Netflix’s remake of Spike Lee’s 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It focuses on a 20-something Black female artist named Nola Darling who describes herself as a pansexual polyamorist. In a time when Black women are rarely afforded the freedom to express themselves freely and uninhibited, Nola’s declaration of her sexuality and relationship style are incredibly meaningful. The opportunity for She’s Gotta Have It to open up for more nuanced portrayals of sexual identity and relationships resonates deeply with audiences and could have worked to the show’s strengths; after all, as marginalized communities are gaining visibility, the responsibility for media to reflect that grows.
There are a plethora of relationship styles that are included underneath polyamory (or the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time), and a growing number of Americans are exploring themselves within polyamorous relationships. It’s estimated that up to 5 percent of Americans participate in some form of ethical non-monogamy. Yet visibility in the media is still lacking when it comes to an accurate representation of what polyamory looks like when centered on the lives of people of color.
The premiere and reception of She’s Gotta Have It especially raises this question.
Criticisms of the show have been free-flowingcritiques pointing out its anti-feminist portrayal of women; the hyperfocus of Nola’s relationships with her three male lovers; the awkward inclusion of social justice rhetoric and Twitter hashtags inserted throughout the showbut the biggest misstep of the show stemmed from its treatment of Black polyamory.
In She’s Gotta Have It, both Nola’s sexuality and her identity as a polyamorist comes across as a convenient afterthought. Throughout the show, her pansexuality is only mentioned when she is sick of her men, and even then, she only dates cis men and women.
During her sole relationship with a woman, Opal, there’s notable queerphobic undertones to how Opal regards Nola’s sexuality because Nola isn’t a lesbian. Opal refers to Nola as “bi-curious,” and is highly jealous when one of Nola’s male lovers, Greer, makes an unexpected appearance.
“You get to be a try-sexual and try anything,” Opal remarks. “It’s different when you’re like me and don’t have a choice.”
With Nola as the only polyamorous person in the show, the identity becomes further marginalized because it sits itself upon incorrect ideas of what polyamory actually looks like, especially for queer people of color. In a piece published onThe Root, Monique Judge condemns the show’sstereotypical portrayal of polyamory as reinforced through Nola’s disposability and selfishness when it comes to her lovers.
“Her lack of respect for other people’s time, feelings and needs is another issue,”Judge writes. “Polyamory is based on mutual respect and consideration; it doesn’t work any other way.”
Throughout the series, Nola centers her own needs and desires before the concerns that her lovers have. All of her lovers want to be monogamous, making their expectations of the relationship with Nola reasonablethey want her to only be romantically involved with them individually. However, Nola’s disposability of her partners remains a core part of her attraction to them. Her relationship with Jaime relies heavily on his financial support of her; when he surprises her for her birthday, Nola has no qualms about taking calls from both of her other love interests, Mars and Greer, with Jaime next to her in bed, visibly upset.
In the final episode, Nola invites all of her men to her home for a Thanksgiving dinner, where they meet each other for the first time, without warning or chance for rebuttal. This is also where Nola unveils her latest artwork: a painting depicting all of the men as, as Judge describes, a “three-headed penis.” This is the ultimate depiction of the disposability and self-serving nature that Nola regards these relationships, posing them as strictly sexual objects. While this may be emotionally unethical, it can be powerful representation to see a Black woman in a traditionally male-exclusive role of control and power over their lovers.
Opal, too, arrives at the end of the night, though it’s unclear whether Nola wants to continue their romantic relationship or if Nola she sees their relationship as platonic. Throughout the series, there is the sense that Nola idealizes Opal and regards her relationship with Opal as secondary to the relationships with her men.
Though unlike her relationships with Mars, Greer, or Jaime, Nola doesn’t see Opal as easily disposable. In fact, their relationship failing to progress rides almost exclusively onto Nola’s inability to commit. In comparison, the relationship Nola has with her men is focused more exclusively on their desire of her, and although her lack of commitment is an issue, viewers are expected to see them as expendable in ways they aren’twith Opal. Despite the chance for allowing queer love to exist on the show, Nola’s relationship with Opal is moved to be a placeholder for the central plot of Nola and her men.
The show diminishes Opal’s importance to the show but giving hersignificantly less screen time and development than the men. Opal is set up to be regarded as passing; for Nola to retreat to only when she is over her men, leaving asOpal demands more. Even when Nola speaks about her romantic relationships, she doesn’t mention Opal (when Opal rightfully calls her out on this, Nola responds with “It’s not personal and it ain’t political. I just don’t want to put my loving bed out in the street”). Yet the tenderness and romanticism that exists in the relationship when they are alone proves that the potential for their relationship to be successful is there. But is it societal expectations that Nola places on herself or that is placed on the show itself that hinders this?
Representation aside, this still moves to push a kind of polyamory that is unrealistic and far-removed from the polyamory that queer people of color actually engage in.
While fans may have been expecting a showcasing of how modern-day polyamorists actually integrate their sexuality to other aspects of their identities, the reality is that She’s Gotta Have It only served to further present the same tropes and stereotypes about what polyamory looks like. The portrayal led viewers to not take polyamory seriously as a relationship style that Black people and other people of color can practice, and that’s incredibly harmful for the people of color who do practice polyamory through healthy communication, active consent, and empathy for all of their partners.
