Nappily Ever After: A Critical Black Sex Therapist Review
I feel like I have been talking and attempting to write about the Netflix movie Nappily Ever After a lot lately. In the Sex Talk After Dark, Shayla Tumbling and I discussed the movie and the impact of hair on sexuality. I am glad to have had the discussion, but I have also been wondering why this movie is so hard to write about. For those who have seen it, feel free to proceed. For those who haven’t and are okay with spoilers, you do the same. IF you are NOT into spoilers in anyway, it might be time to hit the “x” in the upper left hand corner because spoilers are definitely ahead!
So, the movie is based on a book of the same name, written by Trisha Thomas back in 2001. I mention that because someone said to me “that title sound like its early 2000s and is cringe worthy.” We follow Violet who has a good looking partner, a great job, and a beautiful home. However, when her man of 2 years gives her a dog instead of an engagement ring, in the great words of Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart.
Cuz That’s What I Like:
Some things I liked about the movie, that were even mentioned in the Sex Talk After Dark IG live with Shayla, was something she said, there was a “coming of age” energy of the movie. And it did feel like a coming of age film. There was the whole peeling back the layers to better understand myself vibe. I really appreciated that. I think it’s a good reminder that you can discover and rediscover things about yourself. Other than that, I was digging the light energy of the movie and how it was fun to watch. I don’t think that gets enough credit sometimes. Everything we see isn’t actually just fun to watch. I also loved that this is a whole assed movie talking about natural hair and what can often be a tumultuous decision making process (re: going/returning natural). I even like that in the end, she was Nappily Ever After by herself, proving that you can be exactly enough for YOU.
...overall, I found this movie to be lacking. One thing they touched on, that I was sure was about to rock this whole movie, was the intergenerational feelings of shame and perfection regarding hair. Now, it has been pointed out that there was the generation of Violets mama to her, and then from Violet to Zoe, but for me that rings false. While we get to see Violet’s journey in a sense, we very much miss out on meaningful intergenerational exchange. It was only lightly spoken about and not more deeply explored.
This was a miss because so many folks have hair stories that very much include mothers, grandmothers, aunties, friends, as well as people they have pined for (usually male others). Many people have spoken about how their mothers expectations shaped the very way they thought of themselves and how that tradition of scrutinizing your black self according to white supremacist standards of beauty still lives in their actions, likes, and dislikes. I thought this was almost a story about that intergenerational shame and pain passed down through our tresses. They tease us, but don’t feed us. That’s the really tragedy of this movie.
For me, there is another missed layer in this conversation, which left me feeling like they took the easy way out. Allow me to set it up, and then break it down (though only a little). Now, there is a hierarchy to beauty in the U.S. and abroad that favors white(ness) over black(ness), light eyes over dark, straighter hair over tightly coiled, etc. Basically a list that favors Eurocentric beauty ideals as the standard for all others to emulate, at varying degrees of “success.” This hierarchy is known and felt especially in the Black community. Black girls as young as age 6 understand the social value of lighter skin and straighter “good” hair. Keeping that in mind, it felt like it is too easy for the production studio to pick a lighter person to play the role of a woman coming into her natural own. While some would argue that Sanaa Lathan is not light, I argue that she is an “acceptable” color in negro-dom and thus has some level of privilege just the same. This movie left me wondering how it would have been received if the main character was dark skinned? Would this movie be different if the character had 4b/c hair? Because there is rhetoric that would say you hair length and texture can save you from your dark skin OR that your skin tone can save you from your hair length and texture. If the Violet had been darker, would we have seen the shaving of her head as more tragic or prolific because she would not be able to lean on her coloring? If the darker best friend of Violet had short hair, would she still have read on screen as beautiful? The thing is, I and others are going to be left with these type of questions because we still, in a sense, are not seeing ourselves reflected. While TV moves toward being more diverse in some ways, there is still an element of “acceptable” Black beauty which, quite frankly, has white supremacist leanings.
The critical Black Sex Therapist that I am though happy to see any representation at all of hair and skin tone is dissatisfied, especially given that I work specifically with Black women who are dealing with some level of issue as it relates to hair texture and skin tone. In relation to their foremothers. Stories are being told and brought to the forefront, but we are only getting a portion of the story. This story and the knowledge that we need MORE is important to sexuality, because sexuality is who you are from birth till death. It is how you present in the world, it is how you’re received in the world, and it is how you feel about the presentation of your body, about yourself based on what mama, media, and the underlying rhetoric already says about you. So, if you are not included because you are too dark, too fat, too kinky hair’d, then what does that also say? Media representation continues to matter in the crux of sex and sexuality for the healing of those hurt, but especially for young girls of color. And if we continue to see/say that you have to be lighter to be beautiful, or have straighter hair, or longer hair; that the only way that you should accept your natural hair and it’s texture is if you have other things (hair length, skin tone) working for you, then we run the risk of continuing the same white supremacist capitalist heteronormative patriarchal hegemony.