Love & Basketball (Prince-Bythewood, 2000) is a romantic drama film that follows the main character, Monica Wright, from childhood to adulthood and depicts her growth toward understanding who she is as a woman, a romantic partner, and a basketball player. She is a contradictory and multifaceted character who is simultaneously depicted as a tomboy, feminine, self-assured, driven, empowered, aggressive, and wise. Her character is notable because she serves as a representation of individual growth that defies the limited expectations and stereotypes placed upon Black women by society. This rich character portrayal, which has been cited as one of the film’s main successes (Tamani, 2020), can largely be attributed to the fact that the film was written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, an African-American woman, and produced by Spike Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and A Mule. However, even films that succeed at depicting complex female characters and women of color, and films made by underrepresented groups, can still rely upon the use of tropes, stereotypes, and even the male gaze to create characters whose only purpose is to enhance the image of another character. Prince-Bythewood’s achievement in depicting Monica as multifaceted and complex, rather than as a simplistic stereotype of a black woman, is partly achieved by contrasting Monica to other female characters in the film that are given less nuanced depictions. To demonstrate this, we will analyze the dichotomy of femininity that exists between Monica and Shawnee.
Love & Basketball illustrates the many facets of intersectionality within the life of Monica Wright, a Black female athlete played by actress Sanaa Lathan. While trying to pursue her dreams of becoming a professional basketball player, Monica navigates between the different roles and characterizations of being a young woman, girlfriend and team player. During the “First Quarter” of the film (the film is presented through four distinct quarters of Monica’s life), young Monica is introduced as sporty and aggressive. She adopts some gendered forms of masculinity in order to be accepted by the neighborhood boys and play basketball. After proving that Monica is skillful on the court, Quincy, a young boy whose father played for the Clippers in the NBA, angrily knocks her down. Despite her concerned mother, Monica is proud and smiles at the bloody gash on her face. Her scar symbolizes that she is an equal to any boy and just as talented. Basketball is an outlet for Monica to find self value and to express herself. Although Monica illustrates a masculine gender performance through her athletic clothing, this also reflects her authenticity and comfortability with seeming “less feminine”. This dual gender performance is to ensure she is taken “seriously” and respected as a basketball player. Although common amongst many female athletes, the idea of duality continues to be challenged by society’s traditional gender roles. The author of Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Sport describes it as “manlike demeanors with feminine grace” while others describe it as the “new type of woman” (Cahn, 2015). While Monica is comfortable with her tomboyish appearance, Shawnee negatively comments on Monica’s nonchalant attitude toward beauty standards. This represents the assumption that women must adopt beauty habits to be considered conventionally attractive and fit into a normative form of feminine gender expression. Shawnee is presented as a foil to Monica and whose feminine expression is more traditional and accepted as the norm.
Mythical Norms of Femininity
This film challenges mythical norms of femininities. Monica’s character and gender expression proves that femininity does not determine sexuality and desirability. It is a mythical norm that female athletes are directly or indirectly assumed to be lesbian (Cahn, 2015). Although Monica does express herself in a more masculine way, she is in a heterosexual relationship with Quincy. Winning over Quincy’s romantic interest also proves that Monica is desirable. Despite her “lack” of femininity, Monica is just as desirable as Shawnee who is considered “more” feminine. Because Quincy expressed desire for both women, the mythical norm that women must be feminine in order to be considered desirable, is dismantled. Instead, Prince-Bythewood provides a positive message that femininity can be expressed in different ways.
The Male Gaze as a Tool to Divide and Contrast Female Characters
Monica’s own femininity is idealized and established largely through repeated comparisons to Shawnee’s femininity, which is “girly,” promiscuous, and sexually forward. Shawnee is depicted as a Jezebel, which serves no purpose but to emphasize that Monica is not “that kind of girl.” In contrast to Monica’s old-fashioned expression of beauty and sexuality, Shawnee represents a more sexually liberated version of womanhood. For example, Shawnee isn’t afraid to make the first move and challenges old ideas that men should ask women out first by directly expressing her desire for Quincy, Monica’s love interest. Monica, however, is hesitant when it comes to expressing her interest in Quincy, and, as result, she resorts to judging Shawnee and using offensive slurs like “ho” to describe her. This name calling further works to cast Monica as everything Shawnee is not: a “good girl.” However, this message is also signaled through visuals, particularly in the school dance scene. In this scene, Shawnee and Monica are dressed in ways that re-emphasize the stark contrast between their feminine identities. Monica, more conservative and old fashioned in her appearance and sexuality, projects an image of demure purity by wearing a simple, knee length white dress, overcoat, and pearls while Shawnee wears a slinky minidress. Monica, having just received a feminine makeover from her mother, appears uncomfortable throughout the scene, shrinking from the attention she receives from her date and other men, and preferring to be a wallflower. Meanwhile, Shawnee relishes the spotlight, grinding provocatively on Quincy in the center of the dance floor. It is here that Prince-Bythewood uses camera movements that replicate the male gaze to objectify Shawnee. The camera slowly moves up Shawnee’s body as she dances. This moment in the film actually serves to cast a flattering light on Monica rather than doing anything for Shawnee as a character, except to objectify and shame her for her overt and bold sexuality in contrast to Monica’s demurity. Typically, the gaze is deployed by male filmmakers to establish certain female characters as desirable sexual objects (Mulvey). However, this example shows how even female directors can unknowingly or unintentionally adopt the male gaze to objectify female characters. Ultimately, the message sent is that Shawnee is the type of girl who is asking to be objectified while Monica, who shies away from such attention, is to be celebrated for the fact that she is not what Shawnee is.
