By Sesali Bowen
Ms. Bowen is a senior entertainment writer at Refinery29.
There is a new black and sexy. Notions of attractiveness, from the type of partner we want to the aesthetic choices we make for ourselves, have shifted from glistening abs and perfect facial symmetry toward something more realistic, inclusive and, in many ways, cooler. Artists like Donald Glover, Issa Rae and Janelle Monáe have allowed us to see a more complex world reflected back to us, validating black nerds, black queers and black weirdos everywhere. Black and sexy has blossomed into a celebration of eccentricity.
Thanks to this class of artists, I have a new entry point for how my own fat, black body fits into popular culture.
For so long, black celebrities were hypersexualized in a way that never quite translated for “real” people of color like me; think of D’Angelo’s toned body in the video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” This standard was extremely limiting for artists, as well as for the rest of us, who couldn’t find representations of ourselves in pop culture. As a teenager, if I wanted to participate in fangirling with my friends, I was forced to pick from boy bands like B2K or 112, whose members were chiseled, cheesy and unsatisfying.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, women like the actors Sanaa Lathan and Nia Long, who honed the black-girl-next-door aesthetic, were assumed to be wholesome and desirable. Muscular black men on the color spectrum from Morris Chestnut to Michael Ealy sat on the hotness throne. And Beyoncé’s neatly packaged sex appeal — fair skin, a curvy but lean figure and long, flowing hair — set a universal standard for seduction.
Fast-forward two decades, and these problematic standards of black beauty still hold weight. But now more than ever, black folks are drawn to people who mirror how we feel about ourselves as we are, not some illusion. This new cluster of celebrities looks less like supermodels and more like the understated style icons that moonlight as baristas at the local black-owned cafe.
That’s because we are more accepting of our own imperfections than ever before. On Twitter, thoughts about crippling anxiety, bouts of depression or overdrawn bank accounts garner just as many retweets as political opinions or encouraging affirmations do. So identifying similar vulnerabilities in our favorite superstars has a special appeal. Judging from the number of heart-eyed emojis under their Instagram pictures, we’ve reached a refreshing new standard of beauty that values what’s on the inside, for better or worse.
Case in point: Donald Glover, the comedian, rapper and actor. Over the past few years, he has built an impressive résumé, winning two Emmys and two Golden Globes for creating and starring in the series “Atlanta.” He stunned on red carpets wearing suits in purples and browns, standing out from his peers in bland black and white.
Donald Glover hasn’t been splashed across the covers of women’s magazines, and he isn’t necessarily a first-round draft pick for Man Crush Monday posts on Instagram. But lost amid his accolades is that he’s a burgeoning sex symbol. When I finally watched “Atlanta,” I found myself overwhelmed by my attraction to Earn, the character played by Mr. Glover. Earn seemed similar to the kind of guy I’d built Mr. Glover up to be in my head — awkward and lacking a full awareness of how fine he actually is.
In the same way that a certain color of a sweater might illuminate a person’s eyes, Mr. Glover’s creativity gives his natural curls, undaunted smile and sometimes unruly beard a new meaning. He is the prototype for people like me who find the Drakes and Michael B. Jordans of the world a little too clean-cut and remain unmoved by the bad-boy swagger of rappers like Future and Travis Scott.
Mr. Glover’s charm comes from his many talents and what feels like an unwillingness to lean into the greatness of any one of them. He gives off a vibe that he was unpopular in high school but has made it work as an adult. By all accounts, he should be an outsider, barred from the same admiration we’ve given to the hunks who’ve come before him. But as he moves up the ranks of the Hollywood elite, he still feels accessible, and that is his sexiest trait of all.
The actor Issa Rae is building her career on a platform of social awkwardness. She parlayed her web series, “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” into a book of the same name and then into the HBO series “Insecure,” which has twice been renewed. “Insecure” elaborates on the life of a fictional Issa who is ordinary and not O.K. with it. The character Issa is tuned in to what the rest of society thinks her life should look like, as well as the reality that she may never get there, either by circumstance or preference.
Off-screen, Ms. Rae seems similarly misplaced. A fresh A-lister, she does not exude the glamour that we have historically expected from Hollywood stars. She rocks her hair natural instead of straightening it. Last year, she was named a CoverGirl. Black women in desperate need of the representation she brings praise her as a beauty icon.
The singer and actor Janelle Monáe is transgressive with her personal style, and along gender and sexuality lines. She was named one of the new faces of CoverGirl in 2012, and she rose to fame by proffering a musical sound just as original as her look, not by catering to the male gaze. She combines elements of rock ’n’ roll and R&B to create her sound, and her lyrical content explores themes of science fiction, racial justice and, more obviously, love. Her recent music videos for “PYNK” and “Make Me Feel,” use visual symbols — like vulva-shaped pants and a party scene where she courts two suitors — to flirt with ideas of polyamory and bisexuality.
Before snagging acting roles in “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures,” Ms. Monáe spent years wearing a uniform of only black-and-white tuxedo combinations and her signature hairstyle, a textured updo. Her feminine features worked in tandem with masculine energies and details, proving that fluidity and experimentation were not barriers to a successful run in Hollywood. She reminded us of that in her new song “Django Jane” when she rapped: “Runnin’ outta space in my damn bandwagon. Remember when they used to say I look too mannish?”
Her androgynous look set her apart in the music industry. And her fans are still thanking her for it.
This lineup of unlikely black hotties taking up space in the black pop culture scene is growing, and it includes Syd, the frontwoman for the band the Internet. Her male bandmates have gone on the record to say that she, a masculine-of-center lesbian, is the most in-demand member among their female fans.
The Washington native GoldLink looks more like a college freshman still trying to nail down his personal style than one of the most popular rappers of the year. But his discography, which can be categorized as alternative hip-hop, has an undeniable soul that offers more to listeners who require some depth to their music.
In 2018, being yourself and creating dope art is the look. And being black and some combination of queer, weird, awkward, fluid or artsy is the new sexy. Pop culture is finally catching up.