On the {Sexual} Politics of Viola Davis’s Natural Hair at the Oscars


It wasn’t until my homie Gisele, a Black woman and working actress pointed out to me that Viola Davis graduated from Julliard in the late 80′s, that my growing obsession with Davis began to make sense.

In Davis, I saw myself.

I saw the struggles of so many Black women who try to remain whole in the face of economic, racial, sexual and financial circumstances that threaten to undermine them, in a mainstream culture that reads them by and large as maids, hypersexual video vixens, or as invisible.

A couple of weeks before the Oscars I watched the Tavis interview with her and read two articles at Shadow and Act titled “It’s a Difficult Time to be a Black Filmmaker with an Imagination” by Tanya Steele and “A Young Viola Davis Thought Experiment” by Charles Hudson. This material helped me to flesh out my ideas around Davis.

I wanted to know, what Davis’s process for deciding whether or not to take the role?  When I learned from the Tavis interview that she thought about it for three months, that it kept her up at night, she had me.

In the bookToms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks Donald Bogle studies the history of representations of African Americans in film. Bogle contends that all of these stereotypes are rooted in entertaining to stress “Negro inferiority”. Which leads me to ask, what is the political purpose of seeing “Negros” as inferior?

You see, I believe that one of the most interesting intersections to explore is the intersection between race and cultural productions because they can teach us both about the insidious and peculiar history of race and gender. This is important because I believe that understanding history can possibly lead us to a different, equitable and just future.

As many of you know I enjoy writing about films more than I writing about rap music these days, largely because the financial and racial politics of filmmaking remains highly undertheorized in pop culture blog spaces.

Which brings me to Ms. Davis and erotic capital.

Viola Davis and Erotic Capital

I take the idea of erotic capital from Siobahn Brooks. She has done some interesting work on class and race in strip clubs in New York and Oakland.

Erotic capital is made up of the things that are used to evaluate a womans sexual desirability in the public marketplace. So for Black women, I see erotic capital as hair texture, hair length, skin color, skin hue, body shape, nose and mouth size.

If we look at Ms. Davis, against mainstream standards of beauty that says that thin, white, young, curvy and blond is the norm, then I read her desire to show up to the Oscars with short chestnut afro as a rupture in popular culture representations of beauty. At least for that moment.

In a moment, when she knew that the focus would be on her, she chose to show up wearing a hairstyle that many people, some Black women included would call uncivilized.

What does it mean to  show up to the Oscars as a Julliard trained dark skinned Black woman, who is nominated for an Oscar for playing a maid in a movie that is a mainstream/hegemonic narrative about the “Good Old South”? In 2012?

Viola Davis and Black Women’s Genius

I knew that Davis was a genius when I learned two things. The first, is that for her role in Doubt she created a thirty page report/dossier on her character because she knew she only had two scenes to nail the character.

Thirty pages? That means you are invested in your craft.

The second reason why I knew she was a genius is because of Toni Morrison’s Sula. In some ways when I read that she created this dossier, I was immediately reminded of Morrison’s Sula, and the idea of a woman without an artistic form becoming dangerous.

It was in this moment that I realized that Davis, needs to produce her work otherwise she wouldn’t be right.

What do I mean by being right?

How many broken spirited people do you know who ain’t right largely because they knew they were put here on this planet to do something, but rather than embrace that thing, they took the path of least resistance?

What does it mean in 2012 to not take the path of least resistance when your Julliard training implicitly tells you that you should expect to be doing Shakespeare after you graduate from your acting program?

What do you do when you learn that the rules for you and the rules for your peers are not one and the same?

What does it mean to be a Black woman, looking to be validated by an industry that has historically seen people like you only as being fit to play a maid?

Comments

  1. You are killing it with this one! First, I think you are talking about me with this paragraph.

    “How many broken spirited people do you know who ain’t right largely because they knew they were put here on this planet to do something, but rather than embrace that thing, they took the path of least resistance?”

    This is one of the reasons I’m in therapy and glad I got a good therapist.

    I’m a Viola Davis stan too! I started goobling stuff up about her. I didn’t see “The Help” because I read the book for a book club and only got threw it because of the structure (each character dominates their narrative). I knew whatever I liked about the book would be lost via Hollywood’s whitewashing.

