She’s Gotta Have It Failed In Its Representation of Black Women’s Bodies
"Historically, hair and ass politics are often evoked in intense moments of racialization."
Is this what romance feels like? I wanted to like Spike Lee’s new She’s Gotta Have It Netflix series. I wanted messianic communion with the first director I ever claimed. What I did not want, nor have ever wanted, was an attempt at radical television.
Since it was released in November, She’s Gotta Have It has been written about as a political statement on feminism, polyamory, gentrification, and black cultural politics. A word that’s often glossed is romance. For Lee, the romantic convention—a narrative tradition of quest, heroism, and heterosexual unions—has long been a political strategy. His aesthetic is not to be romantic about racism, but to use romance as a way of combatting and unveiling the forces of American racism, which have always fought themselves on and around women’s bodies. Despite the onscreen presence of women in She’s Gotta Have It, the only truly complex character is Spike Lee himself—but he’s too in love with his own fabrications to notice.
While 27-year-old protagonist Nola Darling (played by DeWanda Rise) is still the principal heroine in Spike Lee’s recent reboot, the 1986 film is much more distinctly about Nola and her boys (or is it the boys and their Nola?). The new show, however, puts pressure on the singular “she” in the title. In Lee’s Netflix take (and it is indeed like a “take”), he expands his repertoire to include a Sex and the City-like foursome: protagonist Nola, token white girl Rachel (Elise Hudson), bougie and respectable gallery girl Clorinda Bradford (Margot Bingham), and the one holdover from the film, “tough” single mom with a Jafakin’ accent, Shemekka Epps (Chyna Layne). More caricatures than characters, Lee’s girl group speaks in memes and tropes.
Nola, nobody’s darling, is presented as the ideal black feminist: she wears her hair natural but still has an impeccable curl pattern, employs phrases like “radical self care,” ensures all of Brooklyn that she’s no “freak,” sleeps with both men and women (but mostly men), and probably has the following Twitter bio: “sex positive, polyamorous, pansexual.” The message here (and the show is indeed full of moralistic messages disguised as hashtagged titles) is that we have evolved past the early 1990s shift in black popular culture toward a Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj style of black feminist freak politics. Lee, who directed every episode, is declaring we should know better.
In fact, the entirety of She’s Gotta Have It is Spike Lee screaming about everything he thinks he knows. But beneath this bland version of feminism is something more pernicious; Lee confuses objectification for celebration. It is on the cartoonish treatment of Shemekka’s body that the militantly enduring feminist issue of beauty standards are played out. Historically, hair and ass politics are often evoked in intense moments of racialization by players as wide-ranging as racists, complicit liberals, black feminists, and black intellectual men. Shemekka—or “Mekka”—is the one black girl who is not involved in a romantic relationship. She is single, not singular. She is a figure marked by scorn and baby daddy drama. She is straight out of the U.S. Department of Labor’s infamous 1965 Moynihan Report: the ghetto girl tainting the economic and political black future with the spirited touch of matriarchy.
Mekka likes to wear weave and wants a bigger ass. These desires, which become decisions, are both very mundane and also made to look foolish, criminal, and malign. In the second episode, “#BootyFull,” written by Radha Blank, Nola is working on a portrait of “The Free Black Female Form,” for a feminist art prize. Shemekka has agreed to model (we assume, unpaid). When the unfinished portrait is unveiled, Mekka is disappointed. Couldn’t Nola have given her a bit more in the back? Nola already agreed to the “fake phantom-ass weave,” and wants something “realistic.” This prompts a Women’s Studies 101 discussion about beauty standards: Nola loves her body and wouldn’t change a thing about it! How righteous. This is something a man would say, and I say that even though I know this episode was written by a woman.
In other words, women are also trained to think like men—with a bombastic lack of nuance and grace. Nola’s mother Septima (Joie Lee) says Shemekka is basic. “Have you ever seen her natural hair? She’s hiding all of that beautiful brown,” says Septima. New York Times television critic James Poniewozik, who didn’t mention Mekka at all, wrote that “the scripts are attuned to the nuances of sexism.” But in the world of Spike Lee, feminism, if we want to use that word, is several decades behind.
In the episode written by Spike’s younger brother, Cinqué, Shemekka eventually gets a back-alley butt injection procedure at the Metro Motel in a scene reminiscent of Macy Gray’s black-market abortion scene in Tyler Perry’s adaptation, For Colored Girls. In She’s Gotta Have It, the socio-economic decisions are ostentatiously downplayed in favour of self-esteem issues, but we cannot forget that Mekka, who works as a waitress at a burlesque supper club called Hot N Trot, wants to make more money as a dancer to support herself and her young daughter. Boss man Winnie Win (played by Fat Joe) won’t let her dance because he says she doesn’t have the ass for it.
Nola doesn’t agree with her friend Mekka’s desire for body modification. The paralleled inclusion of the fictional reality television show “She Ass’ed For It” suggests Lee is the kind of man who thinks his sexualized aesthetic preference constitutes good politics and women’s freedom. If I had a dad who thought himself a feminist, I would imagine him like Spike. “Sweetie, put down the hair iron; you are beautiful just the way you are!”
When Nola sees Mekka’s new ass over FaceTime, she is stunned and speechless. Mekka knows what she wants and responds with an imperative: “Say congratulations.” Yes, Mekka knows what she wants and tries to take it but in the end, however, in an absurd scene where her ass splatters open during her first dance performance, Lee punishes her, moulding her into the most trite standard for black women: a mere symbol of suffering and in need of governance.