Stereotypes and Ambivalent Dialectics
Different forms of emphasized femininity can be further analyzed within Monica and Shawnee. Monica’s femininity, as illustrated at the school dance, can be seen as reserved and modest. In contrast to Monica’s shy nature, Shawnee’s femininity is sexualized and used as the subject of objectification. The differences in personality and femininity between Monica and Shawnee unfortunately present stereotypes of Black women and female tropes. These stereotypes mirror one another to form an ambivalent dialectic between Monica and Shawnee. Because Shawnee exudes confidence and beauty, she is categorized as The Jezebel. This stereotype describes a Black woman who is overtly sexual and untrustworthy. Monica’s disliking and distrust toward Shawnee reinforces this stereotype. The audience may notice how Shawnee is reduced to only these few traits. This limits her character development because Shawnee’s role only matters in “Quarter 2” or the high school chapter within the film. In addition, the audience’s awareness of the competition between Monica and Shawnee for Quincy can label Shawnee as The Mistress. Because Monica is the protagonist in this film, Shawnee is unfortunately subject to being the opposing force and receives the villainized role. On the contrary, Monica is presented in a more virtuous light. The costumes chosen for Monica and Shawnee on the night of the dance also reveal the differences in their character. Shawnee sports a glittering necklace and silk mini dress while Monica adorns old fashioned pearls and a classic fitting white dress. This imagery of Monica’s white dress and reluctant behavior symbolizes her purity. Monica represents the gendered trope of The Maiden who is vulnerable, naive and abstinent. The audience can infer that Monica has not experienced stepping into her sexuality and beauty because she looks uncomfortable, feels awkward and unaccustomed to wearing feminine clothing.
Internal and External Misogyny
These gendered and racial stereotypes placed upon Monica and Shawnee ultimately represent internal and external misogyny that exists within society. Rather than comparing herself to Shawnee in a desirable way, Monica differentiates herself from Shawnee by making degrading remarks toward her. The harmful statements Monica uses to describe Shawnee’s advancements toward Quincy, implicitly creates a social hierarchy of who is the more “virtuous” woman. Shawnee’s confidence and sensuality seems to be punished by the misogynistic attitude she receives from Monica. The disrespect for Shawnee represents the larger issues of misogyny towards women in general and especially Black women. Acknowledging Monica’s clear disdain toward Shawnee is a step toward understanding why Monica treats her this way. Monica’s expression of disapproval of Shawnee can be understood as a form of envy. Our interpretation is that Monica is jealous of Shawnee because she freely expresses her romantic interest in Quincy with confidence. Because of Monica’s insecurity and inability to express her feelings toward Quincy, this causes Monica to internalize her repressed emotions as anger directed toward Shawnee.
Emotional Complexity and Relationships
After analyzing the oppositional attitude Monica has toward Shawnee, it is apparent that this aggression is not random or unintentional. Others perceive Monica as angry, selfish, hotheaded and a hater because they do not understand the internal conflict and complex emotions within her. The relationships Monica forms with her family, Quincy, Shawnee, teammates and coaches become strained from the lack of patience and understanding for Monica. When Monica is on the court and in competition mode to win Quincy’s attention and affection (often against Shawnee), she is most vulnerable. Monica is deeply emotional, ambitious and loving but struggles to express herself. Especially in high school, Monica was unaware of the deep emotions within her and experienced the difficulty of accepting and resolving them. In return, Monica’s insecurity expressed itself in the form of aggression and emotional deflection. Throughout the course of the film, the audience sees Monica’s emotional development as she learns to openly communicate her feelings with confidence, distinction and ownership. Overall, the character of Monica Wright challenges the harmful stereotype of Black women being tough created by the assumption that they can withstand societal hardship. Monica shatters this expectation because she is simultaneously determined and ambitious but vulnerable, allows herself to cry, expresses sadness, tenderness and has a deep capacity to love others.
All images are screenshots from Amazon Prime Video.
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Tamani, Liara. (2020, April 16). Love & Basketball Was More Than a Movie. It Changed My Whole Life. Time. https://time.com/5822507/love-and-basketball-movie-20th-anniversary/