    Did you listen to Fresh Air’s interview with Viola Davis? She and one of her sisters would perform their own plays. One of them would write in a closet with rats running in order to make sure their dialogue was tight. DAMN! In the Fresh Air, interview Davis addresses the issue of “erotic capital” using other language. What got me about Ms. Davis was that in the midst of her campaign for the Oscar she openly spoke her truth about how Hollywood works & the acting game there, growing up poor, how she is viewed as a Black women with dark skin (never a romantic interests). She

  2. msdailey says:

    Great Post!! Esp about not doing what you know you should be doing; and if you’re not doing it because of societal judgements or ramifications!

  3. Ms World says:

    You are killing it with this one! First, I think you are talking about me with this paragraph.

    “How many broken spirited people do you know who ain’t right largely because they knew they were put here on this planet to do something, but rather than embrace that thing, they took the path of least resistance?”

    This is one of the reasons I’m in therapy and glad I got a good therapist. I’ve always wanted to be an artist (writing and film are my thang) but I grew up working class and didn’t want to stay working class, so I’ve gone another route in my worklife. I’ve never made such good money and been so miserable with my work and even mad with the people I work with because they’re actually passionate it and I’m just faking interest all the time. Now I’m working on my writing but film which I love just scares the shit out of me because I know about it and it is so capital intensive. You can have millions of dollars and make a shitty film. You can spend tens of thousands of dollars on a 10-30 minute film.

    Back on the topic. I’m a Viola Davis stan too! I started goobling stuff up about her. I didn’t see “The Help” because I read the book for a book club and only got threw it because of the structure (each character dominates their narrative). I knew whatever I liked about the book would be lost via Hollywood’s whitewashing.

    Did you listen to Fresh Air’s interview with Viola Davis? She and one of her sisters would perform their own plays. One of them would write in a closet with rats running in order to make sure their dialogue was tight. DAMN! In the Fresh Air, interview Davis addresses the issue of “erotic capital” using other language. What got me about Ms. Davis was that in the midst of her campaign for the Oscar she openly spoke her truth about how Hollywood works & the acting game there, growing up poor, how she is viewed as a Black women with dark skin (never a romantic interests) in the Hollywood game. She did a spread in “W” magazine where she was dressed up sexy and she said that she will go to a Hollywood meeting with her pretty dress on and all dolled up and they still offer her roles where she’s depressed and/or downbeaten. That blew my mine and depressed me.

    To answer this question — “What does it mean to be a Black woman, looking to be validated by an industry that has historically seen people like you only as being fit to play a maid?”

    I don’t know if “validation” is right word in my mind. I think if you are a Black woman looking to work in an industry that has historically seen people like you only fit to play a maid?”

    First, you are in it to utilize your artistic gift and potential. This isn’t a Kim Kardashian thang. You concentrate on your acting craft which means you do theater which Ms. Davis has. Viola has played richer roles in theater arena- note Black actress Sanaa Lanthan has been doing more theater of late. Then this is where things get iffy- if you want to gain more popularity than you have to do tv or movies period, and that will also boost your opportunities in theater these days. I think you do it Ms Davis’ way but it is hard. You know Viola was in Tyler Perry’s “Madea Goes To Jail” and it was typical TP fare but at least she was being seen. And this is where it gets hard– should you be picky about the roles you take and risk never being seen by the movie-viewing public or do you take the best of the roles offered to you even though they may be lacking in character complexity and scope? I think Ms. Davis’s political awareness made her think about the role of Abilene before accepting. My guess is that Ms. Davis political calculation is that being seen in a role that fits into Hollywood’s safe ideas about Black women was better than not being seen at all. Ms. Davis has said that she and her husband, who may also be an actor, have started a production company so she can make films that match her talent. I will say that “The Help” has raised her Hollywood cache because it made money and won her some new fans. Ms. Davis is in the Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, Cate Blanchet, Tilda Swinton category of acting talent and I hope she will have the opportunity to play roles of the caliber of a Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth, etc. But most importantly, it seems like Viola knows the deal and is moving forward to make that happen for herself.

    The interesting thing is that someone like Halle Berry has erotic capital but she just makes kinda crappy movies in my opinion. But Halle doesn’t have Viola’s talent. Angela Bassett has Viola’s talent and she did a Tyler Perry movie too. But Angela has theater chops too. I don’t know how far erotic capital gets you in Hollywood. I actually think it may be double sword because Meryl Streep gets rich roles because she doesn’t look like an Aryan beauty queen.

