Film

Bitches Ain’t Shit: On Sex, Gender And Hip Hop In ‘Straight Outta Compton’ And ‘Dope’

'Dope' might be a modern take on the genre, but its treatment of women is old as hell.

Two films, both alike in dignity, released within weeks of each other. Set almost 30 years apart, they tell the same story: of racism in the USA, of police brutality and intimidation tactics perpetrated against people of colour, and of how American young people struggle to break free from the stereotypes and expectations that swallow them.

Fresh in cinemas, Straight Outta Compton and Dope highlight, in very different ways, how hip hop allowed artists like N.W.A., Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan et al to express their political frustrations with an eloquence, fervour and creativity that defied expectations.

Eagerly anticipated – not least by me – F. Gary Gray’s biopic Straight Outta Compton charts the rise and demise of seminal West Coast group N.W.A., while playing into hip hop mythology and raking in those box office Benjamins.

Conversely, Dope is cinematic fan-fic, in awe of artists like Ice Cube and Dr. Dre and all the sub-cultural cachet they carry. Set in the present day, it’s an unabashed throwback to cassettes, flat tops and Air Force 180s. It also incorporates distinctly millennial elements, like party montages unrolled via Snap Chat, and the ubiquitous scent of Pharrell, the film’s executive producer. By exploring and exploiting hip hop tropes, Dope attempts to liberate protagonist Malcolm of the stereotypical expectations that his friends, family and teachers project onto him and other young people of colour.

But for all the self-aware tongue-poking and finger-pointing of both films, the breaking down of one stereotype still leads to the disappointing solidification of a troubling reality: that in hip hop film and music – and often the culture more broadly – the liberty of black men is often equated to the denigration of the women around them.

And by enjoying (elements of) both films, and hip hop in general, I feel shamefully complicit.

Straight Outta Compton (By Way Of Revisionism) 

In rightly demonstrating how racism, hatred and fear result in the oppression of African American men, Straight Outta Compton unwittingly illustrates another reality: the crippling cycle of victimisation, harassment and abuse that marginalises women of colour, and LGBTIQ individuals.

The selective, revisionist history has been widely discussed, and should come as no surprise. Dr. Dre’s multiple recorded physical assaults against women are swept off the screen and under the rug in a film that’s mostly devoid of female characters altogether. On the rare occasion that women do appear, they’re nagging mothers, suspicious girlfriends, or bikini-clad groupies who get ejected from hotel gangbangs by gun-toting millionaire MCs, with a heavy-handed “Bye Felicia!” punchline.

N.W.A. didn’t get called “the world’s most dangerous group” for nothing. But calling out police corruption, then spitting “give ‘em a Tootsie Roll and tell ‘em thanks for the pussy hole does seem like the work of self-fulfilling prophets, preaching opposing ideals of equality and misogyny.

Yet still I found myself busting cinema-seat body rolls to the funky ass bassline of ’Gangsta Gangsta’: “It’s not about a salary; it’s all about reality.”

Dope’s Tale Is Modern, But Its Depiction Of Women Is Anything But

Mixing comedy, drama, romance, crime, cautionary tale, music video and more, Dope is an ADHD ride across genres and styles. Just as it pays tribute to the golden era of hip hop, it also riffs on “white shit” (to quote the film’s narrator), like college entry tests, computer hacking and Childish Gambino.

Director Rick Famuyiwa pokes and prods at typical teen-audience depictions of race, class and – I guess – sexuality. With its teen film tropes like “alone at the prom,” “dutiful mom,” and a narcotic shout-out to Molly Ringwald, Dope tugs at John Hughes’ threads and manages to unravel some.

But it’s still replete with retrograde representations of gender. Set some 25 years after Straight Outta Compton, it suffers the same narrow, shallow, hyper-sexualised depictions of women. While unlikely hero Malcolm is busy fighting racial stereotypes (by peddling MDMA straight outta his locker), female characters are sidelined as moms, nags, and temptresses: on more than one occasion in the film, the coked up model Lily (played by Victoria’s Secret Angel Chanel Iman) publicly degrades herself  — weeing in a bush; vomiting on the lead — for a bit of near-nude comic relief.

But again, I laughed along, swept away by Dope’s quick cuts, hypercolour, and sick soundtrack. In the packed cinema, it was easy to excuse Dope’s limited (at best) portrayal of women. I was afraid of appearing a prude or wet blanket. But as I mull over the vaguely fetishised, all-but-mute lesbian Diggy, or read glowing reviews, I feel I should be accountable for my complicated collusion in Dope’s back-door misogynist values.

What’s Good, Diggy?

One of Dope’s most striking scenes features Diggy attempting to explain to white stoner overlord Will (Workaholics’ Blake Anderson) why white people can’t use “the n word”. Exerting his birthright to do and say whatever he pleases, Will continues to drop n-bombs, while Diggy is silenced into submission. Her friends Malcolm and Jib quietly neglect to back her up, afraid of making waves with their mate Will. Diggy knows what’s good but, unlike her hip hop heroes, she can’t find the words to express it.

This scene stuck with me because it perfectly reflects how I often feel when voicing my thoughts on social issues like sexism and racism. I’m implored to Do The Right Thing, but feel stifled by those who don’t want to rock the boat; who tell me to lighten up, have fun, get a sense of humour.

Too many voices already drown out women’s everyday experiences of systemic misogyny, especially when they’re proliferated through pop culture for the purpose of entertainment. That Straight Outta Compton is set nearly 30 years ago, in an era of outdated social values around gender, is one explanation or excuse. But Dope was made in 2015 and recycles the same limiting, one-dimensional ideas about women on the periphery of hip hop.

Hip Hop Films Remain As Complicated As Ever

Roxane Gay has discussed her inner-conflict about loving hip hop. Like her, I find its melding of eloquence and anger to be infectious and riveting. It makes me want to dance, or drink, or have sex, and I very much like doing all those things.

It also conveys to me what it might feel like to experience a world of social persecution I will never be subjected to. I’m not Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman, Joyce Curnell, Ralkina Jones, Alexis McGovern, or Raynetta Turner. But I live in their world, where sexism exists on a continuum, and the endemic denigration of women for entertainment continues to feed both casual and ceremonial misogyny.

For every ‘Fuck Tha Police’ there’s a ‘A Bitch Iz A Bitch’ further entrenching hateful objectification. So if you see Straight Outta Compton or Dope, celebrate films that acknowledge black lives matter — but question who’s conspicuously missing from the bigger picture.

Straight Outta Compton and Dope are out now in Australian cinemas.

Aimee’s words have appeared in The Adelaide Review, Rip It Up, Lip Magazine and more. Follow her on Twitter @aimeeknightout