What do we consider ‘sexy’? How much of this construction of sexiness is innate, and how much is impacted by external, sociocultural factors? In her 1984 article, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” Gayle Rubin identifies six salient ideological formations that comprise the ways that we contemporarily think about sex and ascribe political value—or the lack thereof—to different ways of having sex. In an attempt to relegate sex and sexuality solely to the bedroom, modern ideological viewpoints surrounding sex has instead pulled sex further into public discourse, creating an ‘open secret’ of sorts. As a result, we see sex being alluded to, discussed, and depicted in various forms of mainstream media, including in music videos, a medium which is known to push the boundaries with respect to what we consider to be culturally acceptable. Princess Nokia’s 2016 song and video “Tomboy” subverts normative sexuality by depicting women who look and act ‘like men’ while still identifying, acknowledging, and empowering female sexuality—in stark contrast to the mainstream practice of rendering women like the ones in this video as barren, desolate, and ultimately unsexy.
We can place Rubin’s piece in conversation with Foucault’s work on sexuality, and subsequently apply this dialectic engagement to “Tomboy.” Rubin asserts that the lack of a concept of benign sexual variation refers to a hegemonic view that there is a single, ideal standard surrounding sexuality discourse that dismisses alternatives to the ‘norm’ and paints deviations from such negatively. Rubin notes that “this notion of a single ideal sexuality characterizes most systems of thought about sex.”1 Tomboys are girls who enter the domain of boyhood and embody the physicality, appearance, and habits of boys’ youth. As the title of the song suggests, “Tomboy” unapologetically presents an image of masculine women and portrays them as sexually viable—a trait which society has dictated we ought not to view as such due to their deviance from normative sexual behaviours and ideals. Foucault notes about (post-)Victorian sexuality that “silence became the rule. The legitimate and procreative couple … imposed itself as model, enforced the norm, safeguarded the truth, and reserved the right to speak while retaining the principle of secrecy.”2 The video presents our viewer with quite a sight: three women of colour—one of whom is holding a basketball—wearing baggy sweatshirts and sweatpants and loose-fitting jewelry: quite the ‘90s male thug starter pack’ aesthetic, if such a meme existed at that point in time.3 The fear among the mainstream is that men might find masculine characteristics attractive—a very gay thing, indeed. Perish the thought. Rubin notes: “Although its content varies, the format of a single sexual standard is continually reconstituted within other rhetorical frameworks”4 and that “it is just as objectionable to insist that everyone should be lesbian, non-monogamous, or kinky, as to believe that everyone should be heterosexual, married, or vanilla—though the latter set of opinions are backed by considerably more coercive power than the former.”5 We can extend Rubin’s examples to include the codification and reification of conventional Western beauty standards as part of her ‘charmed circle’ and anything contravening those standards as part of the ‘outer limits’.6 This video is ultimately trying to subvert this hierarchization by complicating our representations of attractive women.
One might suggest that this video is an attempt at queering ‘proper’ gender performances—and may be engaging with the politics of gender performativity as put forth by Judith Butler, who notes that “as the effects of a subtle and politically enforced performativity, gender is an ‘act,’ as it were, that is open to splittings, self-parody, self-criticism, and those hyperbolic extensions of ‘the natural’ that, in their very exaggeration, reveal its fundamentally phantasmatic status.”7 The representations of the women in “Tomboy” illustrate such gender phantasmatisms (to extend Butler’s etymological idiosyncrasies) by attempting to break the conflation of gendered behaviour and female sexuality and to ultimately assert that they, too, are sexy. ‘Sexy’ women don’t smoke.8 ‘Sexy’ women don’t brag about their “little titties” and their “phat bell[ies].”9 While Butler suggests that gender and sexuality need to be studied concurrently, in a discursive formation of sorts (a direct opposition to Rubin’s assertion that gender and sexuality are indeed quite separate and should be treated as such) I felt it important to engage with Butler’s views on performativity to help further unravel this idea that there is this single ideal sexuality; indeed, this notion of a single sexual ideal is as fallacious as the hierarchization of ‘normative’ gender performance.
Both Butler’s and Rubin’s works which I’ve referenced here fail to engage critically with the notion that race and sexuality are closely intertwined intersections of identity. Rubin asserts that the kind of sexual morality upon which sexual hierarchies are predicated “has more in common with ideologies of racism than with true ethics” by granting virtue to the dominant groups and “[relegating] vice to the underprivileged.”10 The casual manner in which Rubin acknowledges racial hierarchies is particularly frustrating to me because she doesn’t encompass that race itself is a vector of oppression within sexual hierarchies. Rubin’s disengagement with race is also frustrating because this video represents a particular, classed form of non-whiteness. The women in this video are tomboys, yes, but the attire, language, sociality, and behaviours they embody represents a racialized culture.
Rubin’s ideas surrounding sex are distinctly Foucauldian. Her understanding of sexuality is directly influenced by Foucault’s epistemological theories that sexuality is an effect of the discursive spread of power. Princess Nokia’s “Tomboy” attempts to subvert normative ideas of female sexuality by showcasing women of colour who refuse to adhere to the norms which society thinks they ought to aspire to. While neither Rubin nor Butler critically engage with race as another site for sexual minoritization, their insights do form, in part, the canons for both sexuality and gender studies, respectively, and should not be discarded for this fault. The women in “Tomboy” (in so many words) say that with their unconventionally attractive bodies, their little titties and their phat bellies, they can—and will—steal your man.
- Gayle S. Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Culture, Society And Sexuality: A Reader, eds. Peter Aggleton and Richard Parker (Routledge, 2002), 154. ↵
- Michel Foucault, “We ‘Other Victorians,’” in The History of Sexuality, Vintage Books ed (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 3. ↵
- Princess Nokia, Tomboy, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AH-LyInSNYw, 0:04. ↵
- Rubin, op. cit., 154. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Ibid., 153. ↵
- Judith Butler, “From Parody to Politics,” in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 1 edition (New York: Routledge, 2006), 187. ↵
- Princess Nokia, Tomboy, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AH-LyInSNYw, 1:02. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Rubin, op. cit., 153. ↵