  4. Ms World says:

    sorry for the double posting! I thought i had deleted the 5:01pm post. The 5:43pm post is really want I want to say.

  5. The interesting thing is that someone like Halle Berry has erotic capital but she just makes kinda crappy movies in my opinion. But Halle doesn’t have Viola’s talent. Angela Bassett has Viola’s talent and she did a Tyler Perry movie too. But Angela has theater chops too. I don’t know how far erotic capital gets you in Hollywood. I actually think it may be double sword because Meryl Streep gets rich roles because she doesn’t look like an Aryan beauty queen.
    ==========================
    Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh gina…… That is one hell of a statement.

    In a social system that says that women’s value lies in what they look like this is an interesting observation. Hallie Berry is most certainly a Hollywood A-List celebrity, and her development as an actor is not where Ms. Davis’s is. It makes me wonder about how, what happens to your craft WHEN you can’t leverage your looks. Davis is gorgeous. All teeth and eyes, like ME, but she doesn’t look like white, mainstream ideas of beauty.

    Oh and Ms. Davis nailed the shit out of that Tyler Perry role. In fact, I happened to re-watch that movie over the last few weeks too, and I forgot she was in it. Again, the issue is one of being dedicated to your craft.

    I also suspect that she more than likely will be punished for speaking back to Hollywood.

  6. Thank you for taking the time to investigate and share your thoughts on Viola Davis and as you said, “her genius”. You paint a more vivid picture, depicting the contrasting hues of what it means to work in Hollywood as a African American actress. You gave Viola Davis a space in the African American story without demeaning her contribution.

  7. First things first, bless Renina. I’ve been reading this blog off and on for the past few years,since you had your blogspot, and I’ve always had a great respect for your mind and what you bring to the table. I’m not sure if you remember but not too long ago we connected concerning places a recent transplant to the Town could go to meet like minded folks. I’m still here in Oak and I will be attending CCA in the fall to do my masters work in Visual and Critical Studies, so we are kindred in the fact that we are both called to the work of critical analysis. I said all that to say, this site really gets my wheels churning in all the right ways.

    Concerning what you said about Toni Morrison’s Sula, I am one of those women who ain’t right. It has been a long time coming but I am beginning to accept my path and find my voice as a writer, artist,philosopher, and teacher.I find myself angry a lot of the time because I have a lot that I want to say and do but I struggle with the feeling that what I have to say is not important and if I was to say it how I feel to say it I would just be thrown into the angry black woman/ conspiracy theorist box or I would not fit into the boxes that have been placed before me and my intellectual/artistic property and ability would be dismissed as irrelevant.

    I have not seen The Help, I didn’t want to and still don’t want to but maybe I should. I have the book, haven’t even opened it. I’ve been going through a phase that has been a mixture of disgust with contemporary popular/celebrity/hollywood culture and intellectual burnout. Thinking about your question, which is deceptively quite deep, I am at a loss. It’s gonna take a semester or two before my mind catches up with yours I think, :D . However, I will do my best to tackle that and my opinion is that the industry is complete BS and it will never validate us in the way we deserve to be validated. Its validation of us is shallow, at best,and we should just accept it and rise above the expectation and/or desire for validation from it. The industry is not built for women like Viola Davis but she is beautifully built for the industry, she is the stuff that the industry is made of yet and still she isn’t. Working with an environment which is designed to work against you has to be an infuriating experience, but that’s the beauty of black women, we tend to master rugged and potentially dangerous terrain very, very well. The thing that struck me most about Viola or the image of Viola is all the hoopla surrounding her natural hair at the Oscars. Wendy Williams’ comments about her hair not being formal enough for the red carpet completely blew my mind, and it is sentiments like that which fuel my hatred for celebrity culture and the topsy-turvy ass backwardsness of it all. I think about Viola and her many wigs and I wonder who she wears them for, herself or her industry. I wonder if it even matters anymore seeing as how black female figures in show biz have been doing that since the beginning of time. The concept of erotic capital is intriguing to me and I definitely need to do my research but I’m gonna take a stab at it and say that black women have the highest erotic capital in hollywood however skewed the distribution of that capital may be. Halle Berry got paid somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million for a five second shot of her titties in Swordfish.Our physical bodies and/or the attributes of our bodies seem to be the holy grail of all bodies in the context of what we see on film.

