If you tuned in to How to Get Away with Murder last night, you may have recognized
something different about our leading lady, Viola Davis: Her character spent
the majority of her screen time without her wig on. “Viola Davis is wearing her
natural hair tonight,” my mom texted me a couple of hours
before the episode aired, followed by way too many exclamation marks. “Yaaass,
Viola. Yaaass,” I replied quickly. It proved not only to be a raw and
emotional episode, but it displayed a rare moment: a Black
woman with natural hair on a mainstream TV network.
Turn back the clock 20 years, and you’d be hard-pressed to see a Black actress with hair that was anything other than just-got-out-of-the-salon laid. Flip through the tube in 1995, and you might find: the ladies from Living Single, all with straight strands (with some weaves thrown in), the freshly blowdried 'do’s of Laura and Harriette on Family Matters, and Gina and Pam’s permed-out hair on Martin. Fast-forward a couple more years, and there’s some more representation with a two-for-one curly appearance in the form of the Mowry twins on Sister, Sister. But, even their coils were straightened later in the series. As writer, fashion expert, and image activist Michaela Angela Davis points out, non-curly hairstyles that dominated the small screen in the '90s were very much a sign of the times. “We were in a very conservative moment,” she says. “Relaxers were easier to get, easier to use, weaves came in…and getting straight hair just got more accessible.”
While we’ve seen Black women’s natural hair on the small screen before the present-day era — these kinds of landmark moments date back to Cicely Tyson’s '60s role in East Side/West Side — it’s becoming more common, and the new movement has been a long time coming.
What does this modern evolution look like? Actress Tracee Ellis Ross has worn her curly crown in all
its glory since 2000 on the (sorely missed) show Girlfriends, and continues to do so today, as the lead actress on
ABC’s Black-ish. “I’m very conscious
of how I wear my hair on the show, and yet it’s the way I wear my hair as
Tracee,” she told Entertainment Weekly in
December. “You hire me, you hire my hair, and you hire my ass. It’s all coming
with me.” And, who could forget Davis’ wig-removal scene in earlier
episodes of HTGAWM, which spurred many a think piece? According to Kent Nelson, the show's hair-department head,
Davis’ character Annalise is “unmasking” herself. “The armor and mask that she
goes to work in every day is coming off,” he says. It signifies vulnerability, intimacy,
and a shedding of society's expectations. Which brings us to the problem with natural hair on TV right now: Yes, there are a lot more instances of it, but the way characters with it are depicted is not necessarily positive.
Take the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, where the characters embrace, arguably, the widest range of textured styles in a series today (with the exception of Laverne Cox’s character, who, let’s be honest, would look fabulous with any style). There's cornrows on Taystee, a short TWA style on Poussey, and, of course, Crazy Eyes’ signature bantu knots. “We really haven’t seen that many characters [like the OITNB ladies] on TV before,” says lead hairstylist Angel DeAngelis. “I think that’s why the show is so relatable and popular; because these prisoners look like people that are out there.”
As laudable as that is, these characters don't necessarily have a choice with their manes. “It’s prison, so these girls don’t have everything that they have at home,” DeAngelis notes. “Unless they go to the salon or get some contraband [Ed. Note: The prison's not likely to stock up on relaxers, blowdryers, or flat irons anytime soon], they can’t put heat on their hair.” Which, ta-da, is where their au natural manes come in — it's shown as a reflection of their sordid situation. And, this is where the issue becomes dicey, because it sends the message that natural hair is only an option when there's no other choice.
In Kerry Washington’s character
Olivia Pope on Scandal, we’re
presented with a powerful, put-together woman whose boss-lady image
is reflected in her killer
wardrobe and...silky, straight strands. But, there were a couple of moments
in the most recent season where we’re introduced to a curly-haired Olivia, who’s escaped her otherwise
hectic day-to-day life to “stand in the sun” with her bae, Jake. Additionally,
just a couple of weeks ago, a new plot twist was revealed (spoiler alert) in which
Ms. Pope was taken prisoner. During her weeks in captivity, we see her
hair revert back to its natural state, becoming, as Clover
Hope from Jezebel so aptly puts
it, “uncharacteristically unlaid.” Both of these instances are fleeting, but
the message is not lost on the audience: Straight hair equals
power and professionalism, while curly connotes exoticism and chaos.
Just two weeks ago, Davis’ HTGAWM character goes on a bender — in the confines of her hotel room — sans wig as she becomes (massive spoiler alert) crazed with guilt over the death of her husband. And, just last night, we saw her with her natural hair for a majority of the episode, but it's as she attempts to overcome her crippling depression. It isn’t until the final scenes when we see Anna Mae (her birth name) transform back into Annalise, straight hair and all. Her character is only shown with textured tresses when she’s either isolated from society, or when her life is unraveling.
Ms. magazine writer Julia Robins holds out hope that this was an intentional decision on the part of creator Shonda Rhimes. “Maybe Scandal’s showrunner Shonda Rhimes was aware of what she was doing in these scenes,” she writes. “Maybe she was purposefully constructing a critical commentary of our society: that our society only allows Black women to be natural in a hypersexual, far-off, foreign realm and that to really be successful, they must conform to arbitrary beauty standards put in place by the white establishment.”
No shade to Rhimes: If it wasn’t for her ability to
greenlight these Black ladies to be first on the call sheet, we wouldn’t
even be having this conversation. We’re able to see this further representation because
we have a Black woman telling Black stories. And, I’m sure a lot of different factors influenced her decision. Both Washington's and Davis’ characters are powerhouses in corporate settings,
where your career is greatly dependent on your appearance. But, at some point, we need to step back and reevaluate the negative message these scenes give off: that natural hair is in some way unkempt and worn out of
necessity, or when a woman is at a low point in her life, rather than the
personal choice of a happy, successful woman who has her shit together.
Strides are being made; there’s no doubt about that. “So many Black women [when I first started out] used to want to put extensions in, wanted to press their hair, make it look smoother,” says DeAngelis. “And now, people are really accepting what their hair does.” But, until natural hair is displayed in a positive, everyday, "This is me, love it or leave it" context, there's still ground to be broken.
Hopefully, these shows will act as inspiration for more Black actresses to feel comfortable shedding their wigs before the camera starts rolling. With more women embracing their natural hair IRL, it’s only right that this be accurately — and positively — reflected on the shows they regularly watch.
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