Ms. Viola Davis and the White Beauty Industrial Complex

SGHI For Project._New Font

Viola Davis looks like the women in my family. ~My friend, and African American Playwright


Alessandra Stanley called my friend* Ms. Viola Davis “less classically beautiful”.

Let me be clear. As a scholar my work is on Black women’s sexuality in popular culture. So I’ve been keeping a keen eye on the images of Black women being deployed in mainstream spaces (Scandal, Belle), in alternate baby mainstream spaces (Peace to Hello Cupid and Roomie Lover Friends, Almost Home) and on the film festival, alternative indie theater circuit (Pariah, Into the Night).

I wrote a while ago that when Viola Davis showed up at the Oscars wearing a short chestnut colored afro, in the age wind swept blond locks, fair skin, taught slim bodies, I saw myself.

I didn’t see myself because of the aesthetic beauty affirmation. You can go to pretty much any city mid sized or large city in 2014 and SEE yourself as a natural Black girl.

What I am saying here is that I saw myself in that I saw a person who took her craft as seriously as I take mine. Lip game. Eye game. Dress colors…popping.

It is incredibly powerful to see your reflection when you live in a culture that simultaneously sees you as brilliant and abnormal AND hypersexual and subhuman, but #Blackgirlsarefromthefuture.

Like a woman with a form she became dangerous. (**See Morrison’s Sula).

Which brings me not only to Viola Davis, but also Beyonce Knowles Carter, Lupita Nyong’o  and Rihanna Fenty.

When Black girls construct desire in mainstream media the matrix quivers because we are not suppose to hold space, and we certainly aren’t suppose to be desired.

We ain’t suppose to stunt, flaunt or fly.

If you think about the various conversations that have been had about the aforementioned women over the last year, there is a subtext of “go sit down, you are taking up too much space”.

But here is the rub, for me, it makes sense that this historical moment is happening with representations of Black women’s beauty and representations. Every since 2009, I’ve been documenting and marking the consumption and images of Black women in mainstream spaces (Precious, Pariah, For Colored Girls, Good Hair).

It appears that we are manifesting on the smaller screens tablets and televisions, rather than the silver screen.

It makes sense, Black girl stories are profitable.

The technology supports the evolution of our stories into these spaces (smart phones with video bandwidth, Kickstarter campaigns, the rise of Black and Sexy TV and Issa Rae’s production company, Black Girl Twitter on Scandal Thursday’s). An entire ecosystem of Black girl stories has emerged AND they are focused on sustainability; this is key.

In some ways, the critique of Shonda Rhimes and my push back is also about giving respect to the worlds that Black girls make. (When I say Black girls, I mean Black women and girls, and the spirit of our playful Black girl hand clap, braids with a jillion multi-colored beads and  summertime double dutch games that last into dusk. These manifestations of our creativity reminds me of the  space that many of us inhabit before the world forces us to crunch that part of ourselves up in order to survive. Our quirky selves, our out the box selves).

I can’t end this without looking at Allesandra Stanley’s article on Shonda Rhimes. In this article Stanley examines the cultural space that Rhimes has been able to build within primetime telvision using the archaic and sloppy trope of the angry Black woman. She attempts to contextualize the characters that Rhimes has created by creating a historical timeline of Black women in primetime television, for example she mentions Claire Huxtable’s role amongst others. She also situations Rhimes’ place/legacy within archive of other show runners such as Aaron Sorkin and Aaron Spelling.

However, as many have said, the article, at times comes across as heavy handed, tone deaf and light weight insulting to Rhimes’ and Davis’ fan bases across race.

To say that Davis is “less classically beautiful” operates at three levels, at least that is what I am thinking about now.

It is an attempt for Stanley to describe a Black woman, who doesn’t fit the Beyonce beauty aesthetic OR the mainstream beauty aesthetic (and let me be clear here, they overlap) within a journalistic space.

It is an attempt to mark the power of White beauty standards without mentioning White beauty standards.

It is an attempt to mark the significance of the space that Davis is currently taking up in 2014 without explicitly saying why it is disruptive.

Davis embraces her beauty and takes up space in a main stream culture that says that she needs and  doesn’t have permission to do so. Venture capital cats talk about disruption; they have no idea.

