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How to Get Away with Subverting Racial Aesthetics: The Politics of Viola Davis’s Hair and Skin

Nicole Zhu
Jun 16, 2016 · 10 min read

Intro to Black Social and Political Life | May 28, 2016

Appearance and attractiveness are imbued with racial aesthetics resulting in the preference and maintenance of white supremacy. In the process of determining one’s attractiveness against white and Western beauty standards, things like skin tone and hair become racialized and politicized to varying degrees. As a result, systems of discrimination in social, political, and economic contexts operate differently based on one’s appearance. In this paper I will argue that Viola Davis has experienced the prejudice of prevailing standards of beauty through the politics of her hair and skin, but challenges them in the same ways. I say this because her identity as a dark-skinned actress reveals the prevalence of colorism in Hollywood, in addition to the continued lack of media diversity, representation, and authenticity for black actresses. I will prove this by discussing aspects of Viola Davis’s acting career and her role as Annalise Keating in the television show How to Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM).

Viola Davis’s career is reflective of an entertainment industry in which actresses of color are stereotyped and discriminated based on race as well as skin tone, which contributes to economic disfavor through a low quantity and quality of available acting opportunities. Standards of beauty are dictated by white Hollywood and pop culture [11] and are legacies of internalized “colonial and slavery value systems” that “valorize light skin tones and Anglo facial features” [6]. For actresses to be successful, they must often be attractive or beautiful. This means that black actresses face “systems of racial discrimination [that] operate on at least two levels: race and color” [6]. When Davis studied acting at Juilliard, she says she “tried to be the 90-pound white girl” because she felt there was “only one way to be sexy” [12]. She learned that she was “not cute enough to be a leading lady” and was told that she could only be “authoritative” or whatever the white industry defined as black [15]. “I have been given a lot of roles that are downtrodden, mammy-ish. A lot of lawyers or doctors who have names but absolutely no lives,” Davis told The New York Times, explaining that such meager opportunities not only prevent actresses from demonstrating their full potential by shoving them into stereotyped roles, but they also simply don’t pay [13]. Davis, whose career spans 35 years in theater, television, and film [2], earned her first Oscar nomination for only eight minutes of screen time [13].

The effects of these racial biases on employment and professional success are compounded by the fact that Davis is dark-skinned. Colorism, defined as discrimination at the level of skin tone, is a “process that privileges light-skinned people of color over dark in areas such as income, education, housing, and the marriage market” [6]. Light-skinned individuals thus benefit from a “halo effect of physical attractiveness,” especially in areas of employment where “the relationship for skin color and perception of attractiveness may be particularly important for women” [6]. As Davis’s experience suggests, colorism operates in both overt and subtle ways. She has noted the use of the “paper bag test” while at Juilliard, a discriminatory act in which a person gains access to certain privileges only if their skin is the same color of a brown paper bag or lighter [4]. Davis has openly acknowledged the barriers she’s encountered as a dark-skinned actress, “If your skin is lighter than [a paper bag], you’re all the good things: smarter, prettier, more successful. If you’re darker, you’re ugly” [4].

Speaking directly about colorism and racism, she notes that as an actress, she has “been a great victim of that” [8]. After being cast as the lead of the television show HTGAWM, a New York Times critic even called Davis “less classically beautiful” for being “older and darker-skinned” [10]. This perception of ugliness translates to fewer roles or narrower characters, simply because of what Hollywood does not allow dark-skinned women to be. “When it comes to women of color, especially women of darker hue, there’s a limit to the pathology that people are willing to explore,” Davis said in an interview last year [4]. Consequently, throughout her career, her characters’ personal lives are never seen [4] and she was “not able to be sexualized” [8]. Because Davis’s appearance does not conform to white Hollywood’s beauty standards, she has faced disproportionate discrimination on the basis of skin color and skin tone in an industry structured to stifle her talent, prevent her from accessing certain types of jobs, and limit her commercial and personal success.

Through the role of Annalise Keating in HTGAWM, Viola Davis challenges preconceived notions of beauty, femininity, and sexuality typically associated with characters portrayed by dark-skinned actresses. Because “skin tone is an important characteristic in defining beauty and beauty is an important resource for women,” lighter skin’s inherent connotation of beauty operates as a “form of social capital for women” to “gain status in jobs, housing, schools, and social networks” [6]. In contrast, “dark-skinned people lack the social and economic capital that light skin provides” and are therefore disadvantaged in these same socioeconomic areas. This perception of “white is right” [9] is most evident in television, film, and pop culture, where whiteness is “not only the cultural ideal, but the cultural imperative” [6]. In HTGAWM, Viola Davis plays high-powered law professor Annalise Keating, who becomes entwined in a murder mystery along with five of her students. Davis’s casting and portrayal is a direct challenge to this cultural imperative of white beauty.

