Spike Lee has difficulty creating a female character that can be both sexual and a strong woman (though there are some exceptions). Almost every woman in Spike’s films fits into the virgin/whore complex (particularly in the films he wrote). Genius Bastard (reposted on Shadow And Act) has a run down of Spike’s 10 Worst Female Characters. Even Anna Paquin’s character in 25th Hour, though still a teenager, becomes a sexual object. She is described as jailbait and becomes the object of her teacher’s fantasy. Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, and He Got Game are the most overtly concerned with prostitution. In all three films prostitution depicts either a woman’s fall, or a fallen woman and it is usually combined with other social problems, such as drugs and abuse. In Jungle Fever, prostitution is portrayed as a side effect of drug addiction; women give blow jobs to be able to afford crack. It is seen as the lowest a woman can fall. In the last scene of the film a woman comes up to Flipper offering to “suck his dick” (as Halle Berry’s character did while he was with his daughter earlier in the film) and he screams “No!” breaking the fourth wall and implicating the audience. This is one of the more effective ways Spike critiques the issue of prostitution. In Malcolm X, we witness the fall of Malcolm’s first girlfriend Laura who he rejects for a white woman. In the beginning, she is a fairly strong woman, she refuses to “give it up” to Malcolm and sticks to her principles. The next time we see her she is being abused by her drug addicted boyfriend, and in the final shot of her in the film she kneels in front of a white man, exhibiting her fall into prostitution.
The way the film deals with this issue is to propose the Nation of Islam as a solution. While the tenets of the Nation of Islam solve some of the problems, moving away from drugs and towards self-respect, the women are still dominated by the men. Most explicitly, one of the banners at a rally reads “We must protect our women, our most valuable property.” While moving away from prostitution women still remain objects. Finally, Milla Jovovich’s character Dakota Burns is a prostitute in an abusive relationship with her pimp, Sweetness, who is redeemed in the end of the film through her relationship with Jake Shuttlesworth. The first time we see her in the film she is being beaten by Sweetness. As her pimp and her lover/abuser he is dominating and exploiting her in two ways. When she meets Jake she rattles off a string of excuses for staying with him that ring false to the audience and we see the show she is putting on to become this commodity. She is the epitome of a fallen woman, both prostitute and victim of abuse, unable to break free because of the same conditions that brought her there, yet Jake treats her as a lady (though he pays her) and wants to at least pretend their relationship is something more. He admonishes the police officers for their derogatory terms for women, stating that she is a lady. In the end we see her leave town, perhaps having gained back a sense of self-respect, and the idea that she deserves better.
In opposition to the prostitutes and overly sexualized women in Spike’s film, there are the mother/sister characters, that while being stripped of any kind of sexuality, manage to be fairly strong women. The characters played by Joie Lee (Jade) and Ruby Dee (Mother Sister) in Do The Right Thing are strong women who express their opinions. Jade has herself together and admonishes Mookie to take care of his responsibilities, yet at the first threat of sexual attraction to her by Sal both Mookie and Pino flip out. She tells Bugging Out to leave Sal alone, but is largely ineffectual. Mother Sister argues with Da Mayor, likewise admonishing him for being a drunk, though she lightens up when he saves a child. She is unafraid to speak her mind, and her outraged voice is heard over the riot after the death of Radio Raheem. Yet, for the most part, her character sits passively in her windowsill watching the world go by. In He Got Game, Jesus’ mother and sister are strong female characters as well. His sister is spunky and smart, talking back to her brother, yet supporting him. His mother forms the basis of his moral compass and the strength of his decision to go to college, yet because she is dead we see her only through flashbacks and she cannot be a fully developed character.
The virgin/whore complex is made explicit in Summer of Sam with the character of Dionna and her husband Vinnie. Vinnie sees the world in terms of virgins and whores. He will not engage in certain sexual acts with his wife because in spite of their marriage he still sees her as virginal and chaste, so instead he has affairs with every other woman in town, doing things with them he would never do with his wife. Dionna wants her husband to see her as sexual and is unsatisfied with their sex life. She wants to get out of the virgin/whore dichotomy and be able to be a woman. She tries dressing up for him and pretending she is someone else, but he feels too guilty to follow through, yet still cannot stop cheating. He finally sees her as sexual when they end up at an orgy in New York City and he sees her get off with another man and woman. He is extremely jealous and they get into a fight in the car, the minute he is forced to see her as sexual she becomes a whore like the rest:
Dionna: I am a slut? You’re calling me a slut? You lowlife piece of shit- you fucked- my- cousin! You didn’t think I knew about that! I smelled her pussy juice all over your fuckin’ face! You fuckin’ sick bastard! How dare you? And all this time I’m thinking there’s something wrong with me. You perverted sick fuck!
She will no longer accept the roles of virgin and whore. She calls him a whore in return and he tells her “I can’t be a whore. I’m a man!” Masculinity, particularly Spike’s brand of masculinity will not accept the concept of whore. Vinnie can cheat as much as he wants and he can never be a whore or a slut. Meanwhile, the minute Dionna becomes sexual to him she is a “slut” and “whore.” Yet, Dionna is one of the strongest women in Spike’s films. She demands to be both sexual and respected, accepting neither the role of virgin nor whore, which her husband wants to place her in. Once he is revealed to her as the cheating man he is he no longer has any power over her. When he threatens her with violence she denies it, and by the end of the film she is more powerful than he is. While he falls apart and begs for her to take him back she refuses. Even when he threatens to kill himself, she makes him leave.
Ruby in Summer of Sam is also a strong woman, despite being somewhat lost and lacking in identity. She is unhappy with her life as it is, and takes the opportunity to change it through Richie. She takes on a different persona to have greater agency, strength and freedom. She wants to get out and Richie gives her the chance to do so. She is still somewhat stripped of her sexuality by doing so, though she asserts her desires to Richie. Most telling, Ruby is the only one who sees Richie for who he is and accepts him. She understands how ludicrous the idea of Richie as the Son of Sam is and she defends him to the Dead End Gang, even in the end when they are beating him. Another example of strong women in Spike Lee films comes from the war council scene in Jungle Fever (not written by Spike). The women in this scene strongly express their opinions, analyzing both women and men and calling the men out for their behavior. Finally Clockers is the first film where a woman acts as the voice of Spike Lee. Iris, Shorty’s mother, confronts the drug dealers calling them by their real names, saying that she knows them for who they are. She admonishes them for selling poison to their own people (taking on Spike Lee’s perspective). She threatens Strike, and tells him to stay away from her son, she does not want his influence over him. She stands up for herself and asserts her power.
For a female spectator it is difficult to accept Spike Lee’s message when it comes in a misogynistic package. While we may identify and agree with some of his characters and themes we are put off by the flat female characters and the roles that are given to us as women. Spike’s portrayal of women gets in the way of his point because it makes it inaccessible to us. There is no place for a liberated, strong, sexual woman in his film, there is no model for us to identify with. All there is for women in Spike’s films is to be objectified and weakened. We grow angry, or shrink down in our seats at the behavior/treatment of women on screen. We leave the theater with our identities battered, and our egos smashed. While we may have missed the message of Spike’s film, Spike himself missed the point. You cannot successfully assert the rights of one dominated people while misrepresenting another.