More on Spike Lee's non-poly not-so-feminism
When Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It series came out on Netflix two weeks ago — a rework of his movie from 31 years back, with a new, "polyamorous pansexual" Nola Darling for today's world — I quoted Lee from a Vice interview: "I have no idea what the word “polyamory” means. What is it? Polly wants a cracker? What are you talking about? [Laughs.]"
The new Nola is certainly a self-assured woman in full charge of herself. But after a first wave of positive reviews for the show's feminist intent — and high hopes from the poly world — we're seeing a lot of critical second thoughts. Especially from the black, queer and/or poly women who could have been its biggest fans.
Let's dive in. (Spoilers ahead.)
● Autostraddle, "the world’s most popular lesbian website," presents a discussion, Spike Lee’s Queer-ish Remake of “She’s Gotta Have It” Would Have Been Better Without Spike Lee (December 11, 2017):
By Carmen Phillips and Alaina
...The new She’s Gotta Have It has sparked a nuanced discussion among black women and black queer folks, with some calling the series “a feminist breakthrough” and others pointing out that it maligns representations of queerness and polyamory. ...
Carmen: I have a lot of conflicting feelings about Spike Lee. I think he’s one of the most important black filmmakers of the last 30 years, but also he has been incredibly damaging when it comes to the portrayals of black women. ...
Spike Lee in 2012
Alaina: [The series displays] a clear lack of perspective from actual black queer women. In the 1980s, Nola being an upper middle class black woman who was slept around felt radical and innovative to viewers, and in the remake, Nola’s pansexuality and polyamory is [still] framed as what makes her radical. I have to believe that there were no queer women in the writers room, because had there been there’s no way that queerness would’ve been equated with radicalness. Because yes, being queer is fun and amazing, but it’s also regular as hell! The idea that queerness isn’t regular or normal has kept a lot of people in the closet for a long time, and Lee is furthering that misconception through his characterization of Nola.
I was also troubled by the way that Nola’s polyamory is attached with her queer identity because of the ways it furthered the idea that non-monosexual and non-monogamous folks don’t know what they want. ... This shit pissed me off! Polyamory takes so much work! [And] people don’t date women because they want a self-care break from men! There wasn’t a person behind these sexualities, there was a stereotype....
Carmen: So, I’m not polyamorous, and one of the reasons I’m not sure if polyamory would work for me is because, as you mentioned, it takes a lot of emotional and physical work. That wasn’t shown in the series at all. ... I think it’s worth paying attention to the nuance between being a single woman who is casually dating multiple people ... and being polyamorous. She’s Gotta Have It conflates the two in ways that are absolutely damaging.
Alaina: Shemekka is the show’s only representation of a poor black woman living in Brooklyn, and her desires are at best mocked; at worst, they almost kill her. It’s as if Spike Lee really doesn’t think that women, especially poor women, know what they want to be happy, and that it’s his job to teach them what they really want by showing what can go wrong when a woman attempts to change herself. ...
Shemekka (left) and Nola (center) after a dance class
● In a very different place, the student newspaper of Oxford University, Cherwell, says Spike Lee Doesn't Have It (Dec. 11):
By Imogen Edwards-Lawrence
“I’m a sex positive polyamorous pansexual, and monogamy never even seemed like a remote possibility.” ... This bold assertion of female sexual empowerment caused a wide range of groups, from women of colour to the LGBTQ+ community, to eagerly anticipate the show’s supposedly revolutionary portrayal, not only of the lives of contemporary black women, but more broadly of the usually side-lined polyamory.
...In reality, Spike Lee’s series becomes a classic case of using labels for the sake of branding....
Lee creates a jarring divide between Nola’s polyamorous existence and her attraction to women. ... Nola is not capable of reconciling polyamory and attraction to her own gender, as all of her encounters with Opal are predicated on her desire to be monogamous.
...The role of women as sexual agents has clearly evolved since the original film. ... And yet, the constant assertion that her polyamory is equatable to fear of commitment, along with the continual pressure from each man to enstate himself as her singular partner, highlights a deficit in Lee’s understanding of the nuances of a polyamorous existence. ...
● On the Black Youth Project site, Veronica Morris Moore writes He’s gotta stop it (Dec. 12), including,
Nola isn’t polyamorous, she’s a toxic intimacy vampire.
