It's rare that I watch a Netflix series, but I saw the familiar and beautiful face of DeWanda Wise under the title 'She's Gotta Have It,' and without hesitation, I clicked on the program. I was welcomed with a beautiful frame of the main character Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) and the many characters I'd be introduced to meditating on their perception of the tantalizing young Black woman artist named Nola. The show is a new imagination of Spike Lee's 1986 film, She's Gotta Have It. The film released thirty-one years prior to the premiere of the Netflix series was revolutionary in its depiction of a Black woman’s sexuality. As a young millennial, I have never seen a young Black woman or femme character captured so enthralling and deviated from the traditional tropes of Black women.
Nola's cultural relevance is as significant today as it was in the late ‘80s. Some reviewers say that Lee isn’t hip to the changes that have occurred in dating practices, but the norms for Black women haven’t shifted much. As far as the way the characters speak about race and cultural phenomenon, that can be tweaked. It comes off a bit try-hard.
In the Netflix series remake, we see this fierce, flawed, beautiful, and complex Black woman owning her sexuality and having it take center stage. But not in the ways we've seen before. In most cases when we observe a Black woman's sexuality as a central part to the character, it is through trauma, violence or insidious sexism masked as sexual liberation, popularly known as the 'hoe phase.'
What we know about this Nola's sexuality is that it just is. It wasn't birthed through trauma or the absence of emotional layers thus mimicking stereotypic and toxic male motives of operations ala Samantha Jones from Sex and the City. Nola isn't reacting to an event in her life such as a break up therefore thrusting her loins at men in an effort to evade necessary healing processes ala Issa in season two of Insecure. Nola’s sexuality just is; it is just as much a part of her as her eyes, ears, and nose. It isn't a reaction or symptom of some underlying unaddressed issue. Nola is a better image of a sexually liberated woman, although she has her faults.
Nola is also a refreshing representation of Black queer women and femmes, she identifies herself as a “sex-positive polyamorous pansexual.” She labels herself because she understands her being is too complex for one-word labels, one being 'freak,' which she detests. Nola's character doesn’t relent on doing the unthinkable; she breaks societal belief of a woman or femme being inherently monogamous, Nola is living her best–selfish–life dating three very different men and a woman along the way. The staunch ideology behind the policing of women's sexuality and lifestyles is shattered because unlike many female characters on television Nola isn't desperate to meet the standard exclusive monogamous relationship with one man to meet conformity like so many women characters on television do (hello Joan Clayton, bonjour Carrie Bradshaw, hola Molly Cater). And she certainly doesn’t care for the unique ways it's asked of from Black women.
One of Nola’s lovers is Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent); an older accomplished, married father of one. Another is Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony), the good-looking, vain, and somewhat of a cliche but endearing light-skin man (this character cracks me up because he reminds me of a Greer in my life, hey boo). Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos), an Afro-Puerto Rican man-child who keeps her youthful and appeases her need to have fun and be free in a jovial way.
Some might think that these three very different men add up to be her ideal man, but what is important to note is that Nola does not want just one man. She's polyamorous (well, her brand of poly); she's transcended the belief of monogamy being standard or natural. Nola's ideal man is Nola; this isn't even something she comes to realize over time, she's known this. She's incredibly independent–even selfish–and enjoys the company of each man.
During her break from men, she reopens the door to a former love, Opal Gilstrap (Ilfenesh Hadera). Opal is a lesbian single-mother who manages a plant nursery in Brooklyn (can she be anymore wondrous)? We see that it is with this amazingly beautiful and serene woman that Nola has the ability to grow because Opal can see Nola, while her male lovers have a skewed view of her due to their Male Gaze. Nola's relationship with Opal does, however, play into the idea of using women for emotional healing. To the detriment of Opal because it's unbeknownst to her that Nola is out of whack and seeking her center through her woman lover, Nola is beginning to figure things out without the frustration of being seen through the Male Gaze.
Nola's need for emotional salvation from Opal does minimize the importance of the same-sex relationship. The relationship isn’t perfect, mainly because of Nola’s indecisive and self-centeredness and especially because we see her go back to all three of her male partners after she has somewhat healed from being with Opal.
In 2017, we're just beginning to attempt to image a free Black woman, some shows try and fall short. Some shows attempt and back peddle, some shows attempt and miss the mark entirely. Let’s bring in the fact that shows often erase the existence of Black queer women and femmes altogether. Seldom are Black women given the range to be seen as sexual human beings without fervent resistance.
Issa Rae’s Insecure labeled what should be a part of someone's life, in general, as a 'hoe phase.' This notion that women can only have the leeway to have as much sex as they want and with whomever as a 'phase,' is evolved sexism–adapted for the times. She's Gotta Have It lifts the weight of guilt for Black women who want to be the sexual human beings, even if that means all the time. There doesn't have to be an excuse to explain female sexuality like a 'hoe phase.'
Nola isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination; have I mentioned her selfishness? But she reminds audiences that, yes, it is possible to see Black womanhood that doesn't strive to be perfect or products of trauma. Nola doesn’t play into the archetype of a successful Black woman who is not content in her love-life, but rather someone who is fascinated with herself. Nola doesn't allow the men in her life to walk all over her, thanks to her superficial, self-serving rules. She doesn’t contort herself to a man's will–not even in moments when it would be understandable.
In 10-episodes, one show obliterated so many boxes that keep Black women and femmes trapped in their designated archetypes. In every stroke of her paintbrush and her lovers' members, this complex character proves that Black womanhood and femmehood is not just the product of our experiences; Black womanhood and femmehood can be because it is. This series leaves the door open for Black woman and femme writers to create stories centering autonomous and complex Black women and femme characters, not as caricatures but as the humans they are.