Goodbye, “Bye, Felicia”: The Objectification of Black Women in ‘Straight Outta Compton’

When the punchline stops being funny and starts pointing to larger issues at play

09.02.15
image via Forbes

F. Gary Gray’s recent film Straight Outta Compton was met with much critical acclaim and big box office numbers, earning praise and over $136 million dollars since its August 14th release. However, the film has also been met with backlash for its treatment of women of color.

There are many instances of standard objectification in the film — women are mainly featured as background flesh at pool parties or groupies — but writer Allison Davis was specifically drawn to a scene built around the much meme’d phrase, “Bye, Felicia,” originally seen in Gray’s film, Friday. If you haven’t seen the movie, the scene depicts Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Easy E hooking up with a bunch of women until a man comes looking for his girlfriend, Felicia, pounding on the door to start a fight. The NWA members scare him off, but they then kick Felicia out half-naked, closing the door in her face and saying, “Bye, Felicia.”

On its own, this scene did not, to my eye, appear particularly offensive. The mistreatment of a cheater has been something widely represented in mainstream culture: Nick Cassavetes’ The Other Woman is an entire film about getting revenge on a cheater, and the final scene of that film is gratuitously violent towards the male cheater in question. However, as Davis pointed out in her piece for The Cut, what matters in Straight Outta Compton is the context, both on a historical and personal level.

Historically, rap culture and music has not always been kind to black women, and Dr.Dre, a member of NWA and a producer on the film, faced charges for slamming a journalist and TV host named Dee Barnes against a wall in a nightclub in 1991. Davis, speaking on the subject for an NPR interview, noted that it was “insensitive” and “thoughtless” for the team behind Compton to not “contextualize a history of degradation of women.” She saw the film as symptomatic of a larger issue: the way society “treats black women in general…we’re throwaways.”

When I reached out to writer Ashley Ford over email, she furthered Davis’ point about disposability. “Black women’s lives and issues are mostly considered disposable in service to the reputations of black men,” she said. “Women don’t report being assaulted because they don’t want to put another black man in prison, and this behavior can be encouraged in different communities.”

No one backed up Davis’s comments on black women being treated as “throwaways” more than F. Gary Gray himself. When Davis reached out to bring her concerns to Gray, he seemed to take offense at her line of questioning, noting that you can’t always be politically correct in comedy or entertainment. “We should be focusing on how the police are treating innocent American citizens,” he said. “Let’s talk about something as important, if not more important, if you really want to go there.”

What Gray seems to be insinuating is that sexism / combating sexism isn’t a part of the NWA story or Gray’s vision for the film, and that it’s nit-picking to attack a film for being sexist when it’s raising a lot of awareness about racism and police brutality. This may be true: it may have compromised the NWA story to include stronger female characters, or to reference Dre’s history of violence. But that still leaves black women behind, positioned as sacrifices to a larger artistic vision — and to what Gray sees as a larger cause.

In my conversation with Ford, she pointed out that directors and artists have a right to be “able to put out there whatever [they] want to create,” and endure criticism as such. While she agreed that “the way black women are portrayed in this film isn’t exactly responsible,” she noted Compton was yet another example of what happens “when a biopic is made by the people whose lives it’s based on,” or, in other words, when men make movies about men.

This is a complex topic and I do not endeavor to find a solution — for me, this discussion created more questions than it did answers, and filtered my own view not only of Compton, but many other male-dominated films I’ve enjoyed. However, Davis’s point about a male director’s prerogative reminded me of a topic much addressed in the entertainment industry world I work in: we need more female directors, and more than that, we need more female directors of color. We need their voices shining spotlights over the kinds of issues that have long been swept under the rug of patriarchal artistic vision; we need them to populate the mainstream media so that black women’s lives can no longer be case aside.