...Labeling Nola as a sex positive, polyamorous pansexual is the ultimate clickbait for the New Millennium. A ton of hopeful Black sex positive, non-monogamous, queer, trans, and non-linear people have just been catfished.
We highly anticipated (with reservations) the release of this series with the expectation that we could fall in love with a show on a major platform that finally, FINALLY, affirmed the ways we give and receive love and engage in sex that are not rooted in heteronormative traditions.
...Polyamory is more than just having multiple sexual relationships with the knowledge of all involved. It’s a romantic belief system that there are infinite ways to ethically and responsibly cultivate and sustain intimate relationships that are lively and profound, without the limitations of monogamy (and heteropatriarchy). Polyamorous and non-monogamous people, while dating and having sex with multiple people, also build long-term relationships and sometimes unorthodox families.
Instead of adhering to an ethical polyamory belief system, Nola presents as nothing more than a stereotypical cliché. An idea of how monogamous people assume most polyamorous lovers are. ...
● A reviewer at HelloGiggles.com: Is Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It" really as feminist as it thinks it is? (Nov. 30):
By Tiffany Curtis
...On the surface, the She’s Gotta Have It reboot appears to be making strides for the very fact that we have a Black millennial female lead who boldly declares her sexuality and refuses to be placed into neat, conventional boxes. Nola juggles multiple men without catching feelings, lets her type 3 curls run free, and spends the entire first season trying to reclaim what it means to be a woman of color who enjoys having sex often, while moving about the world with little personal responsibility.
But it turns out, Spike Lee’s heavy-handed brand of feminism may not be as powerful as it claims.
...Lee is a very much a 60-year-old man trying to rewrite a 1980s character for a Millennial audience. It can be felt in his treatment of [the catcalling] plot line, where Nola makes bold sentiments and a bold anti-street-harassment [campaign] only to have it overshadowed by her being painted as a damsel in distress by men in interactions that are supposed to feel liberated and empowered. And that line of failure continues throughout the show.
...If there was ever an example of feminism being driven by the male gaze, it can be seen in the uncomfortable scene in which Shemekka receives illegal butt injections. The climax in Episode Six comes when a silicone-filled Shemekka’s butt literally erupts after she performs a dance routine. ... While illegal plastic surgery is a reality, Lee’s attempt to grapple with this for a twenty-something audience feels more like a parable that uses mansplaining to shame women who want to change their appearance....
...Between Nola’s judgment of Shemekka’s vulnerability and painting an Afro onto her portrait when she wanted a weave, her dismissal of Clorinda’s feelings for Mars, and her using Opal as a means of sexual detox from the men in her life, it becomes evident that the female interactions and friendships are pretty shady. ... So much of the series gets bogged down by male-centric views, and Black female sexuality is still depicted as a commodity that features bisexuality as a novelty and not-so-subtle warnings about being a sex-positive Black woman. ...
● BitchMedia: “She's Gotta Have It” Butchers Polyamory and Queerness (Nov. 29):
By Evette Dionne
...Throughout the series, Darling maintains strict rules designed to keep her men from overlapping in her “loving bed.”
For instance, she ... refuses to go on dates with her partners; never has sex with two of them in the same day; and requires them to call before coming to her house. Darling’s rules are designed to maintain ownership over her body, her time, and her agency, but when translated on-screen, her decision-making seems primarily rooted in her own insecurities, narcissism, and inability to communicate — all of which must be sidelined to negotiate successful polyamorous relationships. None of the people Darling is intimate with are polyamorous, so each of them is pressuring her to be monogamous.
...When Darling embarks on a “radical self-care” journey and swears off having sex with men, she falls back into an one-sided sexual relationship with Gilstrap. ... But again, everything about her relationship with Gilstrap is about her. ... When she’s on a break from having sex with men, Gilstrap is a viable option. When she needs to be bailed out of jail, Gilstrap is someone she can turn to. But when she’s not feeling vulnerable, Gilstrap is put into rotation, just like her other partners. If polyamorous relationships are predicated on boundaries and communication, Darling fails time and time again to take her partners into account when she’s making decisions that impact them. ...
