Is 'Straight Outta Compton' Straight Sexist?
...And how much does it matter?
Straight Outta Compton repped for the West Side and took over the box office this weekend with an astounding $60 million. The landmark biopic follows the rise of legendary hip hop group N.W.A. from its humble beginnings on the streets of Compton, California to recording the controversial hit “F*** Tha Police,” as well as tensions (and eventual reconciliation) between members Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, MC Ren and DJ Yella. The movie has been acclaimed by fans and critics for the amazing performance of its male actors. O’ Shea Jackson Jr. plays an uncanny resemblance to his real life dad, Ice Cube, and Jason Mitchell does an incredible job as the beleaguered, but vulnerable Eazy-E.
But what about the women?
Straight Outta Compton has been fraught with its portrayal of women. Even before the movie hit the big screen, a casting call went public that honestly made our skin crawl. Ranking women by letter (A through D), the company in charge of finding female actresses made audacious requests like: “A GIRLS: These are the hottest of the hottest. Models. MUST have real hair - no extensions, very classy looking, great bodies,” “B GIRLS: These are fine girls, long natural hair, really nice bodies. Small waists, nice hips. You should be light-skinned. Beyonce is a prototype here,” “C GIRLS: These are African-American girls, medium to light skinned with a weave” while at the bottom of the heap, “D GIRLS: These are African-American girls. Poor, not in good shape. Medium to dark skin tone.” Racist and sexist anyone? The company ended up apologizing, but for many, the damage was done.
Now, another scene is getting backlash. During a sex scene in the movie, Eazy-E is hooking up with a groupie named “Felicia." Her boyfriend comes in to intervene, so Eazy and the group come after him with shotguns. Ice Cube chastises the girl and locks her outside the hotel room—she’s topless—but not before he pushes her head and says, “Bye, Felicia!”
The infamous #ByeFelicia meme got its start in the 1995 movie Friday (which stars Ice Cube and was directed by Straight Outta Compton’s F. Gary Gray), so O’ Shea Jackson Jr. decided to give it an origin story. Yes, the scene got a laugh in the theatre, but it left a bad aftertaste of slut-shaming and misogyny.
Therein lies the issue with Straight Outta Compton. It’s a great movie. Anyone interested in the 90s or remembering when rap was loud and political should check it out. But I can’t help but cringe at the marginalized position of women. Women in the world of N.W.A. largely play one role—groupie. They’re ready, willing and able to have sex with the group members whether in hotel rooms, tour buses or at Eazy’s famous pool parties. When they’re not displaying T&A, women are nuisances. Dr. Dre has baby mama drama from a girl who’s interrupting his recording sessions and his mama is a pain in his side. The film also glosses over Dre’s real-life issues with domestic assault and allegations of abuse, though in the most recent issue of Rolling Stone, Dre took responsibility for his 1991 assault on TV personality Dee Barnes.
The only women shown in a positive light are the respective wives of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E. The latter’s wife (Tomica Woods-Wright) is depicted as a business-savvy woman who helps him get his failing Ruthless Records in order and forgives him after he contracts AIDS from unprotected sex. Woods-Wright is a producer on Straight Outta Compton so obviously she had more control on her portrayal than say, A Girl or D Girl.
It’s not surprising that a movie about N.W.A. shows women as bitches and hoes because, let’s be honest, in the world of N.W.A., women were likely just that a lot of the time. A bunch of horny young guys with money and infinite access to girls gone wild? We know how this goes. What’s sad is how little has changed in hip hop today.
When asked about N.W.A.’s lyrical treatment of women, Ice Cube shared this uncomfortable thought to Rolling Stone: "If you're a bitch, you're probably not going to like us. If you're a ho, you probably don't like us. If you're not a ho or a bitch, don't be jumping to the defense of these despicable females. Just like I shouldn't be jumping to the defense of no punks or no cowards or no slimy son of a bitches that's men. I never understood why an upstanding lady would even think we're talking about her."
Over 25 years after N.W.A.’s debut, women are still facing the same bitches and hoes stereotypes. Whether in the musical content, imagery or behind-the-scenes politics of working in the industry, we as women struggle with being diminished and defined first and foremost, by our sexuality. You’re either a bitch, a ho or a good girl. Pick one or rather, men will pick for you. Straight Outta Compton is a huge success for hip hop, but it proves that we still have a long way to go.