But obviously, adding more black, female directors to the mix is not a blanket solution. Ultimately, this needs to not be a question of male vs. female perspectives in film — throwing a “versus” between sexes only poses a greater divide. If the most baseline definition of feminism means a belief that men and women of all colors should have equal rights, then in its most ideal manifestation, humanism would replace the word feminism, and there would be no need for competing representations and narratives in film, media and entertainment. So we turn to you (and us) as the next generation with that larger goal in mind, and this even larger question: how can we accomplish this?

Photograph via Forbes.

ashley-ford

  • Although the movie was supposed to be “critically acclaimed,” I found myself hesitant to actually see it. But I couldn’t put my finger exactly on why that was, until I read this article.

    I realized I’m not a fan of biopics about men trying to get famous — and not just black men, with films like “Rock Star” and even “This is Spinal Tap” having a similar problem — because they tend to involve women throwing themselves at the artist and the artist looking at all the women as disposable commodities. I lose respect for directors and “whatever they want to create” when it’s at the expense of another oppressed group.

    • Lua Jane

      I have a similar sentiments about the movie. Not sure if I want to see it at all.

    • It extends to other types of stardom – HATED how women were portrayed in The Social Network. “Oh my god, you created Facebook? I need to give you a blowjob in a public restroom.” And let’s make sure the actress is Asian, just like Zuckerberg’s incredibly successful wife

  • Marissa Dawson

    Ummmm

    That scene is actually fiction. ” Bye Felicia” is a phrase from the movie Friday. Which ice cube stared in and wrote. Felicia is crackhead who is always trying to trade sexual favors for money or crack. She is so repulsive that the extra thirsty craig ( ice cube) and smokey avoid her. She is the only female character that they aren’t trying have sex with other than craig’s mother and sister.

    They added that scene in straight after compton after the meme became popular. F Gary Gray and Ice cube have noted that it was a fictional account of what a nwa after party was like..

    You can make the same point by actually critiquing their lyrics as has been done by rolling stone, during nwa’s hey day. I would point to an article they did with chris rock where he talked about his feeling about rap music. He made some really excellent points on the matter..

    • Margaret

      Yep! I learned that when researching the article, but that was the scene Davis chose to analyze and her piece on the subject was the inspiration for this piece, so I wanted to clue readers in to my train of thought. The scene not being a direct origin story for the phrase — I think a lot of people know it’s from Friday –doesn’t really change the point argued, but I totally agree that there are a lot of other examples lyrically etc with which one could make these points. Reading the Chris Rock article now, thank you for the tip!

      • Marissa Dawson

        You would be surprised on how many have no idea about Friday at all. **eye roll**

        The caption from facebook gave a different impression and that’s why I wanted to leave the comment. 🙂

  • laprairielily

    I hope there’s a lot more discussion here. I’ve noticed a trend where readers demand pieces that contain this kind of critical thought, but then don’t respond when it actually shows up.

    As an industry outsider, I believe that there should be a greater voice for black women within the entertainment and publishing industries, but I don’t have a lot of control over that. What I do have control over is where I spend my own money. How many of us went out and saw Selma? How many of us went out and bought Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest book? We need to put our money where our mouths are if we want the powers to be to realize that black women’s voices are marketable and profitable.

    • THIS.

    • Uncle Willie

      Shut up & stop crying, Black Women are just jealous. I bet yall wont be this mad at a white man who do the same thing

      • Kellygirl

        A man should never put his “struggle” before a woman’s. To say that black women are jealous is simply indulged bullspit. We want accurate and fair representation as well.

        • Uncle Willie

          Black Women are jealous of Black Men plain & simple. Yall get more degrees than us & we are STILL more successful than you. Black Men have caught on to how Black Women really feel about us, so alot of us dont respect you. If you want “representation” then do it yourself the way that Black Men did. We aren’t gonna hold your hand, you are adults. Be a real woman & stop crying for attention & validation.

          • Kellygirl

            Lol. I find it to be simply crazed that a woman is jealous of a man when man are cutting off there penis to be women.

            You’re funny….

