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She’s Gotta Have What?

In SMILF and She's Gotta Have It, insatiable women drive powerful narratives

At different times, I’ve measured an hour in minutes, dollars, words written, moments of arousal, and cheese curls consumed. And though the first three are often linked (the cliché that says “time is money” is about productivity, after all), the latter two, desire and hunger, are more closely related than we might imagine—think of nibbling leftover crudite and the earlobes of your beloved at the end of a dinner party, or waiting for a waiter to serve an entrée when you’re eager to get the next stages of a date underway.

In a recent episode of Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It, the twentysomething artist Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) hosts a Thanksgiving dinner for three of her lovers. After some playful socializing, the group eventually collapses onto Nola’s “loving bed,” engorged. Although they don’t have a ménage à quatre, the idea of them in such proximity (after a meal) is highly erotic. Later, after the others have left, another paramour stops by Nola’s apartment with flowers, perhaps for the romantic equivalent of an after-dinner mint.

Here are some of the things the women in She’s Gotta Have It gotta have: autonomy, good food, exercise, great sex, therapy, and the right not to be harassed on the street.

On another show, SMILF, Bridgette Bird (Frankie Shaw) finishes masturbating and places her vibrator back in its drawer, and there inside she finds a nearly empty bag of Cheetos. She munches the last, stale morsel, and then she mines her empty fridge for more grub. Finding nothing but condiments, she guzzles maple syrup. In each show the sheer number of sex scenes and junk food binges leads one to wonder: Are eating and sex merely ways for Nola and Bridgette to pass the time? What, if anything, do both actions mean for these women, outside of the satisfaction of immediate urges? Or perhaps there’s nothing much to make of it—would I ask the same question of a dude protagonist? Still, the more I watched each show, the more these questions nagged at me.

These questions have been swirling around one of these series for a while. She’s Gotta Have It is Spike Lee’s serial adaptation of his debut feature. In the 1986 film of the same name, the title prodded at something—it’s still a provocation thirty years later. It invites you to ask: What? She’s gotta have what? Lots of sex? Multiple lovers? Independence? And who, exactly, is she? Nola and her constellation of friends? Every woman?

Here are some of the things the women in She’s Gotta Have It gotta have: autonomy, good food, exercise, great sex, therapy, the right not to be harassed on the street, a cosmetically enhanced ass, an apartment in a gentrified neighborhood, respect, and an insistence on not being slut-shamed. In the earlier cinematic version, the phrase was as single-minded as the aim of Nola’s lovers, entirely focused on the sex habits and bedroom hysterics of its heroine, whom it called a “freak” early and often. This one-dimensionality was met with complication from bell hooks and other black feminist writers, who responded to the film with still more questions, like “Whose pussy is this?” In contrast, the television series possesses a subversive multiplicity that our era’s inherited labels can at times threaten to bludgeon. Nola calls herself a “sex-positive, polyamorous pansexual.” All might apply, but jeez is that a tongue-twister. Still, the appellations lay bare an existential ambition. This is who I am and what I want to be.

In the new series SMILF, Bridgette, who is labeled by one guy a “single mom I’d like to fuck,” (hence the show’s title) has gotta have it, too. We meet her on the basketball court, where she has to get buckets or lose her place in the pickup ball queue. A former high school hoops star, Bridgette’s got far-off hopes of joining the WNBA. Instead she tutors and writes papers for the Ivy League-bound kids of a wealthy woman. Bridgette is herself a twenty-something single mom raising her toddler, Larry, in South Boston (“Southie”). Despite having a mostly warm co-parenting relationship with her ex, Rafi (Miguel Gomez), Larry’s dad, she struggles with loneliness and money. Her mom, Tutu (Rosie O’Donnell), a caretaker to her disabled partner, spends her days playing scratch-off tickets, cooking, and alternately nurturing and arguing with Bridgette when she’s not plying her with food: grilled cheese sandwiches, freshly made pasta, donuts, borscht. When Bridge can’t pay her rent, she and Larry relocate to her best friend Eliza’s (Raven Goodwin) couch. Eliza works as an “eater” cam girl, which means she eats in front of a webcam for a paying (and commenting) audience.

In SMILF’s first episode, Rafi comes by to check on Larry with his new girlfriend, Nelson Rose (Samara Weaving), a beautiful Australian sports reporter. The couple depart, and Bridgette returns inside and masturbates to pictures of Nelson Rose she finds online. Later, she races to the corner store for more snacks, leaving Larry alone. She picks up an old acquaintance, and they almost get down, although her sleeping son freaks the guy out. Half-opened chip bags litter the studio apartment like afterthoughts following a binge.

