Reading Spike Lee as Antifeminist

Friday, February 27, 2009

Author: Bryan S. Ghingold

The 1989 essay “whose pussy is this: A Feminist Comment” by bell hooks is very important in the study of Spike Lee, both as a microcosm of the critique he has received throughout his entire career (thus far), and as a focused feminist commentary on his first film. In this essay, I will outline the main argument hooks makes in her study of She’s Gotta Have It (1986), demonstrate how she uses references from Lee’s film to support her arguments, find other evidence in the film to support hooks’ argument, and explain my initial comment by applying hooks’ criticisms to other films by Spike Lee.

 

Hooks (whose birth name is Gloria Watkins, and who intentionally keeps her pen name in lowercase) argues that Lee’s film presents itself as a feminist text, but in fact falls short of itself, and ends up being a cleverly presented (and ultimately, cleverly disguised) commentary on male sexuality, while having little good to say about female sexuality. She acknowledges the hesitancy some black feminist critics would have in approaching a film like She’s Gotta Have It, explaining that “Given the pervasive antifeminism in popular culture, in black subculture, a feminist critique might simply be aggressively dismissed (Massood 2). She also hints that a reason for the lack of other critiques is due to the fact that despite the film’s shortcomings, it was one of the first positive representations of black sexuality and black culture in mainstream cinema (1-3).

 

Despite these hesitancies, hooks makes it clear that her issues with Lee’s film need to be heard, particularly because she is not the only one concerned by the films representation of women and female sexuality. Certain questions seem almost universally raised by viewers who hooks spoke to, “Was the film ‘a woman’s story’? Did the film depict a radically new image of black female sexuality? Can a man really tell a woman’s story” (Massood 2)? The last question in particular seemed to follow Lee like a dark cloud for most of his career. Hooks concludes, after her discussions of the rape sequence and domineering affect men have on the troublingly one dimensional protagonist; Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), that “Ultimately, it is a patriarchal tale- one in which woman does not emerge triumphant, fulfilled. While we can applaud Nola’s feeble attempt to tell a new story at the end of the film, it is not compelling, not enough- it is not satisfying” (9).

 

Hooks validates her argument by drawing on several examples from the film, sometimes comparing it with Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film The Color Purple. One of hooks’ biggest issues with the film is that Nola’s sexuality and sexual liberation is not depicted as being her own, but rather a vessel through which male reward is delivered.

 

“Ironically and unfortunately, Nola darling’s sexual desire is not depicted as an autonomous gesture, as an independent longing for sexual expression, satisfaction and fulfillment. Instead, her assertive sexuality is most often portrayed… [as] a reward or gift she bestows on the deserving male” (3).

 

She gives the example from the film that Nola rewards Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell) with sex when he informs her that his body-building landed him on the cover of a men’s magazine (3). She characterizes the film as a story about the men in Nola’s life and not as a story about Nola by referencing the depth of the three lead male characters from the film, Nola’s three boyfriends.

 

“Overall, it is the men who speak in She’s Gotta Have It. While Nola appears one-dimensional in perspective and focus, seemingly more concerned about her sexual relationships than about any other aspect of her life, the male characters are multidimensional. They have personalities. Nola has no personality. She is shallow, vacuous, empty…These sexually active, sexually hungry men are not ‘pure penis’ because there is no such category. They are each defined by unique characteristics and attributes- Mars by his humor, Greer by his obsession with body building (sic), Jaime by his concern with romance and committed relationships. Unlike Nola, they are not always thinking about sex, do not suffer from penis on the brain. They have opinions on a variety of topics: politics, sorts, lifestyles, gender, etc. Filmmaker Spike Lee challenges and critiques notions of black male sexuality while presenting a very typical perspective on black female sexuality. His imaginative explorations of black male psyche is far more probing, far more expansive, and finally much more interesting than his exploration of black femaleness” (4-5).

 

Hooks also references the “dogs” sequence in the film; a sequence where multiple men are interviewed single file, staring at the camera documentary style talking about how the pick up women. She understands and acknowledges that this is Lee’s commentary on the male sexual prowess and objectification of women, but she does not feel the effort is consistent throughout the film.

 

One important scene hooks ignored was the birthday sequence from the film. Jaime’s birthday present to Nola is a musical number about a man who treasures his woman and treats her like a queen “for a day.” It is the film’s only color sequence, and contains many mixed messages, such as the male dancer (which we are to understand represents Jaime) splashed a cup of water in his partner’s face, seemingly unmotivated. When she gets upset and pushes him as a response, he presents her with a flower, and all is immediately forgiven. I feel this sequence would have been worth hooks’ mention, since it fits in line with her argument that the film is overall a defeatist text when it comes to female empowerment.

 

I feel the themes of hooks’ essay could easily be applied to other Spike Lee films. Throughout the course of his career, Lee has caught lots of flack for misrepresentation or lack of representation of women. His follow up film to She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze (1988) also received a lot of criticism for being antifeminist; relegating women to the role of sexual object, or having inconsequential opinions. Lee has been trying to live this reputation down ever since he embarked on his first film.

 

 

 

Images taken from the internet used without permission for illustrative effect and not for profit

 

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