Thursday, August 14, 2008

A (Feminist) Job for Tyrese

Lately, I’ve been inspired to explore the “ride or die chick” archetype. According to the best rated definition in the Urban Dictionary, this is “a chick that ain’t afraid to be down with her man, she’ll do anything her man needs her to do.”

From what I see, she’s the only female in mainstream hip hop that gets any love on a regular basis (mothers and daughters don’t fare nearly as well.) Rappers write odes to RDC, and she has become a staple in predominantly male “urban” films (as if Sex and the City, Gossip Girls, et al aren’t urban, but that’s for another blog.) I wanted to see just what a sister has to do get any respect in a genre roundly criticized for its misogyny.

So I head over to Hollywood Video and stock up on videos I ordinarily wouldn’t go near (the sacrifices one makes for social justice.) Most of these were trashed by critics and tanked at the box office only to rack up on the video market. In other words, plenty of folks are spending time and money on these movies without a half-damn for the opinions of J. Hoberman., A.O.Scott or any of these cats with initials for first names.

First into the DVD player is Waist Deep starring Tyrese Gibson and Meagan Good. Meagan is second on my list of Sisters Who Are Better Actresses Than the Roles They Get (Vivica Fox has been hard to dethrone, but let her keep on with the excessive and unnecessary surgery, hoochie antics and the WTF? flings with dudes like 50 Cent…) Despite a breakthrough performance in Kasi Lemmons classy debut Eve’s Bayou, Meagan has become a preternaturally beautiful young woman who appears regularly in films that range from the tolerably mediocre to the laughably awful. But the sister’s a goddess in hip hop circles. In fact, I select Waist Deep because she is the female lead. Gwendolyn Pough once argued that Jada Pinkett Smith was a “hip hop” film icon because by merely casting her in a role, filmmakers immediately evoked that girl who was “in” the hood yet not “of” the hood. As I settle in while the opening montage plays, I suspect that Meagan Good is on her way to becoming the symbol of the “ride or die chick” archetype.

Yes, overall Waist Deep is crappy. Sure enough, Meagan is your classic RDC who does everything her man Tyrese says so they can hustle up the loot he needs to pay off the street urchin who has kidnapped his son. And as to be expected from most films in this genre, there’s just enough visual oomph, bumping music, and crispy dialogue (Larenz Tate just skyrocketed to the top of my Brothers Who Are Better Actors Than the Roles They Get list) to make it entertaining enough for you to see it through the end, forestalling the inevitable recognition of how terrible it actually is.

But here’s the craziness. Right or wrong, I watched Waist Deep expecting all the aforementioned to be true. That said, I expected I would have to push myself to don a more sophisticated lens when deconstructing Meagan’s character CoCo, understanding that very few films can be fairly described as irredeemably sexist or thoroughly progressive.

What I didn’t expect was for Tyrese’s character Otis to be the most feminist character in the movie.

[Note: Waist Deep was co-written and directed by Vondie Curtis Hall who is also married to Kasi Lemmons so maybe their union plays a role in what I’m about to discuss.]

Not because he relinquishes male privilege, overtly stands up for women’s equality or anything radical like that. (C’mon now… this is the Game’s acting debut. Playing a thug named Big Meat, no less.) Otis stands out in the small but explicit ways he challenges traditional ideas of masculinity. For example, he is the primary caretaker of his son, stands up against violence towards women and doesn’t feel entitled to sex with CoCo simply because she’s in his line of sight.

OK, let me keep it real. Otis’s is only a slightly kindler, gentler patriarchy. He’s left with his son because his babymama’s a treacherous ‘itch, and he intervenes when some dude hits CoCo by issuing a merciless beatdown (yelling the entire time between kick and punches What the !@#$ is wrong with you, boy? Don’t you ever beat on no mother!@#$ing woman like that!) Hey, this is still the ‘hood, and Otis aka O2 is still is a down-ass thug nucca, ya feel me. For this genre, such male behavior is kinda sorta progress.

[Spoiler alert: If you haven’t yet but want to see Waist Deep, stop reading. Yeah, I figured you’d keep going. I ain’t mad atcha.]

Aw, hell. Maybe all that’s BS, and I just got taken in by the ending. Whether it’s an homage or a ripoff, there’s no denying that the climax of Waist Deep was inspired by both Set It Off and Thelma & Louise, two films wildly popular by feminists of all stripes from the street corner to the ivory tower. After smirking through much of the film, I found myself perched on the edge of my recliner when Otis, surrounded by police, drives his car off an open bridge. “Oh, no, they didn’t!” I yelled at the television. “No, you did NOT bite off of Thelma and Louise!” And let me ‘fess up. As I watched O2’s car sink into the river, I said it.

“That boy better be dead.”

Because if he was a woman, that’s the way the film would end. The tropes of feminist popular culture deems that it go like this:

1. Woman breaks out of suffocating traditional sex role.

2. Woman is deemed outlaw for such defiance and is sought out for punishment.

3. Woman gives the patriarchy one last fuck you by refusing to submit to punishment.

Therefore, unless, this is sci-fi, fantasy or some other genre not rooted in contemporary realism, homegirl must die.

So for a few moments, I was a bit heated that a film in which the female lead is little more than a plot device, the male protagnist not only gets to appropriate the bittersweet chick flick convention where the true RDC only makes the ultimate sacrifice for herself and other women, he also gets to live. He makes it to Mexico. And he has a family waiting for him to boot.

And yet if not for this appropriation, I might not have ever gone back and reexamine the character of Otis and noticed some of the other things about him that are unusual -- in a good way -- for a male character in this genre. Rather I was focused on what messages were conveyed through the female character CoCo. Yet I always preach to young men of the hip hop generation that feminism is for everybody and can liberate them from debilitating ideas of masculinity.

So this ending reminded me that part of the feminist project must include seeking out men – and representations of them in the media – that challenge archaic notions of masculinity, big and small. Like I said, Waist Deep stays overwhelmingly loyal to the tropes of its genre which implicitly necessitates the marginalization of women, and ain't changing no time soon. Within those narrow confines, however, it does engage in tiny betrayals and even, steals, er, borrows from the best of pro-women popular cinema.

So if the RDC for the cause of women’s liberation can sometimes be a man, then maybe sometimes we have to send Tyrese to do a feminist’s job.


Gwendolyn D. Pough said...

Interesting critique, sis. You almost have me wanting to rent the film again. We rented it way back and I didn't give it nearly that much credit. I think you're right though, if Tyrese's character had been a women he would have died. I think it's also telling that the film ends with the patriarchy and the family firmly in tack with Tyrese back at the helm...


Unknown said...

That's an excellent point, Gwen. And trust me, I'm very well aware that I'm giving this joint waaay too much dap. Either I'm clinging to hope, fiending for some progressive Black masculinity of any kind or getting soft in my old age. ;)