Let me begin by saying, that I acknowledge and appreciate that black female presence in prime time television has spawned a well deserved discussion. I also appreciate that shows such as Scandal, Extant and upcoming series How to Get Away With Murder and Gotham, have such a diverse following. However, in her diverse appeal, it must not be forgotten who these black protagonists are. While Olivia Pope and Molly Woods are contemporary heroines in their own right, they are black heroines. Rising from the beautifully resilient, yet restricted bounds of the raced woman, the contemporary black actress brings value to the understatement of black femininity.
The ugly black woman or ….>classically beautiful
Upon reading Alessandra Stanley’s article Wrought in Rhimes’s Image: Viola Davis Plays Shonda Rhimes’s Latest Tough Heroine, my heart and mind was restless with the sounds of my ancestors turning in their unmarked graves. While an article of the Shonda Rhimes’ empire and evolution of the black female protagonists in popular and upcoming series in a source as well respected as the New York Times is an honor of its own, the act of writing this article is countered by the perspective of its author. It is impossible to separate the article from who wrote it, as Alessandra Stanley’s reflections are from outside the experience in which she casts criticism. Stanley’s article is vexed from its title, to its passive- aggressive tone, but perhaps most significantly through its discussion of the angry and ugly black woman. While Stanley does not out rightly use the word ugly, she does cast a judgmental gaze onto Davis’ beauty.
As Annalise, Ms. Davis, 49, is sexual and even sexy, in a slightly menacing way, but the actress doesn’t look at all like the typical star of a network drama. Ignoring the narrow beauty standards some African-American women are held to, Ms. Rhimes chose a performer who is older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful than Ms. Washington, or for that matter Halle Berry, who played an astronaut on the summer mini-series “Extant.”
Alerted by the seemingly sarcastic placement of “even” in front of adjective sexy used to described Davis’ look, Stanley’s description stirs an unsettling feeling personally and politically. Although meant to reflect a mainstream reaction to Davis’ look, Stanley’s commentary reeks of a backhanded compliment that casts political shade on those who wouldn’t have passed the paper bag test.
Stanley’s declaration of Davis as less beautiful than fellow black actresses Halle Berry and Kerry Washington, is reflective of the origin of such thought. Ideas of beauty within the black community, both traditional and contemporary, continue to be influenced by plantation standards. Anchored in hair and skin color, black women who mirrored the traits of their masters were regarded more highly than their sun kissed and coarser hair counterparts. Thus, Stanley’s comments retract the progressive placement of black female bodies on television, and place them back onto the plantation where they are ranked and judged by the same standard as their ancestors.
In defense of her wording, Stanley references Davis as stating these very same words. Contrary to Stanley, Davis’ commentary reflects a second sight, or double consciousness referenced by W E B Dubois, and Stanley’s commentary represents her first.
Interestingly, Stanley aligns her perspective with Davis in her response to criticism, a technique visibly absent throughout her article. As the antithesis of what it means to be white, black women emerge as the subjugated binary opposite to white women. As beneficiaries of our disenfranchisement, white women are identified as pawns in the oppression of blacks, despite being able to identify with gender prejudices. For it is the “ugliness” of black women that makes white women beautiful, thus Stanley’s assertion of Davis’ lack of appeal, indirectly asserts her own.
Stanley’s decision to comment on the differences between Davis and other black protagonists, rather than their similarities is also problematic. Berry, Washington, and Davis all represent a unique form of black beauty, but commonly emerge from a history that would have excluded all three of them for their black ancestry. Perhaps if Ms. Stanley shared the legacy of Berry, Davis, and Washington she would understand that we have faced enough division and not enough unity. For, it isn’t what divides us Ms. Stanley, it is what unites us.
Unity was what I see, when I think of Ms. Viola Davis. Through a single red carpet gesture, Viola Davis embodied what it means for a black woman to be in unison with herself. Viola Davis’ bold debut of a natural hairdo on the red carpet a few years back, was the first time I ever truly saw her, and perhaps the first time she had seen herself in years. Previously compromised by her inauthentic hairdos, Davis’ radiance and beauty shone as brightly as the sun that kissed her skin at birth. The simplicity of unveiling what lie beneath the oppression of a wig, was beautiful, powerful and resonating. For colored women who have ever felt invisible, everyone who saw Davis that night, saw all of us as Davis’ courage epitomizes what it means to be both black and beautiful. Stanley indirectly dismisses the power in Davis’ presence, undoubtedly due to her inability to relate to overcoming invisibility, an issue faced by many, if not all black women in America.
The Angry Black Woman
Ms. Rhimes has embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable. She has almost single-handedly trampled a taboo even Michelle Obama couldn’t break.
According to Stanley, when black women are not “ugly” they are angry. It is obvious that Stanley uses “angry” as an attempt to reverse its stereotypical alignment with black bodies. However, my question to Ms. Stanley is why not use a different word? The labeling of these women as angry and not passionate or assertive, as their white counterparts would surely be labeled, performs the initial problem. As a black woman, I don’t see Shonda Rhimes, Olivia Pope or First Lady Michelle Obama as angry. Stanley’s inability to see through the labeling of these black women, place her the wrong side of the discussion and of history.
Stanley’s inability to see the error in her ways, exposes the carelessness of white privilege, and the desperation of journalists to spark a buzz. Nevertheless, whether Stanley’s actions are of indifference or intention, they are inappropriate. Her criticisms come in what seems to be a pattern of white reviewers casting a critical gaze onto black art. This gaze appears to be an effort to encourage a white audience, at the expense of offending blacks.
In closing, black femininity is a concept and existence, that like the rivers in Africa, are constant yet connected. Black women hold hands across “anger,” color, hair and texture and body type as the bearers of an incomparable legacy. This legacy is a labyrinth to those who selectively see our struggles, and make humble statements of our triumphs. Thus, while the black female protagonist is groundbreaking, as long as blacks are analyzed and reviewed by those outside of our experience, much of the message will continue to be lost in translation.