Spike Lee's Netflix serial adaptation of "She's Gotta Have It" is the latest example that pop culture is FINALLY starting to represent female sexuality on our terms.
The opening scene of Spike Lee’s new Netflix series, She’s Gotta Have It, is intentionally familiar. It duplicates his original film of the same name, a revolutionary look at female sexuality set in not-yet-gentrified 1980s Brooklyn. In the show, like in the film, Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) emerges from beneath her tousled bed sheets to tell us what’s on her mind:
“I want you to know the only reason I’m consenting to this is because I wish to clear my name. Not that I care what people think, but enough is enough. And if in the end it helps some other people out then that’s fine too. I consider myself normal, whatever that is.”
It’s a dialogue that at the same time defends yet refuses to apologize for a woman having agency over her sexuality. For many women, it’s a rallying cry that has historically fallen on deaf ears.
The audacious idea that women claim their sexuality as theirs was still revolutionary in 1996 when Lee used the same monologue to open his film, Girl 6, which also explored the boundaries of female sexuality, sex work, abuse, and the male gaze. Actress-turned-phone-sex-operator Lovely (Theresa Randle) recites the lines during an audition for the would-be role of a lifetime. She never makes it to the empowering conclusion, however. Instead, the director (Quentin Tarantino playing a James Toback type) asks to see her tits and then throws a tantrum when she runs out, humiliated. I’m not saying that Lee is the soothsayer of Hollywood sex politics, but watching that scene now, as the industry crumbles from revelations of abuses that have existed forever, feels eerily clairvoyant.
Lee first imagined Nola Darling as a woman living like a man—single, polyamorous, and resolute in her lifestyle choices. But it’s clear that both her power and vulnerability are uniquely female. Nola enjoys sex with multiple partners—including women—and won’t let the men in her life or her girlfriends make her feel any way about it. At the same time, Nola is consistently faced with the constructs men have created that threaten that freedom. In one episode, Nola buys a too-expensive, extremely little black dress as a way to feel empowered in her body following an assault. As she tries it on she glows from the inside out, filled with self-confidence. When she wears it on dates with her male partners, each tries to cover her up, shrinking her sexuality for the rest of the world, while aggressively claiming it for themselves. Their assumption was that the dress was an offering of the body beneath it. Nola’s furious reaction translates the anger of every woman ever asked (accused, really), “What were you wearing?”
Lee—and his mostly female writing and producing team—portray street harassment, sexual harassment, and assault as commonplace (which they are), but Nola is never a victim. When she’s attacked on the street by a strange man, she is shaken, but not broken. She keeps hookup dates with her paramours, refuses their machismo offers to track the assailant down, and verbally demolishes the guy who suggests that she, having been the female out alone late at night, may be at fault. The way she copes is by turning to her art. She paints beautiful, sexy, real women, including herself; self-love becomes her power.
Elsewhere in entertainment, women’s bodies are finally—finally—being celebrated as beautiful, powerful, sexual, and theirs. The ownership is key, the idea of which is still revolutionary some 30 years after the first Nola Darling insisted, “I’m not a freak” for daring to enjoy sex on her terms. There have been liberated female characters in cinema and television for decades; women daring to have sexual appetites that bucked social norms. But for every Belle du Jour (a bored, sexless housewife rediscovers her passion when she becomes a mid-day prostitute), there is a Looking for Mr. Goodbar (a young, insecure schoolteacher finds confidence when she starts courting sexual relationships with men—and is then raped and murdered by one), reminding women that there are consequences to daring to live freely in their sexual skin.
But now, despite the plague of rampant misogyny in every corner of society—or perhaps because of it—female sexuality is having a moment in popular culture, and it’s a fix we’ve been craving.
In television, film, and even music videos—long a medium reserved for the highest forms of misogyny—women are getting laid, using their bodies as billboards for their own sexual desires, and inspiring a revolution that feels natural because it reflects women not as victims of a patriarchy that puts them in a cage, but as warriors who can come—and cum—as they like.
A brilliant expression of this freedom is the new video to “Lemon” by Rihanna and N.E.R.D. which begins with Rihanna cradling dancer Mette Towley’s head, caressing it, and then shaving it clean. It’s not shocking, but rather, beautiful, sisterly, even “liberating,” as writer Rebecca Carroll puts it:
“There’s an elegant insouciance to Rihanna’s method of cutting—neither precise nor careful, she runs the clipper over Towely’s head with a quiet ferocity that looks like she’s pretty certainly plotting a movement,” Carroll writes. “Rihanna discards a shorn lock of Towely’s hair as if it’s the patriarchy, and when she’s finished the whole head, leans into Towely, woman to woman, skin to skin, anointing her so she can fly.”
Towley not only flies, she grinds, undulates, uses every inch of her body to show what it can do, oozing feminine sexual power. All the while Rihanna is spitting a fierce rap with lines that make clear that this dance, this woman’s body, is not for the male gaze.
I get it how I live it
I live it how I get it
Count the mothafuckin’ digits
I pull up with a lemon
Not ’cause she ain’t livin’
It’s just your eyes get acidic
And this here ain’t a scrimmage
Mothafucka, we ain’t finished
I told you we won’t stop
Female sexuality as reflected through the best in pop culture today doesn’t always look polished. Women don’t need candles and satin sheets or glycerined skin and set lighting to feel empowered by sex, or even enjoy it.
Mothers who sex look like Frankie Shaw of SMILF, a young single mother still figuring her millennial shit out, including how to get laid when you share a studio apartment with a toddler; or Pamela Adlon on Better Things, a divorced mother of three who fits quickies and phone sex in between school dropoffs and casting calls.
Single women in charge of their sexuality see themselves in Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji on Insecure, whose characters each explode their lives by choosing to indulge in carnal desire. Broad City consistently shows women’s sexual desire as normal, rather than taboo. Masturbation, for example, is just another part of a woman’s routine, like getting a manicure or going to the dentist.
Career women who put sexual fulfillment before relationships have been ruling Shondaland—and TV’s ratings—for the past 12 years. Let’s not forget Grey’s Anatomy opened with the morning after a one-night stand, with Meredith being the one to kick her quickie out the door.
Even in the surreal, women’s sexual power is undeniable. In the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale, when Offred (Elisabeth Moss) chooses sex for the first time since her capture and enslavement, she savors it, controlling the pace, the intensity, even how many orgasms she has. In a dystopian world that has taken all power away from women, this defiant act—one for which Offred could be killed—is not only satisfying, but necessary for her survival; without it she is incomplete, a true unwoman.
The original She’s Gotta Have It ends with another memorable monologue that’s worth repeating: “It’s about control. My body, my mind. Who’s gonna own it? Them or me?”
Women know the answer.
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