Chi-Raq, Aristophanes, and Gender in Greek Comedy

Spike Lee’s Joints isn’t the only class I had the…ahem, pleasure, of watching Chi-Raq. I had to watch it again for Greek Drama after we had read Lysistrata by Aristophanes. As a friendly reminder, Lysistrata is what Chi-Raq is based on. Heck, it’s the play Lysistrata’s (our protagonist) namesake comes from. However, there are glaring differences between Aristophanes’ farce and Spike Lee’s satire.

The use of gender as a vehicle for comedy is the most glaring.

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In the traditional Greek theater, all characters on stage were played by men. When men dress as women on the Greek stage, women are amounted to parodies. Lysistrata is a joke of the impossible. Women? Stopping wars? Now that’s a joke. And to be quite honest, the women of Lysistrata do not make a vow to abstain from sex to stop a war.

The women make the vow to have their husbands stop fighting so they can come back to them. The reasons of celibacy is still heavily dependent on the need for a man’s presence. Unlike Chi-Raq where Lysistrata’s anthem of “no peace no pussy” is for more valiant efforts such as protecting young children from the gunfire of gang violence, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata just wants her man back in the house.

How interesting it is, then, for Lee to make an attempt at making a comedy that within it’s very structure pokes fun at the ineptitude of women to create a piece (no pun intended) that has women as the seemingly most motivated characters of his film. Chi-Raq falls short, however, in making a definite line between making a joke of the bodies and minds of black women and crediting their success. It is clear in Lysistrata that women are the punchline (it would have been outrageous in Greek culture for women to have any agency), but in Chi-Raq? Still debatable.

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Author: ireesdeelia

I'm someone who likes using words and putting them into sentences.

3 thoughts on “Chi-Raq, Aristophanes, and Gender in Greek Comedy”

  1. Thanks for the background info on the original Greek comedy. I did not know about much of that before watching Lee’s film. Yet, I also think it’s worth mentioning that Chiraq is not simply a satire, nor is it just a comedy. Sure, it has comedic/satirical qualities embedded in its aesthetic and its overall construction, but I think that Lee works to subvert these genres with many moments that drip with tragedy and gravitas. I think watching the film with this multi-layered lens helps to discover the agency of the women in the film (check out the confrontation between Duke and Lysistrata towards the end of the film).

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  2. I definitely agree on your interpretation of Chi-Raq as a failed satire and comedy, but I’m wondering where you see how Lysistrata, the Greek play, doesn’t make explicit statements on being a sex strike.

    I feel as though she asks everyone to join the sex strike when she states:

    “We must refrain from every depth of love….
    Why do you turn your backs? Where are you going?
    Why do you bite your lips and shake your heads?
    Why are your faces blanched? Why do you weep?
    Will you or won’t you, or what do you mean?”

    I think that it’s tragic that a Greek tragedy that only views women as sexual agents does not stray far from how women are treated and perceived in today’s age. I find it disappointing that Lee uses Lysistrata as a platform to talk about gun violence and the police state in Chicago and beyond because of the play’s hyper-sexuality. Before watching the movie, I spoke to a Classics major about Chi-Raq, and she told me that I should be prepared for the gendered and hyper-sexual nature of the film because it reflects those elements of the play. I find myself a little bit forgiving with Lee because he uses a pre-existing text as his framework for building Chi-Raq, but at the same time, he should not have been using Lysistrata at all.

    I haven’t taken a Greek or Classics class during my time here, but what makes you think that this play isn’t about a sex strike? Because there are points in the play when the men come back and are denied sex because of the war.

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