Unlike so many simple, stereotyped roles that Davis has received as a dark-skinned actress, Annalise Keating offers Davis a “way to show womanhood and a leading lady in a different way” [2]. This role is revolutionary in terms of job status by making Davis number one on the call sheet on network television, as well as in terms of representation and authenticity. Annalise is sexy, not maternal, bold, and vulnerable. She works at the intersection of race, sexuality, and gender [11]. Her husband is a white man, her lover is a black man, and her ex-significant other is a white woman. “She’s all of that, and she’s a dark-skin black woman,” Davis said in an interview last year after becoming the first black woman to take home the Emmy award for lead actress in a drama [7]. She also noted, “In the history of television and even in film, I’ve never seen a character like Annalise Keating played by someone who looks like me. My age, my hue, my sex.” [7]. This is because “when someone is described as sexual and mysterious and complicated and messy, you don’t think of me” [5]. A lack of sexualized characters for dark-skinned actresses in film and television is strongly tied to skin color, lightness, and the social capital it affords. For women and especially for actresses, exclusion of one’s sexuality often means mistaking “your lack of opportunity with the level of your talent” [7]. “The paper-bag test is still very much alive and kicking,” explains Davis [7]. She calls this the “racial aspect of colorism”: “if you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman” [7].

Standards of beauty, particularly those images and messages exported through media and pop culture, define opportunities for profit and privilege [11], and subsequently reinforce discriminatory systems. With the character of Annalise Keating, Davis rejects this performativity of being the “Vogue woman” [7] — light-skinned and therefore ‘conventionally’ beautiful — in order to fit the industry’s equation for success. She instead strives for realism in her depiction of Annalise Keating by making creative choices for her character because “everything starts with the material” [12]. In her speech at the SAG Awards, she said, “You can’t shine if you have two lines in the background as a bus driver” [12] and reiterated in her Emmy acceptance speech, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there” [15]. Peter Nowalk, the series creator, notes that Davis has “pushed” him to highlight Annalise’s vulnerabilities, for her to “be messy, multifaceted, and complicated” [13] in ways that most dark-skinned characters are not and dark-skinned actresses are not allowed to be. Viola Davis as Annalise Keating disputes the prerequisite of lightness for attractiveness and womanhood, as well as its ramifications on professional advancement and financial success, by expressing a fully realized, sexual, and complex black woman on screen.

Viola Davis further undermines white beauty standards by rejecting performativity through Annalise Keating’s hair on HTGAWM, specifically in a scene where Annalise removes her make-up and wig. Historically, long hair has associations with “women’s youth, heterosexuality, femininity and domesticity,” leading to the standard of long hair as a “measure of one’s agency” [1]. As a result, the global hair trade involving wigs and extensions relies on women’s “perceived bodily lack” [1], which is the result of “internalized colonialism” and self-hate [9]. The “sanitization and depigmentation” [9] of hair in this global market can also be read as the sanitization and depigmentation of both the producers and the consumers. African-American women, who are “themselves located at a particularized angle to the politics of race, gender and ethnicity,” participate in this exchange of the “zombie commodity” of hair [1] in order to conform to white rules of attractiveness. This, in turn, influences one’s professional mobility and privilege.

In a closing scene of HTGAWM, Annalise performs her bedtime ritual and slowly removes her wig, takes off her eyelashes, wipes away her make-up, and then looks at herself in the mirror. Through this “simple act,” she reveals Annalise’s own internalized views regarding performativity and beauty, and how these non-negotiable requirements operate in private and public [5]. This “broke a long-standing taboo for black women on television” because “black women on television without a weave, wig, or hair-perfection are a rarity” [3]. Unlike skin color and facial features, hair can be easily and readily altered through wigs and extensions, and black women’s natural hair has often been something to be managed or tamed through these methods as a “means of meeting the prevailing white standard of beauty” [14].

Although Annalise’s wigs are a form of temporary transformation in order to perform and progress in her public life, this scene is “about uncovering and feeling comfortable with the way we are and the way we look when we’re in private” [7]. Annalise’s wig removal, which was Davis’s idea she pitched to Nowalk, explicitly rejects the false enactment of going to bed “with full makeup and hair” [12]. Davis’s reasoning was simply rooted in reality, that “African-American women, we wear a lot of wigs. We take our makeup off” and so “Human is, ‘I have to take this hair off at night.’” [12]. Davis demonstrates that despite prevailing notions of white desirability, natural hair isn’t something to be ashamed of, covered, or hidden, but acknowledged and embraced as one’s authentic self.