          • Erik Williams

            @kellygirl Please don’t fall for the trick… Thats just a fake account with someone black’s face. You know there isn’t a black man in America who would say what that persons just said… Because… we’ve all watched our mom’s struggle.. I call BS on “uncle willie’s” validity

          • Kellygirl

            I’d hope not. And if he is black, hes prolly the type calling black women crazy, while getting with the fat ugly w women because they buy him shoes.

    • karen

      100%. I didn’t buy her latest book, but I will and ‘put my money where my mouth is’. ( Saw Selma-TWICE- female director??) GREAT movie!!

  • Adardame

    How do you give people worth? How do you give people worth when you don’t know them? Sometimes questions are easier than answers.

    • Lua Jane

      This might be the best question asked.

  • BK

    Due to the heavy involvement of Cube and the others in the making of the film it’s become more memoir than history (although it is a product of Hollywood – not exactly the most reliable historian). The difference between this film and many other biographical pieces is that they’re still able to contribute to it. Popular collective memory is no longer the guiding bias as it would be with somebody departed who can no longer wield influence over it; instead the agendas of the surviving NWA members are. I just watched an interview with Cube and his (mostly silent) son on the 7.30 Report (Australian current affairs program, look it up, the main anchor Leigh Sales is a baller) and when grilled about the omission of Dre’s history violence against women from the film, his only response was that they had to cut out all sorts of things because of the constrained time limits of motion pictures, and apparently there was “even darker stuff [than Dre’s treatment of women]” that they “probably should have included” but couldn’t due to movie length.

    I call bullshit – mostly because for the rest of the interview Cube was emphasising the importance of the film in relation to past African-American civil rights issues in LA and Chicago and the importance of reflecting upon them in connection to the more recent uprisings in Ferguson etc. So it seems their priority was binding the NWA story to the civil rights movements of 1980 and beyond – which, don’t get me wrong, is one of heroes and injustice and suffering; absolutely a story which deserves to be told in its own right. Unfortunately other issues, eg Dre’s transgressions and women’s representation, seem to have fallen by the wayside in this quest. I don’t know if this is reflective of the desires of Cube and the others, or a producer or screenwriter or someone, but I don’t understand why they had to omit it. In the postmodern era there’s no reason why protagonists can’t be multifaceted, flawed or even questionable.

    I’ve loved NWA ever since I stole Staight Outta Compton from my brother when I was 13; it’s such a fluent expression of young, coherent anger against authority and a searing social commentary on everyday injustice. This is clearly what they wanted to translate to the screen when making the film. I get it, and I like it.

    However: I also agree that polarising the genders of male and female is not the right move forward, as – and I’m paraphrasing Joan Wallach Scott here – it promotes establishment of The Other as an exclusion from a perceived norm. Women may not have played a principal role in the rise of NWA but that in itself could at least be acknowledged in the film. Sure it’s retrospective, but no less so than the ‘Bye Felicia’ reference (and its subsequent popularity as a meme).

  • Lua Jane

    Not just in this movie but in general, I think that position of women and feminists of color is being marginalized and instead of speaking in many chances these women are spoken for. As a woman I think the crucial part is for these women to speak and be heard. For centuries we had predominantly white affluent males speaking for everyone. Now we feminist voices that are mainly white and have allthough well meaning very narrow focus on what female experience is. Feminist as though we both may be, I am unable to express the experiences of a feminist of color, and shouldn’t be doing it, because I haen’t lived it. It’s crucial that women in general, but women of color especially have a voice, and an outlet, and to be heard, so we all can learn as society, and be a better place in general. Art is a good place for it to happen.

