Off Script: What “Nappily Ever After” gets right — and wrong — about black hair

Cassidy Jackson, Assistant Opinion Editor

The day before returning to campus, instead of packing for another move-in, I was stretched out on the couch watching Netflix’s new original film “Nappily Ever After.”

The romantic drama centers on Violet, a black female powerhouse obsessed with perfectionism — especially when it comes to her hair. Every day, Violet fights her hair’s natural kinkiness by straightening it religiously and staying meticulously up-to-date on how weather forecasts will affect it. Rejecting her natural beauty has become second nature to Violet, but after a rough breakup and a drunken decision to shave her head, she is forced to confront her narrow image of black beauty.

Watching the trailer, I was curious to see how the storyline played out, because I couldn’t help but see a bit of myself in Violet. She invested energy, money and ultimately her self-worth into the hair on her head. And in one night, she lost all of it, having to reevaluate her whole life and self-image. To be honest, if I traded places with Violet, my reality wouldn’t be much different.

Between the gels, conditioners, wigs, weaves and relaxers, we as black women throw our money towards the beauty industry. Statistically speaking, black women spend nine times more than their non-black peers on hair and beauty products. And I’m no exception; twice a week, I throw down around $80 on salon visits. Needless to say, hair is important to us, and we put our money where our mouths are. And while the importance of hair isn’t limited to black women, the reality is that within the world of black hair, there’s so many more moving parts.

For black women, hair can either be a source of pride or a source of ridicule. Is it long? Is it short? Is the curl-pattern tight or loose? Are your baby hairs laid to perfection or fried like chicken? Is your wig fitted on right? I saw “Nappily Ever After” as an opportunity to dismantle the common black female obsession with Eurocentric hair, but instead I got a film that barely dived into the topic of black hair, taking too comedic of an approach.

There’s one specific scene that’s burned into my memory: Violet sits outside with her friends, and instead of focusing on the conversation at hand, she stares at the sky, examining if there are rain clouds looming overhead. In just one minute, Violet manages to ask the same question — “Is it going to rain?” — three times in different ways. This scene was an unnecessary exaggeration; although hair is something on black women’s minds, it presented Violet as an obsessive woman, unable to think about anything other than the condition of her hair.

Movies and media that focus on the complex relationship black women have with their hair are few and far between, but “Nappily Ever After” misses the mark because it exaggerates that relationship. I can safely assume that black women aren’t walking around with our heads pointed to the sky, analyzing if there are rain clouds up there. I can also safely assume that our hair doesn’t detract from our relationships with other people.

With little representation of the black hair experience, people like my friend Tasha come away from the film with the wrong idea. Tasha, who’s Indian, initially introduced me to “Nappily Ever After.” She convinced me to watch the trailer and explained how excited she was to better understand a piece of the black female experience. But when the movie made a mockery of Violet, it failed to do that.

I do appreciate the final message of the film, however. At the end, Violet was able to separate her definition of beauty from her mother’s definition. Growing up, Violet’s mother taught her beauty was conditional: she could only be worth something when her hair was long and straight. In the end, it’s nice to see Violet reject that notion.

Although I don’t picture myself shaving my head anytime soon, the overall message behind “Nappily Ever After” made me realize it’s not about whether your hair’s straight or curly, real or fake. It’s about whether or not you own it.

Cassidy Jackson is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.