) (Barnewitz, 2018). The marginalisation experienced by the dirty computers by the government, and the rest of society in this dystopian world, can be compared to the marginalisation of black women, trans people, women of colour, and other minorities in our society, and in their own LGBT communities (Alimahomed, 2010, p.155), and explains why the most common representation we have for queerness is the homonormative one of gay white cis-men.
‘Dirty Computer’ smashes down those homonormative stereotypes of queerness, most notably during a music video-like scene where the synth-based song, ‘Pynk,’ is performed. Set in a desert, with Jane and backup dancers dressed in pink labia outfits – though not all the dancers have labia pants, and one dancers swings a baseball bat in-between their legs, recalling Haraway’s inessential category of ‘women’ (and emphasises the redundancy of the gender binary) – not one thing, or body part, defines these dirty computers as women, but they all identify as women, and so are women. Also during this scene, the dirty computers wear underwear with writing on the front, and not stereotypically with the font on the back of underwear and pants, which de-centers the women as sexual objects, and shows them taking control of how they are represented. The scene depicts relationships (romantic and sexual) between the women; a much-needed respite from representations of queerness and queer relationships that do not represent a large demographic of people.
During a sequence where ‘You Make Me Feel,’ a Prince-inspired and produced song, plays, with bright colours and fun choreography, the situation that arises when another android approaches Zen and Jane appears and lets the android know that Zen is accounted for, sending the android away; but is interested in Ché and has no qualms about it. This portrays the reality of the complexities of dating, queerness and sexuality, while also being relatable and grounded in reality, and is another fine example of non-homonormative queerness.
The following Beach Scene, where Jane, Zen and Ché are sharing intimate moments together on the beach, is a subtle and poignant - leaving the viewer with a melancholic feeling as Jane’s last memories are being wiped – is yet another of the more obvious ways ‘Dirty Computer’ symbolises non-homonormative forms of queerness, which lends itself to being an important piece in diversifying representation of being queer in today’s world.
The ‘Cyborg’ as an alternative to homonormativity:
If Jane 57821 is an android that represents the ‘Cyborg’ figure, and is also able to be a non-homonormative definition of queerness, then the ‘Cyborg’ itself can be used as a non-homonormative description of queerness. ‘Dirty Computer’ takes Haraway’s ‘Cyborg’ and transcends it to a more relatable, real figure, something not just out of a utopian fantasy, but something we can apply to our real-life interactions with each other and in our queer communities.
Cameron Perumal: "I am an undergraduate Astrophysics student from South Africa. I was really devastated that I wasn’t able to see Janelle Monaé at Wembley, and doubly so after learning that Tessa Thompson made a surprise appearance. I am involved in "Melanin Memos: A WoC in Science" podcast, which highlights the work of WoC in science around the world."