As a dark-skinned actress, Viola Davis has faced prejudice in her career both in terms of racism and colorism, but has found ways to subvert white Hollywood’s standards of beauty through her roles and her portrayals of full-fledged characters like Annalise Keating in HTGAWM. The politics of Davis’s skin and hair reflects a society that defines attractiveness — and by extension, opportunity, privilege, and success — based on whiteness. Though her skin tone and hair has exemplified the discriminatory practices and attitudes within the film and television industry, she has also used her skin and hair to embody more realistic representations of black women and capture their depth and beauty — in cosmetics and in character.

Works Cited

[1] Berry, Esther R. “The Zombie Commodity: Hair and the Politics of Its Globalization.” Postcolonial Studies 11.1 (2008): 63–84. Print.

[2] Birnbaum, Debra. “Viola Davis on Her Groundbreaking Emmy Win: ‘I Felt Like I Fulfilled a Purpose’.” Variety. Variety Media, 23 Sept. 2015. Web. 25 May 2016. <http://variety.com/2015/tv/news/viola-davis-emmy-how-to-get-away-with-murder- 1201600239/>.

[3] Cane, Clay. “Commentary: What Nine Words? Viola Davis Makes History Without Making a Sound.” BET. BET, 17 Oct. 2014. Web. 24 May 2016. <http://www.bet.com/news/celebrities/2014/10/17/commentary-what-nine-words-viola- davis-makes-history-without-making-a-sound.html>.

[4] Galanes, Philip. “Viola Davis and Edie Falco Talk Race, Sex and Life Before Stardom.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 Dec. 2015. Web. 24 May 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/13/fashion/viola-davis-and-edie-falco-talk-race-sex- and-life-before-stardom.html?_r=0>.

[5] Gordon, Diane. “Viola Davis Wouldn’t Have Played Annalise Keating If Her Wig Didn’t Come Off.” Vulture. New York Media, 30 May 2015. Web. 24 May 2016. <http://www.vulture.com/2015/05/viola-davis-came-up-with-htgawms-wig-scene.html>.

[6] Hunter, Margaret. “The Persistent Problem of Colorism: Skin Tone, Status, and Inequality.” Sociology Compass 1.1 (2007): 237–254. Print.

[7] Kapsch, Joseph. “Viola Davis Defies Hollywood Stereotypes as She Keeps It Real: ‘I Didn’t Want to Be the Vogue Woman’.” The Wrap. The Wrap News Inc., 22 June 2015. Web. 26 May 2016. <http://www.thewrap.com/emmy-wrap-cover-story-how-viola-davis-gets- away-with-everything-video/>.

[8] Maerz, Melissa. “Shondaland Roundtable: Ellen, Kerry, Viola, and Shonda — Unfiltered.” Entertainment Weekly. Entertainment Weekly, 21 Sept. 2015. Web. 24 May 2016. <http://www.ew.com/article/2015/09/21/shondaland-roundtable-viola-davis-ellen-pompeo-kerry-washington>.

[9] Shepard, Cassandra. “Forms & Formation.” 25 May 2016. Lecture.

[10] Stanley, Alessandra. “Wrought in Rhimes’s Image.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 Sept. 2014. Web. 24 May 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/21/arts/television/viola-davis-plays-shonda-rhimess- latest-tough-heroine.html>.

[11] Thompson, Debra. “The Politics of Hair and Skin.” 23 May 2016. Lecture.

[12] Toby, Mekeisha Madden. “Viola Davis on Finding Her Sexy: ‘It Feels Really Good to Embrace Exactly Who I Am’” Essence. Essence, 30 Jan. 2015. Web. 25 May 2016. <http://www.essence.com/2015/01/30/viola-davis-finding-her-sexy-it-feels-really-good- embrace-exactly-who-i-am>.

[13] Wallace, Amy. “Viola Davis as You’ve Never Seen Her Before: Leading Lady!” The New York Times Magazine. The New York Times, 12 Sept. 2014. Web. 25 May 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/magazine/viola-davis.html>.

[14] Williams, John-John, IV. “Afros, Dreads, Natural Styles More Popular, Still Controversial.” The Baltimore Sun. The Baltimore Sun, 4 Mar. 2015. Web. 28 May 2016. <http://www.baltimoresun.com/features/fashion-style/bs-lt-natural-hair-20150304- story.html>.

[15] Zemler, Emily, and Leah Chernikoff. “Viola Davis: “We Don’t Know How to Discuss Race”” Elle. Hearst Digital Media, 21 Sept. 2015. Web. 25 May 2016. <http://www.elle.com/culture/movies-tv/news/a30617/viola-davis-emmys-diversity/>.


This is part of a series of class notes from Northwestern University’s African American Studies course “Intro to Black Social and Political Life” taught by Professor Debra Thompson. Follow along by subscribing to Class Notes for updates or learn more about the project here.

Class Notes

taking notes and term papers beyond the classroom

Nicole Zhu

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Class Notes

taking notes and term papers beyond the classroom

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