Stanley wrote, she stumbled, Black women got pissed, but the long and short of it is that these stories are here and I am here for them.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. -June Jordan, 1978.

For more reading on Black women in film and video see the following:

Black Women Film and Video Readers edited by Jacqueline Bobo

The Black Lady by Lisa Thompson

Black Looks by Bell Hooks

Dark Design and Visual Culture by Michelle Wallace

Some Black girl fundraising campaigns that you can support, in the spirit of this post because “Black Girls Been Creating (Sub)Cultures”.

Reagan Gomez: Project Title: Surviving the Dead

Marquette Jones: Project Title: “Forgiving Chris Brown”  <— Dear Friend

Lisa Marie Rollins: Project Title: CALLALOO Literary Journal’s 2014 Writing Workshop<—Digital Sister

Latisha Fortune and Felicia Pride: Project Title: After the End Again h/t @arieswym

Also follow my tumblr Black Girl Funded, which features Kickstarter campaigns as well.

So less classically beautiful?

Did you actually think that show would launch without some kind of blow back?

White beauty industrial complex? Too far or just right?

A version of this essay will appear in my forthcoming book “Black Women’s Sexuality in Pop Culture”. Sign up here to receive updates. I will never spam you:)

Black Women’s Hair & Gabby Douglas: Standing Straight in a Crooked Room

In the book, Sister Citizen, Dr. Melissa Harris Perry argues that many Black women in the US find themselves standing straight in a crooked room because of how we experience both racism and sexism. According to Harris-Perry, Black women are standing straight in a crooked room

when they are confronting race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which way is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion…To understand why some Black women’s public actions and political strategies sometimes seem titled in ways that accommodate  the degrading stereotypes about them, it is important to appreciate the structural constraints that influence their behavior.

This is immediately what came to mind when I saw the conversations about Gabby’s hair, conversations, many initiated by Black women about who thought it wasn’t straight enough.

No Gabby’s hair does not look like the Black women on Love and Hip Hop Atlanta, and that is fine. The women on LHHA stay fried died and laid to the side and Gabby’s pony tail is the pony tail of a young Black woman Olympian. Full stop.

And just in terms of Black girl visibility politics, Gabby Douglass is a Black girl who had global media attention and she does not look like a well kept video vixen and she doesn’t have to. She is petite, muscular and brown with a high voltage smile. When was the last time you saw a Black girl like that getting mainstream attention? I’ll wait.

I know that some Black women felt that because Gabby was on a global stage she was “representing us.” My retort to that is Gabby belongs to herself, not to you.

Hair is serious for Black women because the mainstream standard for beauty in the US and arguably pop culture globally is long, preferably blond, straight, wind swept hair. If you think I am wrong, check out the magazine covers at your local grocery store check out stand.

I always find it peculiar when the ways when which Black women regulate on each other finds its way into mainstream media conversations. It is not that we don’t like each other. I think that socially women are not taught to like each other. Openly liking and being nice to women is a political act for this reason. The culprit in many ways isn’t Black women per se, but that many of us have internalized what White standards of beauty AND we tried to hold other women to these standards,we are also taught that the work that women do isn’t valuable.

But, let me tell you. #Blackgirlsarefromthefuture.

I also think it may may make some Black women uncomfortable to see another young Black woman who is so clear about both her purpose and focus. A young Black woman who is clear that her investment in being an Olympian is more important than having music video bone straight hair, at this moment. I am not talking about human beings here, I am talking about what happens when you encounter a spirit that is so clear you can see yourself in its reflection. It ain’t no joke. #ChangeJobs. #ChangeGods.

Gabby Douglas put herself first and her desire to be an Olympian. You can’t become an Olympic champion by being raggedy.

I also know that as Black women we are socialized to put our mothers, our children, our husbands, our wives, our girlfriends, our boyfriends, our step-children, our brothers first. But never us, and we suffer for that. Our lives are constrained in particular ways when we do that.

So Gabby, I see your gravity defying, futuristic Black girl self.

Gabby Douglas give you goosebumps?

Why is it so hard for people to acknowledge how White mainstream beauty standards figure into this conversation?