“I am sure there are many that can relate to pieces of the series but as a whole, it felt fabricated,” says Cindy Lee Alves, a sexologist, educator, and writer. “There were several instances where I was watching this series with my lover saying ‘They’re making fun of me/of us,’ or ‘Is this supposed to be a parody?'”
Alves says she believes what hindered the show’s success in reflecting the experiences of polyamorists of color could have been avoided by speaking with those who are actually poly.
“The series was riddled with misogynoir,” she says, “and regardless of the affirmations and Nola’s character being written as empowered, I feel it continues to center patriarchy. Again, this is why you hire us. Series like this could have talked to folks who identify with these particular identities more if a sensitivity reader was used for the script or a sexuality consultant. I’d like to think we have a critical understanding of the nuances.”
Xemi, a polyamorous pansexual Two-Spirit Trans Womxn performer and writer, finds She’s Gotta Have It to be all too affected by the male gaze.
“Even though the story is centered on a Black cis womxn character,” she tells INTO, “and many of the episodes are written by Black cis womxn, the show is still directed by a Black cis man. This interpretation of Black cis womxn through a Black cis man, points out one of the flaws of cis culture: competition between cis men and cis womxn.”
Though the writers’ room included Black women, the reality is that viewers are rooted in the outsider perspective of the show. Instead of allowing Nola to center herself and her polyamory authentically, it is pushed aside in favor for something that isn’t entirely clear. It’s difficult to say exactly whether She’s Gotta Have It is meant to be regarded as satire or commentary on contemporary Black life. Short of an obvious message, we are left viewing it as spectators rather than valid participants in what the show is meant to be offering us.
“Mainstream culture believes that queerness is ‘radical’ and Nola’s words and actions show she plays right into that belief,” Xemi says. “The truth is queer folx are not ‘radical’ simply for being queer, and there is nothing ‘radical’ about cisgender, heterosexual-normative queerness. Nola’s perspective of queerness, namely pansexuality, is openly cissexist and treats same-gender love as an escape from true desirecishet love.”
Nola’s relationship with Opal being treated as “an escape from true desire” is rooted from the unequal portrayal of their relationship versus Nola’s relationships with her male lovers.At the series’ end, there is an ambiguity in how Nola and Opal’s relationship will progress, if at all.
After the Thanksgiving dinner, the men leave and Opal appears, asking to come upstairs. Nola allows Opal inside, almost hesitant, though the scene ends before the audience is given resolution for the relationship in the same ways as Nola’s other lovers. The show’s tone of Opal and Nola’s relationship almost forces it to be seen as less serious, frustrating viewers looking for truequeer representation.
Xemi also argues that cishet people often find queers to be promiscuous, and pansexuals to be “greedy, incapable of commitment, or confused”; andqueer and pansexual lifestyles to be temporary or phases.She’s Gotta Have It also serves up some transphobia in Nola’s “man cleanse,” in which she says she wants “no penis in [her] loving bed.”
“[That] is a perfect example of how Trans people are not even in the mindset of cis(het) writers and directors,” Xemi says.
In a piece for Bitch, Evette Dionne writes that the downfall of the show is rooted in Nola’s inability to trust and know herself, embracing all parts of herselfincluding her queerness and her identity as a polyamorist.
“What’s most prominent throughout the series is that [Nola] seems incapable of choosing herself,” Dionne writes. “Toward the end of the season, [Nola’s therapist] Dr. Jamison, asks [Nola] if her partners’ energies are feeding her voice as an artist. The answer is clearly no. Rather than saying that, she responds with, ‘I’ve got to maintain some sort of control.’ In the She’s Gotta Have It writers room, which is thankfully full of Black women, [Nola]’s sexual proclivities are treated as an output of her inability to understand who she is. She has rules, but not much else.”
Shows like She’s Gotta Have It makes bold moves when it comes to trying to portray various parts of the lives of people of color, but a better effort could have been made to make the show more polyamory and queer friendly. Hiring sexuality professionals of color who are trained in and identify as queer and polyamorous would have helped to make some of the characterization run smoother.
Nola, as a character, could have discussed her boundaries and expectations of her relationships with each beau, allowing them to know exactly where they stand and giving them time to actively consent to whether they wanted to participate in a non-monogamous relationship, even while they themselves identified as monogamous. Nola’s relationship with Opal should have been regarded with more respect as well. Rather than using Opal as a placeholder while Nola was between men, the show could have better represented queer identity by placing this relationship on equal footing with Nola’s relationships with Mars, Jaime, and Greer.
Even as polyamory continues to grow in visibility in popular media, there is still much that can be done to give realistic portrayals of what it looks like for marginalized communities. But as its prominence in media continues, there is the hope that the representation that we deserveon-screen and within the development teamwill not be far off. As with other depictions of specific communities and identities, the people behind these representations need to be more intentional in their research and reaching out in order to not only be more accurate, but to tell more compelling and realistic stories that will inevitably create a better experience for viewers as well.