    When one finds that the rules for themselves are not the same for their peers the rules are intrinsically defunct and are due for a rewrite. I think that women like Viola have the power and a duty to rework the system from the inside out.

  8. @Urbanangel,

    Thank you for your comment about making space. Last year a friend of mine mention that I am a “space creator” so it is nice to have that recognized.

    @Tae! Ginnnnah! The blogspot days??? That is years…..years……Ok. I am going to try and respond to various parts of your comment.

    Re CCA: You better get it. I hope you find everything that you need there. Let’s connect when I visit Oakland later this year, provided I do visit…

    Re Sula and not being right: Honey to be right, in this culture at this time, is an act of God and a twelve step program. LOL. I say this to say that it is a process and I am glad that the post is helpful.

    Re Writing: Get it out. It doesn’t need to be perfect for it to be legitimate. Besides a woman without a form is dangerous ~Morrison.

    I like this: “The industry is not built for women like Viola Davis but she is beautifully built for the industry, she is the stuff that the industry is made of yet and still she isn’t.”

    This is interesting and I am going to push you here:
    “Halle Berry got paid somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million for a five second shot of her titties in Swordfish.Our physical bodies and/or the attributes of our bodies seem to be the holy grail of all bodies in the context of what we see on film.”
    ======================
    What does it mean to be given a mill to bare your breasts, within the context of a Black woman not being able to greenlight a film in Hollywood. I guess what I am doing here is making an institutional critique.I mean, girls from day one are taught that what is valuable ISN’T whats in their heads, but their bodies, or what is between their legs, so isn’t that bread to be while it is significant, I have to place it into a context of what does power mean, in that moment.

    When one finds that the rules for themselves are not the same for their peers the rules are intrinsically defunct and are due for a rewrite. I think that women like Viola have the power and a duty to rework the system from the inside out.
    =============
    I hear you, and the first thing I thought was…Gina we die and we die early.
    Lorraine Hansberry
    Whitney Houston
    Toni Cade Bambara
    June Jordan

    What could be the physical impact on the body to be invested in transforming a system, alone, that is not invested in seeing you?

    You have me thinking as well.

  9. Yaaaaas, it would be an honor and a privilege to connect with you the next time you touch down, my email is takeemahoffman@yahoo.com. Even if you don’t visit until a year from now, I won’t forget, hit me up! And thank you, yes I am more than excited to be going to CCA I feel that I was led there and that it is the place and program for me. I feel that like Ntozake Shange, my art will be nourished in the Bay….

    Concerning your reply; when I think of Halle Berry, her breasts, and a million dollars, the only thing that comes to my mind is auction blocks. My philosophy concerning black/brown people and how we are dealt with by American society and institutions is that it all points back to slavery, so when I think of black women’s bodies being priced and sold I think of auction blocks.

    Our bodies have always been valuable, especially when they are physically fit and nubile. So in that line of thinking Hollywood would more readily pay a (black) woman 1 mil to show her breasts than 1 mil to produce a film because we are only good for our physical bodies/physical work.

    Power? That’s tricky. I would have to say it is the one offering the money who holds the power and if Halle was to decline that money then there would be a shift of power as the ball would be in her court.They would then have to meet her requirements or then again they could fire her from the project and find another actress to show her goods but that would’ve been too messy. Halle Berry is (was) the epitome of the goods in Hollywood and what actress would get herself into a situation where her credibility as an A lister could be compromised? They threw it and she took it just like a stripper at the club trying to keep her job and pay her rent. But then again it may just be her that holds the power if the sight of breasts alone is enough to warrant a 1 mil dollar pay off. And I’m not trying to demoralize strippers or Halle, this is just where my mind takes me when I think about this question. There is an exchange of power between the object and the consumer, Halle(black women) being the object the industry being the consumer, at first I was going to say the industry holds all the power but the more I think the more unsure I am about this.

    Lastly, the physical impact on the body when invested in transforming a system that is not invested in seeing you can be brutal. Anger, depression, anxiety, frustration, fear…it’s a heavy load. But you know what they say, there is strength in numbers, one woman can’t do this alone it is surely a death sentence. We have to band together, strategize, and move like an army. We have to be each others strength.

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