SMILF metes out its exposition in a trail of breadcrumbs, slowly revealing crucial background information. Among its charms is its mix of real-life randomness and formal experimentation with genre and narrative, a recipe that privileges Bridgette’s eccentricity. In addition to wanting to be the next Jennifer Azzi, Bridgette also aspires to be an actress. During an audition, we learn that Bridgette, who once appeared in an episode of Law and Order, was sexually abused by her father as a child. We find out as the casting directors do, amid Bridgette’s joy at having nailed the reading. Bridgette gets the job, but soon finds out it’s just porn disguised as a PSA on PTSD in the military. Meanwhile, in between gigs, she impulsively bangs dudes in grocery stores and daydreams about having a room full of people go down on her. One day, when she runs out of money, she desperately answers a Craigslist ad, which promises $300 if she meets a lonely man and lets him look at her face. She sees the guy, gets paid, and is then offered another $300 to sit and talk in a food court. The pair have a decent conversation about his life in the suburbs and Bridgette’s WNBA dreams. Moments later, the dude assaults her while they sit in the cafeteria, as casually as he sipped from his soda.

In She’s Gotta Have It (the series), Nola’s female therapist calls her “insatiable,” and I think this description applies to both Nola and Bridgette. They share a lust for life and attractive people. Yet the presentation of insatiability in SMILF and She’s Gotta Have It is not about shock value, nor is it an attempt to short-circuit character development. It’s instead a way to address female desire; the act of eating or fucking, in other words, upends (or allays) their ontological torpor, and it temporarily displaces their lack of resources as women. Neither act is strictly political; on some level they’re just urges the characters choose to act on. But for these women, “insatiable” is a way of being that momentarily mitigates their lack of fulfillment within the patriarchy. This is especially notable in the #MeToo climate, as we talk about the work and desires of women who have been assaulted or harassed, of those who are forced from their seat at the table. These shows portray women who ask for their seat at the proverbial table while they also dine alone. Insatiability becomes a kind of carpe diem for Nola and Bridgette, at least when it’s not compromising their health. It’s worth mentioning that Bridgette and Eliza belong to a support group for people with food addictions.

For the most part, seizing their days involves tackling challenges: sexism, the male gaze, how to make rent. Sometimes the challenges are less ambient—they involve defending their bodies. Many characters, most of them men, harass Nola on the street; one night while walking home, a guy attacks her. At work, SMILF’s women fare poorly. Nelson Rose is demeaned by a football player she interviews; Bridgette is duped into doing softcore porn, and then groped on another job. As Bridgette’s college-aged former client and soon-to-be lover notes, she’s smart enough to go to Harvard—her intellectual labor helped him matriculate there, after all. And yet there she is, moments later, with her legs wrapped around his hips. Where work is unfulfilling, eating and boning fill a void, even if they don’t improve her circumstances. These shows invite you to ask, after bell hooks: Whose pussy is this? Whose stomach?

Last week, writer Helen Rosner reflected on Mario Batali and the appetites of other disgraced celebrity chefs (and men like them) for The New Yorker. “It’s worth noting that appetites like Batali’s are, for the most part, not permitted to women,” Rosner writes, “neither are bodies like his, with their evidence of hungers fulfilled.” On SMILF, both are “permitted,” as women eat and exist in bodies which aren’t all svelte. In her essay on the alleged actions of Batali and his business associate Ken Friedman, who reportedly had a “rape room” in The Spotted Pig (the restaurant they own together), Rosner writes: “Behold, in these stories, the insidious duality of a powerful man’s rapaciousness (the word shares a root—the Latin ‘rapere,’ to take by force—with both ‘ravenous’ and ‘rape’): Batali’s disregard for boundaries has in the past been a foundation of his mythology.”

In both shows, a concerted juxtaposition of food and sex highlights women’s material options—or lack thereof.

Together, SMILF and She’s Gotta Have It form a counter mythos to the one surrounding abusive male celebrity chefs. While it’s important not to be reductive about these characters’ eating disorders, and their histories of sexual trauma, there seems to be a concerted juxtaposition of food and sex with the women’s material options, especially in terms of how these are linked with other, more complicated emotional and psychological matters. SMILF’s treatment of food and sex is one way the show addresses the stalled ambitions of its women characters. Bridgette’s mother, for instance, cooks to bypass her existential inertia; there’s a heartbreaking scene where Tutu, immobilized by depression, sits in a towel watching cooking shows. On the other hand, Bridgette’s impulsive eating and random sex allow her to reroute energy into her acting aspirations and hoop dreams.

In Carmen Maria Machado’s short story “Eight Bites,” from Her Body and Other Parties, a young woman is dismayed by the weight loss surgeries her sisters have undertaken. “A band, a sleeve, a gut rerouted. Rerouted?” the narrator wonders. It’s the repetition of “rerouted” that makes the sentence strange, but which also gives it the ring of familiarity. For aren’t many women acquainted with what it means to take another way home, or to quit an industry after being repeatedly harassed? The narrator of “Eight Bites” has been counseled to take just eight bites of a meal in order stay slim. Bridgette and Nola undoubtedly take more. In them we find desire rerouted, but not derailed.