Viola Davis, Shonda Rhimes and The Black Woman Stereotype

Like many black women in this world I respect Shonda Rhimes. I may not agree with all the content she creates, but I respect  what she represents. A black woman who has excelled at her craft to the point that she has 3 prominent shows on T.V every Thursday evening in the US: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and the new show How to Get Away with Murder starring Viola Davis. She has shown that if you are good at what you do, people will identify with it. All three shows have a diverse fan base and 2 of them have multiple seasons showing how far your art can reach when you are good at it.

I’ve written about Viola Davis before and how she boldly rocked her natural hair on the red carpet a few years ago. I applaud women who have the gumption to proudly stand for what they believe in even if that goes against what society deems acceptable. So I was interested to come across an article in The New York Times about Shonda Rhimes, that was meant to praise but instead came across as insulting towards black women. It perpetuated the stereotype of the “angry black woman” and called Viola Davis “darker – skinned and less classically beautiful” compared to her fellow actresses including Kerry Washington and Halle Berry, among other things.

Those two particular points resonated with me, firstly the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype. If the characters Olivia Pope from Scandal or Annalise Keating from How to Get Away With Murder were not black, their characters would not be described as angry. They would be ‘passionate’, ‘ambitious’ or ‘determined’. It seems that if a black woman is not soft,  stands up for her herself and goes after what she wants she is ‘angry’. Having been called ‘aggressive’ before, a word  that has NEVER been used to describe me or my character in my whole entire life, it has made me acutely aware of how black women are seen in the wider world. My own personal experience has shown me how this stereotype has come about. If you allow yourself to be walked over, you are deemed ‘safe’ and ‘agreeable’ however if you show some backbone, show that your ideas are different, show passion and ambition to succeed you then move out of the realm of what is ‘acceptable’ and move into the realm of being ‘threatening’. There is no benefit in playing small, and I encourage women to be themselves authentically. Don’t stop going after your dreams just because someone would deem you ‘angry’ or ‘combative’ when all it is is ‘passion’.

Secondly came the point where the writer described Viola Davis as “darker – skinned and less classically beautiful”. The association of those two terms is what resonated with a lot of black women. The insinuation that if you were a certain hue, you didn’t quite fit into what was deemed “beautiful”. I take offense to that not because I am a darker skinned woman, but because I am simply a woman. A woman who lives in a world that constantly tells me I’m not good enough because I don’t look a certain way that is deemed acceptable and classically beautiful. A world that constantly pushes products at me to ‘fix’ the way I look in order to make a profit. A world that extols the beauty of a few that don’t represent the population. If you are a woman of any race or background you have experienced the above. Being someone who is natural, I feel like I go against the grain in terms of what is deemed beautiful. Being brave enough to cut my hair and let it grow as is has forced me into the somewhat uncomfortable world of self acceptance. To recognize that I’m not classically beautiful and that’s ok. Being able to recognize that my hair is coarse, curly and frizzy not straight or sleek and yet I still love it. My skin is oily, acne prone and littered with blemishes but yet I still love it. I have rolls upon rolls and I am a ‘healthy’ size 14 but yet I still love my body. This does not mean that all my insecurities have vanished because they haven’t. It means that I am in more control of what defines me. We as women have the power to decide where and how we fit in. We have the power to determine how we are defined by society in our ordinary lives. We have the power to decide what has the power to affect us. We can take the power back and use it to empower ourselves. To go further, as a Christian I believe that I am “fearfully” and “wonderfully” made, made in the “Image of God”. Everything about me is. So everything that makes up who I am is not a mistake even if that is against what is acceptable, and that is where my confidence lies.

I love Viola Davis’ response to the article.

“I think that beauty is subjective,” she said. “I’ve heard that statement my entire life. Being a dark-skinned black woman — you hear it from the time you get out of the womb.

Classically not beautiful is a fancy term of saying ugly, and denouncing you, erasing you. Now it worked when I was younger; it no longer works for me now. … Because really at the end of the day, you define you.”

To round off this post, I want to touch upon the closing scene of “How to get away with Murder” last week. In the closing scene, Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) after a long day at work takes off her wig, her eyelashes and her make up. She exposes herself unapologetically to the world. A scene that got many talking, especially in light of The New York Times article. The scene is poignant and it’s been on my mind all week. As women we wear a lot of layers, some physical, some emotional but there is power in being able to accept yourself when all those layers are pulled back. When you can stare in the mirror at the end of the day without all your layers and unapologetically accept yourself, that’s what beauty is – classical or not.



2 thoughts on “Viola Davis, Shonda Rhimes and The Black Woman Stereotype

  1. I finally read this post.
    You write so well and you have expressed the plight Black Women.
    We have the power to define who we want to be. Whether that fits into the status quo or not.
    Love this!

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