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Janelle Monáe Wishes UglyDolls Had Been Around When She Was Bullied 

Janelle Monáe Wishes UglyDolls Had Been Around When She Was Bullied 


The actress and musician chats with The Advocate about the queer allegory in UglyDolls and her favorite Cabbage Patch doll who helped her feel represented. 

A fuchsia stuffed doll with a gap tooth, a blue one-eyed dog, a cat that speaks gibberish, and an otherwise seemingly perfect girl who hides her glasses in her pocket when her other perfect doll friends aren't looking -- these are some of the inhabitants of Uglyville and Perfection in the new kids' movie UglyDolls. One place is a gleaming factoryesque city of look-alike dolls tailored to reflect an accepted aesthetic and behavior, and the other a village of rejects who embrace their differences without knowing they've been exiled for perceived imperfections.

Musician, style icon, actress, and pansexual rule breaker Janelle Monae voices Mandy, the otherwise perfect girl with glasses who stands up for the denizens of Uglyville in the movie out this past weekend from STX. On Monday, Monae owned the carpet of the "camp"-themed Met Gala with a wink and a nudge in her Christian Siriano gown. But there was time, growing up a queer girl in the Baptist Church in Kansas, when Monae could have used a friend to stand up for her against bullies. And that's part of the reason she signed on to the movie about marginalized dolls.

"As humans, that's one of the things that I want to help bring out more. How can we empathize with each other? How can we be better allies to one another?" Monae tells The Advocate. "When I read this script, I thought to myself, I wish I had a movie like UglyDolls growing up when I was dealing with being bullied."

"I wish that I had a film when I was deciding if I was going to stand up when other folks were getting bullied," she adds. "I wish I had that film because I think that's the question, is do we fundamentally think that it is our responsibility as humans to stand up for each other?"

"This film represents what it looks like when we do [stand up for each other]. When the weirdos and the outcasts stand with each other and stand up for each other it sparks a revolution."

On its surface, UglyDolls -- with its candy-colored hues and estimable pop music soundtrack that includes new songs from Monae, its star Kelly Clarkson (who plays the lead UglyDoll, Moxy, who dreams of getting out of Uglyville and one day finding a home in the arms of a child who loves her), and Nick Jonas as Lou, the sociopathic leader of Perfection -- is just a feel-good kids' movie.

But for any child who's ever felt the pang of being different in a world that values sameness, its message is essential. For LGBTQ people watching, the UglyDolls who create their own loving community of joy and acceptance in their village clearly provide a metaphor for queer, found families. But it's really for anyone on the margins.

"It's about being the other, and I think that folks who feel othered, even if they're not in the same category -- if you're an immigrant or you're a part of the LGBTQIA+ communities or you're a disabled human being, lower-class," Monae says. "We can name different marginalized groups that folks feel like represent what it means to be othered. We might not have the same struggles, but we can have a similar pain of what it means to be an outcast and ostracized. Sometimes we don't have to go through what each other goes through to empathize."

Just over a year ago, Monae came out as pan in a Rolling Stone cover story. The Hidden Figures and Welcome to Marwen star went on to release Dirty Computer, an exemplary piece of music that doubles as avant-garde art. In the video for "PYNK," she donned a pink bodysuit and chaps modeled after labia in a celebration of the female form that was revelatory especially for queer women.

Recently Monae engaged in a lengthy interview about identity with her friend Lizzo, who appears in UglyDolls as part of a group of mean perfectionist girls that includes characters played by Charli XCX and Bebe Rexha. Monae's Mandy, with her eyeglasses hidden in her pocket, eventually flees the group to help the misfits of Uglyville with whom she feels a kinship. Like the importance of depicting films in which people band together to stand up to bullies, Monae says it's critical to keep conversations about identity going. And she wishes she'd seen interviews like the one she did with Lizzo when she was younger.


Kelly Clarkson's Moxy and Janelle Monae's Mandy

"I've evolved, and I've discovered so many new things about who I was as a young black queer woman growing up in Kansas. I was discovering these passing thoughts or passing feelings and trying to understand my identity. Because I believe sexual identity is a journey," Monae says. "It's not just a destination -- for me."

"There's a spectrum, and I didn't know those things, but I didn't even feel like I could talk about them openly. It was just something that I would later find a community of folks and feel like I've read enough. I've seen enough. I've lived enough to understand more about me now and I can articulate that better," she adds. "I would've been able to walk taller and give somebody else a reference who may not understand."

Monae has never extricated her identity from her art (she's been a singular, authentic force throughout her career). Still, she emphasizes that since the conversations about the intersections of her art and identities are out in the world, they must continue to happen.

"The only way that I know how to create art is to be honest to where I am in that moment. And here's where I am," Monae says. "I have to be all of me when I'm creating art. If you want to know something, let me educate you on what it means for me to be young, black, wild, and a free-ass motherfucker living in America."

Through Clarkson's character of Moxy, UglyDolls explores what it means to never give up on finding love -- in this case, the unconditional love a child in need of a doll to hug goodnight. But the dolls otherized in the movie for being in need of glasses or having a gap tooth or not speaking like the rest also offer representation for kids who may not see themselves in Jonas's scrubbed white pug-nosed Lou. Monae wanted to play a character that would offer that kind of instant recognition for young girls of color like she had when she was young.

"I was obsessed with my Cabbage Patch doll," Monae says of her favorite doll. She was black and she had that black yarn hair and she was so cute. I carried her everywhere with me. I don't remember her name. I hate that I don't remember her name. But I remember her face."

"I was happy my mom gave me dolls that looked like me. That's why I wanted Mandy to light up on-screen and be representation for little black girls all around the world," she says.

Watch a clip from the film below.

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