Despite Spike Lee’s many talents as a filmmaker, he still has a blind spot when it comes to women, portraying them in the same (or worse) terms as the white patriarchy his films react against. Female characters in his films are often flat, representing sex or temptation. Women are treated as a commodity/corrupting force, placed on the same level as drugs and alcohol, lying in wait to corrupt men. Women are portrayed as over-sexed, they’ve just gotta have it. The three main types of women in Spike’s films are: betrayers, “whores,” and mother/sisters. He also uses women as a symbol of white power, either in and of themselves or as a perk of white male power. Nonetheless, there are a few strong female characters in Spike’s films, though mostly in the roles of mother or sister. Spike Lee’s female characters function mainly to prop up his ideal of masculinity and as support for his major themes, rather than being fully developed and multi-dimensional like his male characters.
While Spike’s portrayal of black sexuality is empowering due to the lack of representation in mainstream filmmaking, it places the focus of his films on sex, and the woman as a sexual object. The Root has a great post on “Spike’s Woman Problem.” Theblackactor.com talks about his use of women as sex objects. The female body remains the visual focus. Women either become the passive object of male sexual action, or sexually insatiable animals. Nola Darling in She’s Gotta Have It functions in both ways. In the sex scenes she is largely acted upon, particularly in the scene with Mars Blackmon, yet she is portrayed as having an overpowering sexual desire that is somehow unnatural (through the eyes of the men in the film). In the scene with Mars all we see is one breast (like a mountain) that Mars’ shadow slowly covers until his mouth comes into frame and covers her breast. The men describe Nola as a “freak” desiring a six armed, six legged, three penis monster. The same treatment is given to Tina in Do the Right Thing. The camera and Mookie move across her body drawing attention to each body part, “thank god for knees, thank god for elbows.” Even in Inside Man, Sylvia (Detective Frazier’s girlfriend) is depicted in her underwear, waiting for her man to come home. While depicting black sexuality is one of Spike Lee’s strengths he continues to use the female body as an object for male consumption, both for the men in the film and the audience, in the same manner as the dominant Hollywood cinema. Along with the more subtle forms of sexualization there are the over-the-top, almost pornographic sex scenes in School Daze and He Got Game. Jane is a sexual object throughout the film, representing the standard of beauty. The first sex scene with Julian serves almost as worship rather than lovemaking. She licks his scalp, his chest, and his G Phi G brand in a seemingly intoxicated haze. The scene moves forward in fragments between her licking his body and her facedown on the bed with a look of ecstasy on her face. The threesome scene in He Got Game is even more clearly pornographic, the epitome of male fantasy. Jesus enters a room to find two naked white women with long blonde hair who smother him with their enormous breasts. They exist in the film merely to please him, and lure him to Tech U.
The idea of women as commodity is most evident in the Tech U segment of He Got Game. The bait for Tech U to ensnare basketball star Jesus are white women who come up and kiss you for no reason at all, who will be at your door the minute you “want it” and even wash your underwear, as well as the threesome with the two blondes. They swarm Jesus, kissing him the moment they find out who he is, watching him and leering from the other table, as the Tech U student tells him how badly they “want it” and how “sisters make you work too hard” while white women just give it away. The currency of sex is used to buy Jesus for Tech U in the same way that the other schools and the pro-agent attempt to buy Jesus with cars, expensive jewelry, and money. The idea of women as a commodity falls into the same idea of women as objects or property to be used, traded, and sold by men. The same way that Julian passes Jane off as an object to be used by Half-Pint, and the Nation of Islam sees women as objects to be protected, Tech U uses the female body to purchase Jesus Shuttlesworth’s talent. The final expression of this idea of women as a commodity is prostitution, which is also highly present in Spike’s films.