Our culture is one saturated by antiquated, sexist and Eurocentric perceptions of female beauty. Intertwined with this conception of physical perfection is hair, more specifically straight hair, which has prompted generations of African-American women to alter their unique frizz and curl patterns to fit the mold of silky locks. With its well-constructed protagonist, engaging character relationships and profound, relevant reflections about skewed societal guidelines for beauty, “Nappily Ever After” simply cannot be passed off as just another chick-flick, even though it abides by many of the rom-com genre conventions.
When Violet (Sanaa Lathan, “Love & Basketball”) was a little girl, she quickly learned that the only path to perfection was through straight hair. And she never forgot it. As an adult with a thriving career, a doting and sexy boyfriend and long, relaxed hair, Violet’s life is nothing short of perfect. However, when an eagerly anticipated proposal from her hunky beau Clint (Ricky Whittle, “Austenland”) turns out to be a false alarm and leads to a messy breakup, rainclouds begin to form over Violet’s flawless and straight-laced world. Struggling to get back into the dating pool and navigate lingering feelings for her ex, Violet, in a drunken craze, makes a hasty and emotionally-charged decision to shave her head. At first regretful of her rash choice, Violet’s definition of beauty begins to re-shape itself when a trip to the salon to salvage her hair-troubles leads to an unexpected friendship with the sassy yet sweet Zoe (Daria Johns, “Animator”) and a tentative romance with Zoe’s down-to-earth father Will (Lyriq Bent, “She’s Gotta Have It”).
Part of what allows “Nappily Ever After” to find success is its ability to balance heftier topics with lighthearted moments. At the surface level, Violet’s search for “the right man” can be passed off as akin to any female lead’s journey to love in any other romantic film. However, what sets “Nappily Ever After” apart is its dissection of the impact of the male gaze on women’s choices regarding their appearances. All her life, Violet was taught, both by the beauty industry and her mother, that men only want women with long, flowing tresses, not afros and dreadlocks. Thus, she styled her hair straight, altering herself with the end goal of presenting herself the way she thought men found desirable. Through her dramatic hair transformation and healthy, blossoming relationship with Will, Violet finally starts to grasp the notion that a real man, or at least any man worth her time, will see her for who she is, regardless of what does or doesn’t grow out of her head.
Violet’s transformation by the end of the film is clear. Once insecure about her natural hair and allegiant to the flat iron, Violet is no longer the same woman by the end of the film. For so many years, water was Violet’s enemy, as it had the power to ruin her painstakingly pressed locks within seconds. Newly empowered and unchained from anyone’s standards, Violet lets it all go through her symbolic leap into a swimming pool, literally drowning out years of lies that she has been told about her frizz, her curls and her texture not being beautiful enough.
On its own, straight hair isn’t the problem. As is emphasized in the final moments of the film, it is not that women should feel guilty or wrong for wanting to switch up their natural hair, but rather that all women should feel confident in their choices to alter their looks with the knowledge that they are worthy of love and respect no matter what.