There should be a word for fighting one kind of prejudice while simultaneously engaging in another kind of prejudice and being totally blind to that fact. If there was such a word, in the dictionary next to the definition would be a picture of the opening credits of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. In these opening credits a scantily-clad Rosie Perez dances with provocative aggression to “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy.
Let me get something out of the way first: Do the Right Thing is a fantastic film. Sometimes, I internally roll my eyes a bit when it’s brought up because it’s the movie that white people love to pat themselves on the back for having seen and understood. I don’t think seeing it and understanding it is particularly progressive because one, it’s a classic and two, it’s not exactly subtle. But in re-watching it recently I was struck by just how painfully the film mirrors our current social situation and how little [read: none at all] progress has been made since the film’s release in 1989. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
I’m here to bitch about the movie a bit because while Lee does a great job at presenting the complex manifestations of racism, his inability to portray women as whole people borders on sexism.
In Do the Right Thing there are a handful of female characters in a fairly large cast which make up a neighborhood. The three main female characters are Jade, main character Mookie’s sister, Tina [Rosie Perez], Mookie’s girlfriend and the mother of his child, and Mother Sister, a neighborhood fixture. There is also a young girl, Ella, who hangs around with some neighborhood boys.
Each of the main female characters essentially plays the same role in both the film and the lives of the male characters: they do all the emotional heavy lifting. This is a particular stereotype of black women—that they are the voices of reason who keep the men calm. They do all of the emotional work and keep men on the right track. Pun intended, they are the voice in this film that pushes the men to do the right thing.
Jade is giving Mookie a place to stay. She is calm, well-spoken, and moral. She lectures Mookie about slacking off at his job, not being able to keep a job, and relying on her too much. But she does it with such kindness and gentility she’s almost saint-like. She’s also unbelievably naive, invoking the need for male protection. When Sal, the owner of the pizzeria for which Mookie works is so clearly hitting on her, she insists to Mookie that it’s innocent, and he doesn’t mean anything by it. So she’s his moral compass, but she’s also helpless in the most stereotypically feminine way.
Tina represents Mookie’s responsibility as a father to his young son, and she’s also the sex appeal of the film. And that’s where her personality ends. She’s a nag [although she’s nagging for perfectly legitimate reasons like trying to get Mookie to do his part in raising their son], and don’t tell me that Spike Lee didn’t use Rosie Perez’s distinctive voice to that exact purpose. She’s not in the movie much, and a lot of that is a scene during which Mookie rubs ice all over her naked body.
And then there’s Mother Sister. The name says it all. She is is a woman who takes care of things, just as Jade takes care of Mookie and Tina takes care of Mookie’s son. She is sort of an older version of Jade in that she’s a calm, steady voice of reason. She judges men for doing the wrong thing [chastising Da Mayor for drinking too much] and succumbs to them when they do the right thing [she begins to fall for Da Mayor after he saves a boy from being hit by a car].
I don’t think Do the Right Thing is rendered bad because of the one-dimensional portrayal of women, but I do think it could be much more compelling if if the women had personality traits beyond being simply moral compasses and caretakers for the men in the film. And in some ways, I feel that this is an almost petty complaint, given how important to movie is. But I also can’t help but be disappointed when a movie does such a great job and portraying the complex layers of racism while showing a disregard for women as whole, complex human beings. I’m not saying that Lee has a responsibility to speak out against sexism just because he’s speaking out against racism, but I do think he has a responsibility to not portray women in a way that equates sexism.