Messy Girl Chronicles: Allowing Nola Darling Room to Grow

Jun 3, 2018 · 6 min read

I am not Nola Darling, but I am the woman Spike Lee aimed to represent in She’s Gotta Have It, his modern Netflix-series revamp of the 1986 film by the same name.

I am a twenty-something, Black, queer, polyamorous woman writer living and loving in Brooklyn, New York. And while I was really excited for the visibility of Nola’s character (DeWanda Wise), I felt more seen by Angelica Jade Bastien’s critique of the final episode, than the actual show itself:

She’s Gotta Have It is undercut by several concerns I’ve been having with modern television, particularly those geared toward young black folks like myself, including Insecure and Dear White People, to varying degrees: feminist rhetoric as a shorthand for actual, layered characterization; an interest in crafting moments perfected to create conversation on Twitter but little else; the inability for even good shows to revel in and respect the desires of its black female leads; and the commodification of black-girl cool.

As has been articulated in Bastien’s analysis of Nola’s arc and other reviews, She’s Gotta Have It fails to show an honest, nuanced, and current depiction of Black queer polyamory. The show’s primary flaw is the intergenerational disconnect between the writers and the modern characters whom they seek to voice — or to quote Zoe Samudzi’s unforgiving critique, the characters seem to be “living in a purgatory between 1986 and now.”

Still, there was one thing that resonated with me as I finished up my 2017 by binge-watching Nola juggle her commitment to her art, to her friends, and to her lovers while navigating the stress-inducing NYC in a Black femme body — the messiness of it all.

When debriefing my year with close friends at Chick-fil-a, (yes we are actually broke and can’t always afford brunch), they would occasionally look over at each other and roll their eyes, saying “Girl, you live for the drama.” Detailing to them friendship breakups, tears in Prospect Park, arguments in the middle of sidewalk traffic, misread texts, and failed Tinder dates, I realized 2017 was sincerely and truly my messiest year yet.

But the chaos was intentional. After quitting my full-time job and ending a two-year monogamous relationship in 2016, I made a redefining commitment to my future self; not only was I going to freelance but I was also going to practice solo-polyamory.

Polyamorous relationships, like part-time jobs, are clear on boundaries from the jump. I am not your everything, you are not to expect all of my time, and you are to be certain that I am not dependent on one person to satisfy my every need or vice versa. When reflecting on my relationships, to work, to my partner at the time, and to my family, I saw no bottom, no boundaries, no end to the amount of emotional energy and labor I would give to all involved. I was sacrificing my health and my deep love for solitude and friendship, and knew if I continued on this path I’d be severely depressed — if not dead.

My decisions to work part-time, to live in Brooklyn, and to be solo-polyam are deliberate ways for me to create and maintain healthy boundaries in all aspects of my life. Yes, these decisions were about autonomy and control — something a Black girl is rarely afforded over her life — and yes it absolutely gets messy — something a Black girl can rarely be.

Nola Darling is trash and I love it. Holding a whole-ass conversation with Mars twice while Jamie lays right next to her, sleeping with her friend’s ex-boyfriend, inviting her three lovers over for a group dinner without their knowledge, and calling on Opal whenever it is convenient for her are just few ways that Nola establishes she has no idea what she is doing when it comes to balancing these relationships, despite her claiming to at every interjection. Looking specifically at the polyam dynamics, I appreciated Nola’s character not having her emotional boundaries and communication skills all figured out. I enjoyed seeing how the lines we often make static often get blurred anyway — like the infamous girl code (which Toni Morrison wrote a stunning book about called Sula and if you haven’t read it already you’ve officially played yourself). As much as we crave on-screen models of healthy relationships outside of the heteronormative monogamous tropes we’ve been given, it is not realistic or fair to expect that Nola at 27 has reached that point. I am around for a narrative that honors the process.

Plus, so many of our faves have taken on the messy persona, like Zoe in the first episode of Grown-ish, or Joan in the sixth season of Girlfriends, or Carrie throughout most of Sex and the City. Is it because we see polyamory as the antidote to the common cheating and lying scandals of monogamy that we anticipated Nola to be flawless? I often feel this heavy expectation from my partners and outsiders since I’ve made the choice to be solo-polyam. I can do no wrong, and when I do, I am afforded very little compassion.

I was super annoyed with Nola and was unwilling to offer her the very compassion I was seeking, until episode 6: #HeGotItAllMessedUp. In this episode, she debuts her paintings at an art opening and things spiral out of control when all three of her partners show up despite not being invited. I was in a very similar situation just weeks prior when I read my work publicly for the first time and had to decide who to invite and who to celebrate the moment with. My social anxiety and insecurities over my work led to me barely inviting anyone and giving my very close friends less than a weeks notice. When one of my partner’s found out she didn’t get an invite, she was pissed. I understood her frustration yet still struggled to be honest about my motivations.

After the art show episode, I saw Nola with a bit more sympathy. Nola’s rules are a safeguard and the issue that the show fails to resolve is the emotional underpinning that necessitates those rules in the first place. We start to see flickers of her insecurities in her artwork and we know she struggles to afford rent, but why is she so hard-pressed to avoid opening up to her lovers and so apathetic to their emotional needs and boundaries? It seems that in a rush to wrap the story in a neat little bow, the writers have Nola admit to her messiness in the last episode but it is only her fierce devotion to being “abnormal” that justifies her mistakes. There is a parody-like quality to Nola’s character where the joke feels like it is on women who embrace a carefree air to life, but to me the joke falls on Spike Lee who seems to have been a little too careless in developing Nola’s backstory and recognizing the importance of weaving it throughout the series as opposed to that #RespectabilityPolitics storyline on ass shots.

Now that the show has been renewed for a second season, I hope that we get more insight into the spurrings of Nola Darling, I hope she gets a community that is interested in holding her accountable and I hope that she works through her issues of emotional avoidance and learns to apologize. The show can continue to focus on the ways that Nola struggles to get out of her own way, to listen to her voice, and show up for her loved ones and herself — these are my goals for 2018 but I’m allowing myself room to not get it right on the first try.