On The (De)Sexualisation Of Missy Elliot & What It Means For Her Comeback

A decade after her last album release Missy Elliott brings us WTF (Where They From) ft Pharrell with classic Missy style and a revolutionary punch. Not that she has been stationary in her down time, her last single with Timbaland was in 2012 and she has been killing it behind the scenes nonstop, all while battling Graves disease. What a boss bitch.

But Missy’s return to the spotlight is a rare one as, unlike when many women attempt to re-ignite their career in their later years, it hasn’t come with any ageist remarks.

It can be very difficult for women in music to make their way back into the spotlight without ridicule. Although Madonna never really left, in the past 10 years she has been highly criticised for her sexuality in relation to her age. Female artists often struggle to make a comeback if they have been sexualised in the early days of their career, as when their sexuality becomes a big part of their image and appeal, it is difficult for people to accept them after a certain age.

In Missy’s case though, while she does touch on sexual topics in tracks like  Work It and One Minute Man among others, she has never been overtly sexualised, which is to say she doesn’t present herself in the typical way that mainstream culture view sexuality.

Ironically though, it was this fact, that she didn’t fit this mould set by the music industry in the first place, that allowed her to escape it’s trappings.

In the early days of her career, Missy started out writing songs for other artists, finally hitting it big with Aaliyah’s number one If Your Girl Only Knew. Although she desperately wanted her own solo career, the record label she was working with at the time told her that she was too "tubby" and would never make it. 

“They said I could sing, I could write, but I looked wrong. That was the lowest thing you could say.” says Missy, in a Guardian article from 2001. 


Despite this sexist dismissal of her talent, Missy was later given the opportunity to run her own record label, Goldmind Inc., then distributed through Elektra and now Atlantic Records. She became the first black female music mogul in America. This gave her the opportunity to have full creative control over her music and image which was, and is, still almost unheard of in the music industry.

So it turned out that what marginalised her early in her career - being seen as unfit for the highly sexualised ranks of female pop stars - could be the thing that has given her longevity as she has had the opportunity to define her own public identity and the degree and flavour of her sexuality.

If we look at the top 10 selling artists of 2014 we see that the average age is 38, but if we take away all the men from the list of prolific artists, we’re sitting in the twenties. It comes as no surprise though that women are valued in their youth as they are often valued more for their bodies than their talents, which leads to their stock falling as their age rises.

When we focus on women’s bodies over their talents, age becomes an issue because in our society women are not permitted to be sexual as they get older, while men, on the other hand, can easily be the silver fox. And while WTF (Where They From) shows that it is possible for a female artist to rise above this gendered ageism and make a comeback without being grilled over her age, Missy’s story and career, as detailed above is still an exceptional one.

We need to reposition our focus on female artists to be more on their talent and less on their image and we need to accept that women, yes even your mum, have a sexuality far beyond their twenties. We need to stop idolising women for their bodies because it feeds a world where their sexuality is louder than the music. We need to quit our ageist shaming of women's sexuality.

We need to do all this and more if we hope to see more artists of Missy Elliott’s calibre flourish and thrive across long careers like their male counterparts, because in the end talent doesn’t have an expiry date and genius never gets old - and having a vagina doesn’t change that.

Published on Crave