Nowhere is this emotional disconnect more present than when she invites Overstreet, Blackmon, and Childs to her house for Thanksgiving without telling them they’ll be meeting each other. Darling never asks them if they want to meet or gave them a choice in the matter. ... That ironclad selfishness ... is framed as a revolutionary step forward for sex-positive Black women. In some respects it is, but it also leaves no room for her partners' desires and wishes.
...There’s a poignant scene midway through the series when the new Nola Darling meets the original Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns). A chill went over me. It’s a reminder that a lot has shifted over the past 31 years, particularly as it relates to how we understand Black women’s sexuality. The new Nola Darling exists in Brooklyn with a carefreeness and freedom that wasn’t imaginable in 1986, let alone a part of our cultural landscape. Yet, as much progress as She’s Gotta Have It has made, there’s still something missing — a polyamory and sexual fluidity that’s not rooted in selfishness, uncertainty, and narcissism.
● Refinery 29 on that climactic dinner in the final episode: The Most Awkward, Empowering Thanksgiving Ever (Nov. 23):
...Despite the fact the dinner gave me physical anxiety, [it's] also the most empowering, joyful episode of the entire season.
Although the men ... try to make Thanksgiving about themselves, the event couldn’t have less to do with them. Rather, it’s about Nola exploring what makes her happy and whom she wants to spend her time with. If one of these men chooses to judge her on her preferences, he can kick rocks.
That’s why it’s so satisfying to hear the answer to Greer’s sexist screech during dinner, “What kind of a lady–?” Nola cuts [him] off [and says] “–Acts like a man?” That’s the root of all three of these suitors' problems. Nola is treating them all the way stereotypically commitment-averse men treat the women who are interested in them, and she’s not apologizing for it.
● AV Club: She’s Gotta Have It explores the men’s inner lives but it feels too late (Dec. 11):
Greer and Nola
...Polyamory allows for romantic intimacy, and if you can show me a straight woman in her mid-twenties that isn’t excited that a man wants to take her on ... dates, I can show you a god damn liar. There’s no explanation for why Nola rejects Greer. There’s an invisible line that these men keep crossing and she rejects them. Without knowing what that line is, Nola is just infuriating. For someone who supposedly loves sex, we don’t see her having much sex or enjoying it very much. Nola feels like a liberated, sexual woman written by someone who is scandalized by casual sex.
● A HuffPost reviewer: Spike Lee’s ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ Show Is Black Art That’s Free To Be Mediocre (Dec. 7, 2017):
By Zeba Blay
...Nola is not so much a sex-positive, polyamorous, pansexual, black feminist 20-something artist living in Brooklyn as she is the idea of one.
...Nola ― and, indeed, everyone around her ― talks in hashtags, dresses like an Afropunk attendee, and makes constant pop culture and film references that are supposed to seem worldly and cultured but just read as random and superfluous. ... Nola declares herself to be proudly sex-positive, polyamorous and queer, and yet the lack of transparency between herself and her lovers throughout the series suggests that not only Nola, but the show’s creators, aren’t quite sure what to make of these concepts.
...“She’s Gotta Have It” has moments of genuine brilliance: Anthony Ramos’ weird, hilarious performance as one of Nola’s lovers; the excellent soundtrack of entirely of black music; the commentary on gentrification in Fort Greene, police brutality and Donald Trump; DeWanda Wise’s everything.
With Mars (Anthony Ramos)
But the show’s flaws are numerous, and it has rightly been called out for them ― for its limited representation of queer black female sexuality, for its unconscious misogyny, for its shallow radicalism. ...
● The Atlantic hosted a thoughtful, nuanced roundtable of four of its black writers: Does She's Gotta Have It Live Up to Its Promise? The last paragraph:
...So much time [in the series] is spent exploring some of the original themes and tenets of the film, and how they fit into the present day, that the series misses plenty of new chances to advance the current conversation about black womanhood, sexuality, gentrification, power, and community in a deeply meaningful way. And that’s a shame, because the moment is ripe for a truly innovative look at all those issues, no less from an artist like Lee.
Don't get the wrong idea — these reviews have good things to say too. But in all of it, I haven't heard a peep that this self-described "polyamorous" series doesn't set back public understanding of polyamory.