‘Women, Politics, and Sex’- A Study of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq

By Lucy Elford

Lysistrata is a 400 BC play by Aristophanes- a male playwright of Ancient Greece. The play is set in Athens during the Peloponnesian War [411 BC]. The female characters are tired of their husbands never being at home, tired of all their money being pumped into a meaningless war, so Lysistrata- a Greek woman, decides to organise a ‘sex-strike’. She manages to convince all women- both Athenian and Spartan, to deny their husbands intimacy until they resolve the war. The play takes a comedic stance, using rich verse and rhyme to boost the story-like elements of the tale. Eventually, after many crude jokes and tension between men and women, the men give in and resolve their differences- creating peace. Chi-Raq is a Spike Lee directed film based on Lysistrata, putting the play in a world of gang violence and racial tension. It has a similar plot, two Chicago gangs are engaged in a bloody ‘turf war’ and after she witnesses the aftermath of the death of a young girl caught in the crossfires, Lysistrata (a gang leader’s girlfriend) organises a sex strike with women from both sides of the violence. The film repurposes the use of rhyme and rhythm, still engaging with the bawdy humour Aristophanes uses in the original play. The film, like its predecessor, ends in peace between the gangs- sending an emotional message against racism and violence to its audience.

Aristophanes’ play is an interesting one. Firstly, it is full of contradictions; The play has been quoted to contain ‘proto-feminist values’ [Franco, 2016] and is one of the earliest examples of an attempt at giving women a voice. The playwright utilises lewd humour and attributes them to his female characters, who overthrow the Acropolis and control Athens’ money- typically masculine acts. However, Aristophanes still does his female characters a great injustice. Their attempt at gaining political power is rooted in sex, more specifically, the concept that they owe sex to their husbands [Albert, 2019]. This idea implies that the women themselves have no control over their sexuality and sexual interests, building a damaging stereotype that women are simply an object for men to ‘use’ whenever they wish. Their husbands are only denied intercourse as a punishment- not because of the woman’s personal wishes. Chi-Raq also possesses the same issue, however it could be seen as more damaging to its modern audience, as we often consider women to be more independent and in control of their sexualities.

What makes both Lysistrata and Chi-Raq almost proto-feminist stories, however, is the sexual freedom the characters are given. They make crass jokes and seem to have a more positive view on sex- something many ancient Greek women were denied when they appeared in the media. In ancient Greek context, this is likely to appeal to a male audience. The humour removes any level of meaning and sincerity to the play, these are simply foolish women who ‘got lucky’ in their ploy to solve peace. These women are almost ridiculed to make the men feel safer and more secure in their society, but a message is still delivered, almost a curious and quiet warning from Aristophanes to his male audience. That the female population are not to be underestimated, as doing so can cause great disruption in the male timeline, as illustrated in Lysistrata’s successful protest that halted violence between Athenians and Spartans. The use of comedy, however, in Chi-Raq is much more successful. In a modern society, we see more suggestive language in our mainstream media, women have more sexual liberty than ever (in the majority of countries), and we are becoming familiar with women engaging in the same humour men have been using for centuries. The comedy simply adds a level of relatability for a modern audience, perhaps inspiring women to make a difference politically. Lee has successfully manipulated Aristophanes’ mocking use of humour into a way to specifically reach out to his audience and to influence the viewers personally.

When reviewing the meaning of a political story, such as Lysistrata, it is always vital to consider the political climate at the time. Aristophanes’ play was written in 411 BC- a response to the Peloponnesian War (between the Athenians and Spartans) that was edging to a close when Lysistrata was first performed. Women were discarded in texts surrounding the Peloponnesian War. They are rarely mentioned, even though they often suffered the brunt of the conflict, having their homes torn apart, being sexually assaulted and sold into slavery, living through the consequences of money being pushed into the war instead of food and basic necessities. Tollenhaar wrote in her review of Thucydides’ ancient account of the Peloponnesian War that ‘while women were caretakers and victims during the Athenian plague, during the four-page description in the text women are not mentioned once. Dogs are.’[Tollenaar, 2019]. Women, contextually, were ignored, their efforts scored out and hidden in history. We can see here that Lysistrata was a rather revolutionary piece, providing women with some form of political input- even if it appears as a mocking piece of literature. Chi-Raq, however, is focused on modern day politics. Chicago has a bloody history of gun and gang violence, with children and mothers bearing the brunt of accidental killings [Fry, 2020]. The name of the film itself is a reference to the intense amount of crime casualties that rivals those who die in military service whilst in Middle Eastern conflict. Chi-Raq takes the foundations of Aristophanes’ play and applies it to modern racial tension and how black women are responding to violence surrounding them.


● Albert, L,14 May 2019 ‘A Timely Re-Broadcasting of the Lysistrata: Why a Sex Strike is Not a Good Idea’ [podcast] Let’s Talk about Myths Baby.

● Aristophanes, Lysistrata and Other Plays, trans. by Alan H. Sommerstein, rev. edn (London: Penguin Books, 2002)

● Franco, J, 13 December 2016 ‘Lysistrata and Proto-feminism.’

● Fry, P, 3 August 2020 ‘Nearly 40 People Shot in Chicago Over the Weekend as July Goes Down as the Most Violent Month in 28 Years’, Chicago Tribune.

● Lee, Spike, Chi-Raq (Roadside Attractions, 2015)

● Tollenaar, Kate, ‘Rereading Thucydides: Where are the Women?’, The Strategy Bridge, 8 October 2019.