  • i havent seen the movie so i have no idea how it portrays black women but sounds like it is just a movie about the guys. if they were depicted mistreating the women then thats probably what happened. dont know enough to really comment but ashley ford made a good point that ive unfortunately experienced myself. you dont want to call the police on a man that you love even if its a domestic violence situation bc you know he’ll go to jail right away. and be even agrier. ugh. its a mess.
    malinda
    http://www.malindaknowles.net

  • VaNessa

    I’m a black woman, and I thought the the film overall was great. I think it’s important to remember that these actresses signed up for this role….no one held a gun to their heads. They knew what they were getting into and what would be expected of them. Just like the actual women who the actual members of NWA were partying with while they were on tour….they too knew what they were getting into when they were invited to come up to their hotel room. Being a groupie is a choice – you can choose to be one or to not be one. You can choose to hate on them or not give a shit. The bottom line is, there will always be groupies, and there will always be movies that feature groupies….there will always be women who choose to put themselves in objectifying situations. No article or multiple outcries of frustration will change that. Would I ever choose to put myself in that boat? Nope, definitely not. But that’s my choice.

  • Bella

    I am not American, I don’t listen to rap music, I’ve never heard of this film and it certainly doesn’t sound like anything I’d go and see, but as a black woman I have a very hard time imagining that some hooking up cheating groupie woman may symbolise me, and not only me, but every other black woman? And that this one scene may teach society how to treat black women? Simply because she’s black and she’s a woman? Of course she, too, deserves to be treated with respect but really, where would the authenticity of this movie be? How far are we going to infringe on creative freedom in the name of political correctness?
    As a black woman I actually resent being seen as some kind of pathetic victim who needs protection at all times and in all places, because I am too weak to handle myself. If a white woman is portrayed as a disrespected slutty groupie, she’s a disrespected slutty groupie, which is one kind of woman, unfortunately, but if a black woman is then that means *all* black women are disrespected slutty groupies and society with think that that’s ok?!?!
    But then I am not American and it seems that the lives of American black women is very very different to that of black women in many other western countries. We are only just beginning to see how very many decades behind the development of “civil rights” is over there, and it’s shocking.

    Anyway I’ve never said “Bye Felicia” in my life, either, so I won’t miss the expression ;).

    • Lua Jane

      As someone living in Europe and travelled mostly Europe too, I have to say it looked to me as though black American experience is much different to that od a black or any person of color in Europe. France for instance, because it’s the place I frequented most. It’s probably historically conditioned to some extent, and maybe even politically, beause in Europe, certain American republican values would be viewed as downright insane.

    • I think the problem is that these images of black women being objectified and brutalized are the the ones that are shown over and over and over again on the screen. So it’s not so much the one story of this particular black woman as it is about a trend of dehumanizing black women (and men) through stories.

      But yes, it’s definitely true that the experience of race is unique in the US as it is in every country. The other day my friend (non American Black) was walking at her university (in the states) and a white man she didn’t even know stopped her (twice) to yell: “black n***** b****!” for no reason at all, just because he felt like it. It’s moments like those that make you aware as a foreign black person in the US, the kind of psychological baggage bubbling underneath the surface when it comes to race relations.

  • Jelizarose

    That movie is a fantastic documentary about the macho culture of these guys and the inferior status that women tacitly agreed upon when mingling with them . What would have this movie looked like with strong ass women ? nothing like the reality of the time and scene this movie tries to depict with great accuracy. However, the fact that so many scenes were shocking is a GOOD sign. It shows that awareness has grown, that we do not accept these behaviors anymore, and that we need to keep relentlessly fighting current misrepresentations or degraded representations of women in film, media and press. But I refuse to photoshop the past, I refuse to see pieces made politically correct just because it offends feminists. I want my younger sisters to be able to gasp in shock and understand and appreciate the work accomplished so far while reminding them that they need to focus on the remaining battles to be fought.

    • But the film was not truthful history, and that’s actually one of the problems with it. It *did* photoshop the past: first, when it came to concealing the violence of NWA against women (eg. Dr. Dre beating up Dee Barnes and his girlfriend Michel’le), and second, in erasing or minimizing the empowered women who were creating music with the group (eg. Michel’le).

      It was a powerful movie, and pointing out these flaws in the film is not about political correctness or about wanting to photoshop the past; rather it’s the opposite: it’s about acknowledging that this is just one side of the story.

