Chi-Raq And The 'Sex-Strike' Myth, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A female reader responds to Ta-Nehisi’s critical take on Spike Lee’s comments to Stephen Colbert last week:

Wow, Spike Lee really is serious about the sex strike thing! Here he is in The Washington Post saying “So let me ask a question, are you going to stand behind that feminist stance and say why should we women do it? Or are you going to save your children? ... As a feminist, you should want, I think correctly, that you should want for murders to stop.”

He’s actually serious. (Aristophanes wasn’t). Wow.

I’m here for retellings of “Lysistrata,” I really am. My old undergraduate drama society did a lovely version that took into account the annoyance that such a strategy would cause women in the long term, via subtle visual cues that even Lysistrata was getting sick of not having any sex. It was played for laughs, of course. Everything in “Lysistrata” ought to be played for laughs. It’s a funny story! But it’s not realistic.

Coates has it right.

The power of a sex strike is drastically over-played. I am reminded of Dale Spender’s observation in the 1980s that “the talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence.” Similarly, the power of women has been gauged in comparison with powerlessness. Power over our own bodies turns into something larger-than-life as a result. People start thinking we can use it to create world peace, when really we’re still struggling to gain that right in ways that allow us to be at peace with ourselves.

It’s not that feminists themselves haven’t raised the idea, of course. When I was growing up, there really were feminists who thought sex should be reserved for the deserving men, and they complained about girls these days letting their side down by having sex with undeserving, sexist boys. That idea fell out of favor, though, in part because it was focused on the idea of sex as a commodity for men, rather than as a mutual thing that both men and women may enjoy.

I dunno how it is with racism, but in my experience, every issue with sexism is fought on at least two fronts at once. The people who say homemakers are undervalued are right, and the people who say that women need to be allowed to focus on a career outside the home are also right. The people who say that it’s wrong that all the girl toys are pink are right, and the people who say that we’ve got to stop associating pinkness with vapidity are also right. The people who say that we need to work on getting the power to say “no” to sex are right, and the people who say that we need to work on getting the power to say “yes” to sex are right.

In feminism, you just fight the front you’re on and try not to throw shit at the people fighting on other fronts. We’ve tried the technique where one person says “Everybody pull left!” and then starts insulting all the people in completely different situations who want to push right instead. It hasn’t worked out well for us. We have to listen to each other, especially to people whose voices are in danger of being silenced, because there are a lot of different women in the world.

Those “feminist” comments from Lee are certainly bizarre and off-putting, but the rest of his Post interview is worth reading for precisely the same “both/and, not either/or” outlook as our reader’s. For example:

Wesley Lowery: I was going to say, that scene was so powerful because that does deliver the structural critique of the movie [which puts gang shootings and police brutality and economic underdevelopment all in the same conversation], the backbone of the message here. But the movie is also very clear about the individual personal responsibility that several of the characters have to take upon themselves if they want to see this type of structural change.

Spike Lee: It’s got to be both. And I’ll give another example, sir. I was on the streets of New York, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, so I believe in Black Lives Matter. I was chanting ‘Don’t shoot,’ I was chanting ‘I can’t breathe.’ But you can’t be silent on the other hand when we’re killing ourselves. It’s not just the cops. So, I think morally, you gotta speak out on both sides, and that’s what this film’s about.

The film seems potent and thought-provoking in all kinds of ways, but if nothing else, it marks the cinematic return of the inimitable Dave Chappelle after 13 years. And he already has some experience satirizing gang violence in Chicago’s South Side: