As Viola Davis accepted the People’s Choice Award for Favorite Actress in a New TV Series rocking a straight brown shoulder length wig, I thought it was funny that she thanked Shonda Rhimes, Betsy Beers, and Peter Nowalk for “thinking of a leading lady who looks like my classic beauty”. What is classic black beauty, and does it wear a shiny, straight, brown, shoulder-length wig?
Oh the images and drama of dark skinned women in the entertainment industry! Initially, I couldn’t figure out the value of even writing about these three women because I didn’t think I had anything to add. EVERYBODY talks about how these women are a decisive departure from white beauty standards. Beyond that, what could I add?
I also wondered whether they are noticed simply because they are different, and by different, I mean dark. I mean, nobody goes on and on when Taraji Henson and Regina King step out, and I think they are great actresses and beautiful. By the same token, did we notice Gabourey Sidibe because she was both dark and overweight? If one of these women were “paper bag brown” or just a bit darker, but not “dark-dark”, would anybody say much? On the other hand, if one of these women looked like Halle Berry, I don’t think that would garner much discussion either because she looks like what a pretty black woman ought to look like, a white woman with a nice tan. Is Halle “classic black beauty”?
Moreover, as it relates to Lupita and Alek, I wonder if I personally don’t find them beautiful because of how I’ve been influenced by the white beauty standard. Ironically, they resemble Viola; however, she gets slammed for not being a traditional beauty. So, thick lips and black skin ain’t nothing if you can’t call it “a model and exotic”? I also wonder how Scandal and HTGAWM would be different if the the lead actresses switched roles. For example, if the un-exotic dark woman was having an extra-marital affair with the President, would folks find the show less entertaining?
Then, I asked myself again, what could I add to the to the conversation and why this topic even needed to be a conversation. I concluded that the need for a conversation is a function of white privilege: we talk about what isn’t white because we have to find a place for it. I think the tone of such discussions reflects the defensive posture of people looking for that place when they know they’ll face push back. For example, when I talk to church people about marriage and gender issues, I play offense because I know that they’ve already decided my perspectives are wrong without so much as hearing me out.
Then, it it hit me: we’re talking about dark-skinned black women in visible roles to seek permission! Black women are talking about this subject and these women because we’re seeking validation that we can look like ourselves and still be deemed pretty, not decent-looking, but pretty…and perhaps even desirable. How do you stand in stark contrast to the norm and feel okay (this is how I feel in church groups)? In short, we’re attempting to say and ask, “I want to be included in the group, but if I’m not exactly like the others in the group, am I truly accepted?” Although it may sound like a confrontation (offense), it is really fear of more rejection….and a request to be accepted.