      Dee Barnes wrote her side of the story in this Gawker article: http://gawker.com/heres-whats-missing-from-straight-outta-compton-me-and-1724735910

      Peace!

  • Katie

    Couldn’t fully appreciate the movie for this exact reason. And the “Bye Felicia” scene – met with whole-hearted audience approval in my experience – was especially cringe-y. It would be a discredit to filmmakers/artists everywhere if we were to posit that a film can only address one theme at a time. Especially when feminism and anti-racism are so deeply intertwined, both philosophically and historically, there is no real excuse for why F. Gary Gray failed to even raise the question of sexism in hip-hop culture. Not even to make a declarative statement about Dr. Dre being a villain or a hero – just to point to some degree of moral ambiguity among these key players in hip-hop’s early years. Shouldn’t all art be asking these sorts of questions, instead of avoiding them?

  • Jenny Kox

    I have not seen it yet either. I want to ’cause I like the music and the politics of the group. But, it sounds like I’m supposed to hand in my “proud to be a feminist” card if I go see it. I mean it’s a biopic, are any of us unaware that women of color are treated like throwaways? Is it glorified in the movie,in pop culture? Probably, that’s a problem and it needs to be addressed and talked about and changed. Talk about it,write a review,comment on threads. Have a Salon, make a movie or a documentary. Knowledge is Power.

  • Alice

    Ok, truth be told women are grossly objectified in movies, music videos and etc… But how the hell can we parade against that screaming and shouting how sexism and misogynist everything is while there are so many hoes on Instagram, Facebook, Tinder and etc… Many women don’t mind stripping down for a few ‘likes’ because it makes them feel good about themselves. How many women throw themselves on men and act slutty and needy? Tons! It’s not as if the big bad media monster forces us to embrace the slut stereotype, it’s also something that comes from within. If most women were acting classy and respected themselves, trust me, the world would have been a better place and men would have been treating us so much better.

    • VaNessa

      SO true, Alice! There are plenty of women who choose to be objectified. Does it adversely affect the image of women who don’t wish to objectified? Of course. But it will be an impossible task to make these women change their tune if that’s what they want to do. Let’s not forget that the women in this movie are paid actors! So should they turn down a role and money that they might need for student loans, life expenses, medical care, etc.? That’s up to them to decide.

      • Alice

        I agree with all the points you made 🙂 I guess what I’m trying to say is that at the end of the day it’s most often the woman’s choice to act the way she does (may her reason be whichever) but I’m just tired of people saying it’s the mens fault things are like that… Men will always look at women and appreciate their bodies, that’s in their DNA, without that we would have gone extinct long time ago.

  • Steven Bond

    Please go check out Tchaiko, she’s an incredible Black female director: http://tchaiko.com/

  • Emily S

    Really glad to see more and more articles like this one. Once we’re trying to see sexism its astonishing how prevalent it is. Made an excellent point about being a woman and being able to enjoy male-centric films, but how many men feel the same way about female-centric films? Certainly some do but definitely not the vast majority. Whereas most women have grown up with not many other options, outside of a male dominated gaze, of movies (music, books, art, etc.) to expose themselves to. We are essentially trained to identify with a male narrative and accept it as a standard. Which comes back to Gray’s comment in response to Davis asking him to acknowledge the position he puts black women in during the film and for those in his audience. He basically says they don’t matter, that the ‘real issue’ he finds worthy of discussing is black people being abused and killed by police. Obviously this is a very important issue, however in the context of his response he is telling her to forget about her problem with the movie to shut up about sexism and focus on the greater good. In other words he fails her, fails to see the very real issue she is trying to bring to light, and fails to treat her with the same respect he seems to demand from her. The undertone of Gray’s comment suggests that Davis does not care enough about her race, however that Gray will not engage with Davis’ question makes me feel the same of him.

  • Carrie Mather-Crowner

    We need to stop allowing ourselves to be shamed out of demanding equal rights or being relegated to a corner because there are “more important” issues at stake. The treatment of women and girls here and around the world is just as important as any other human rights issue. Women are important. Our ideas are important.

