My Body, My Message: Feminist Fashion in Boots Riley’s ‘Sorry to Bother You’
When I walked into Chinatown’s E-Street Cinema to watch “Sorry to Bother You”, a film by Boots Riley, one of my partner’s favorite hip-hop artists and activist, I had NO IDEA what kind of fantastical rabbit hole I was getting into. I thought it would be a cheeky movie about being black in a white man’s world, but was not prepared for the incredible messages that came to fruition throughout Riley’s dystopian satire that is 100% the most hilarious and effective labor organizing movie I’ve ever seen.
Naturally, my favorite character was Detroit, played by the talented Tessa Thompson, who portrays a radical performance artist and powerful feminist. She’s a character from the mind of Riley and every detail of her character and style were carefully collaborated on by Riley, Thompson, and costume designer Deirdra Govan. Each character’s costume is a reflection of their situation, Cassius is a wandering individual who sells his soul to capitalism and Detroit is an artist violently defying “the man”. Govan says, “Fashion is very much about designing your own style, making it your own. In this alternate universe, there aren’t any rules.”
While fashion is naturally tied to consumerism and capitalism, I absolutely love and admire how Govan hunted down vintage and unique clothing pieces in the Bay Area that she’d then redesign for the movie with a fresh and funky twist. The commitment to sustainability and shopping locally encompass the values the film aims to portray, have you heard of any other costume designer for a movie dumpster diving and trolling all over Oakland in order to authentically portray the area’s culture?
Ok, let’s jump in and examine 3 memorable moments where Detroit’s feminist values were displayed loud and clear.
From the first scene, it’s clear that Detroit uses every inch of herself as a canvas to tell the world how she really feels. The shirt that stole the show is by Otherwild, a hybrid retail store and graphic design studio in Los Angeles, CA. The cool thing about this look, beyond the hilarious words, is the fact that Thompson was actually the one to discover the brand and suggest the graphic tee that took a familiar slogan, but added a twist.
Female ejaculation, AKA squirting, is the epitome of the physical and visible proof of female pleasure; however, the nature of its existence is constantly questioned which brings up a larger issue: why is there an assumption that women can’t understand or describe what they experience during a sexual experience? Why do we doubt our friends when they claim it happened to them? Why do we debate whether or not it’s just pee? I think we’re missing the point.
As Lux Alptraum argues in her Guardian piece, “insisting that female ejaculation is really just confused urination doesn’t just denigrate women’s ability to understand our own bodies – it also positions female sexual pleasure as filthy, dirty, and ultimately less than the celebrated male orgasm.”
Did you know female ejaculation is actually banned in Australian and British porn since, if it is urine, it’s “obscene”? Porn is obviously all about the visuals and if moaning, writhing, and female ejaculation are the only “evidence” of the female orgasm, that’s a problem. We live in a world where our narratives about sexcapades are continuously questioned; when it comes down to it, I think men are just freaked out and intimidated that women can aggressively shoot something out of our bodies, just like them.
By the way, check out the feminist classic How to Female Ejaculate, a 1992 sex education and female sexual empowerment video by Fatale Video, one of the first women-run porn production companies in the United States.
Again, Riley had a concrete vision and actually wrote Detroit’s fabulously fierce earrings into the screenplay where each piece related to something thematically happening in the scene. All of the statement earrings were inspired by '80s bamboo door-knockers and were chosen by Riley so that the earrings would dictate the rest of Detroit’s costume.
One part of the earring story I love is how Govan worked with Oakland-based artists Jason Kisvarday and J.Otto Seibold who create the bubble font and a local artisan who laser-cut the acrylic. While the commodification of feminism is deeply disturbing right now, I feel this is an example of how the movie lifts the talent and art of those in the community.
These hugely popular earrings are a lyric in the song “The Magic Clap” and derived from the title, of the same name, of an anti-capitalist book by Riley that explores the lyrics and commentaries on songs by The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club, of which he’s the frontman (RIP Pam the Funkstress).
Electric Chair Men
You might not have noticed these earrings unless you were watching pretty closely since the gold-plated men in electric chairs were only shown at a glimpse through another character quips, “I didn’t know you made earrings of your ex-boyfriends.” Without spoiling the movie, this can certainly be seen as a reflection of how Worryfree is killing their employees by converting them into indentured slaves. Not to mention the juxtaposition to the insane mass incarceration issue in the U.S. where we spend 182 BILLION dollars a year.
These earrings are also lyrics, this time from a protest song Bob Dylan wrote when he was twenty-two. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” tells the story of a rich young farmer who fatally struck a black barmaid with his cane in 1963. The farmer, accused of second degree murder, only got six months.
The Art Show + Gallery
All of Detroit’s art (wooden renderings of Africa meant to criticise colonialism) and style are rooted in race and a “f*** you” to the patriarchy. For example, in the art show scene she commands patrons to throw bullets and pieces of old cell phones at her partially clothed body to critique toxic masculinity. Her role in the movie is the way her artistic pursuits express how our society has a frankly alarming disregard for human beings.
Thompson, who has a background in cultural anthropology, said in a Newsweek interview that Detroit’s mission to “figure out the intersection of the art she makes and activism” personally resonated with her due primarily to her own IRL goal of using her platform to advocate for social justice.
The bikini she wore was made out of three black leather gloves that Govan found at an army surplus store in Oakland. The flicking of the bird drives home the point that Detroit is in total ownership over her body and screw anyone who thinks otherwise. Believe or not, Govan and her costuming team only had 72 hours to develop and produce the piece since they had initially planned for Thompson to be nude, but then decided it wasn’t necessary for the story or Detroit’s storyline.
Eyes Wide Open
Detroit is the moral compass of a film that’s goal is to start a discussion on social justice, labor unions, and the the evil of capitalism. She refuses to turn a blind eye to the atrocities done by Worryfree and takes action, even in ways where she won’t be recognized. Her character and fashion are a fantastic metaphor for Boots Riley’s vision of telling a bold, violent, and unfiltered story that, at the same time, uses whimsy and surrealism.
Detroit is a self-assured woman who strives to achieve success on her own terms, with or without a partner standing by her side and, ultimately, she’s a truly feminist character in the way she is independent and unattached to the primary protagonist since her beliefs and actions aren’t what change the mind of Cassius in the end.
This is a movie that shouts for the necessity of having conversations around race, class, and the dehumanization and exploitation of people in order to maximize a company’s bottom line. With the current circus of a White House with an even more ridiculous ringleader, it’s clear that Boots Riley, like Detroit, is not willing to sit passively by to watch the current administration destroy what was already a not-so-great America.