  • I went to see this film with my husband a week and a half ago, and I was pretty disappointed. The film was co-produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube’s production company, and it really shows because the treatment they get makes them look like saints. I’m not annoyed at the treatment of women per-se, just how much of a fluff piece it is.

    What about Dee Barnes? We already know Dre had that scene cut, so the intent of this film is quite clear…It’s not to tell the story of what happened, it’s just a fictionalised account as opposed to a biopic.

  • Erik Williams

    WhaT are you talking about??! Bye Felicia was a nod to a previous film “Friday”. This was thrown in the movie for those that had seen other black produced film to relate to.

    The movie was about the formation of Ganster Rap and it’s lifestyle during the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s. You score no points for resurrecting the argument over the objectification of women. Especially in a movie set in a time and a specific industry where it was prevalent.

    Calling out the Objectification of Women and trying to create a War of the Sexes is about as ridiculous as commenting about drug use in the Doors (Val Kilmer) and Declaring a War on Drugs or that they used the N* word a lot in 12 Years a Slave and saying that their portraying black men as inferior. I fail to see your point.
    Lack of Strong Women –
    This is blatant misinformation- Ice Cube’s partner, Dre’s Mom, and Eazy E’s partner were all Strong black women who were business minded and took the time to “Dot-the-I’s and Cross-the-T’s”. Your negative comment about the lack there of is playing off the hopes that your audience has not seen the movie.

    Objectification of Women –
    Firstly, you’ve obviously never been to a pool party. And you clearly have not been to a party hosted by the wealthy. Not a single comment about the Playboy Mansion.. hmm funny.
    Second, There were groupies then and now. There are also women (in this world) that do not fit your social norm. There are women who are proud of their bodies and work hard to be able to show off what they have worked for. There are also woman who show off what they paid for. And there are also woman that may be damaged and insecure and do things for attention.
    I’m confused on how you attack a director for his portrayal of black woman – at least there were BLACK PEOPLE IN THE MOVIE TO BEGIN WITH. No comment on that though. How many movies have been released this year including animated that have absolutely ZERO black roles at all. Yet you point the finger at one of the few black films and what attempt to convince people not to even see it??? That’s a good way to ensure that black woman and men are not portrayed at all.

    Appreciate a movie for its authenticity. In this case how the Rap industry became mainstream, how young black men where treated by police in that society.
    To Aled Johnson below: You should see the films and other biopics for what they are, and not white-washed of all factual connotations to make it easy for you to enjoy your popcorn. Some movies are hard to watch, The Cove (treatment of dolphins), I am Sam, Menace to Society, D-Jango. Some movies cause a stir in your gut and make you realize how wrong things are and can be. Do something to promote change, But don’t attack the Messenger….

    • karen

      I’d rather see NO roles over the degrading, stereotypical roles. I guess ever since Gone With the Wind Blacks will sell their soul for a dollar.

      • Erik Williams

        Your comment was stupidity at its finest! You mam, probably meant to say “Birth of a Nation” (original) instead of Gone with The Wind… LOL… Please take 2 and don’t wake up! 😉

  • karen

    Im going to just say I NEVER liked NWA because of all the cursing. Truth be told NWA hijacked rap music and made it into what it is today. 75% of their songs were b this hoe that, DEGRADING women. Public Enemy, KRS-1 and other groups of the 80’s spoke on being conscious without degrading women(as much). NWA played right into the OTHER man’s hands & plans for blacks.(Portaying blacks as angry thugs, to be feared, etc.) I never would have paid to see this movie. It was free on HBO and not as good as all the hype. It was good though.I agree the portrayal of women was mostly groupies and hoes. How many speaking lines did female characters have in total? Im cutting off cable when my contract expires, I refuse to support monetarily, so much of what I see any more. I wanted to see if anyone felt like me regarding this movie. I’d expect this big screen music video movie from F. Gary Gray but not from Ice Cube.