Accurate, positive representation of women of color is so important. Accurate, plentiful positive representation of all people of color is so important. However, I’m focusing on womxn of color. Last night (September 20) an award show was on. Last night history was made. Not one, not two, but three dark skinned black womxn won Emmy awards. Viola Davis was the first black womxn to ever win an Emmy for best leading actress in a drama series.
The 2015 Emmy awards was celebrating it’s 67th year. In the 66 years prior, no black woman had ever won before. Was it because black womxn were less talented than their non-black counterparts? No! In one of the most eloquent speeches I have ever heard, Viola Davis walked on stage with her natural hair and her flawless dark skin and began her speech with a quote by Harriet Tubman from the 1800s. Somehow, the words originally spoken by Harriet Tubman and delivered by such a powerful womxn like Viola Davis, those words still rang true. “In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.”
The tried tropes of black women being the stripper, prostitute, or sassy black friend. Or the Latinx womxn speaking with a thick accent, talking of escape from a generic drug and war torn country south of the American border. While speaking of the horrors of illegally “jumping” the border. The subservient, docile and submissive homogenized Asian womxn embodying a mix of various cultures and blurring them into one. Womxn of color are rarely ever portrayed as more complex than stereotypical or for comic relief. Unless they are in a show that is predominately characters of color. However when most of the characters aren’t white, the movie or show then turns into (insert racial group here) film. I’ve read many articles referring to shows like Empire as a “black” show.
The barriers womxn of color face to be seen, to be recognized, to be heard is a daily struggle. Probably one of the most quotable lines of the night was when Davis said, “The only thing that separates women of color from anything is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” The whitewashing of the TV and film industry is still very prevalent to this day. The casting of Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in the new Pan, Emma Stone as Alison Ng a womxn of Chinese and Hawaiian descent and the whole cast of that terrible movie I don’t even like to think about (Avatar the last air-bender), films about biblical era’s that are heavily featured in Egypt are played by white actors. Not only are womxn of color being passed up for mainstream roles because they can’t imagine the character being a poc, but they are getting passed up for roles that should go to them because directors want a “household” name, which usually means white.
Growing up, black women were rarely cast as multidimensional characters. They were never cast beyond being the abused drug addled sex worker, who becomes strong in the end, subservient roles in which they were mammies or the help, or a savage that needed to be tamed by the handsome white prince. I recently attended a comic book convention and got the pleasure of getting a photo op with Nichelle Nichols. If you are not familiar with who that is, look her up, she broke so many color barriers by being cast in Star Trek in the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr. cites her as the first black women to play a non-stereotypical role. She encouraged a lot of little black kids into believing they were good enough and they were smart enough for careers in space and science.
Star trek premiered in 1966 and just about 50 years later true representation is being shown. Womxn of color are no longer the back drop to growing up in the projects and being abused. That is some of their stories but it’s not the only story. We don’t have to be broken before we can rise up. Even as I grew up as a child of the 90s and the early 2000s, I rarely remember any mainstream television shows or movies that portrayed women of color as multifaceted characters. I haven’t seen every movie in the world and I was a kid so I don’t remember everything. I’m speaking from personal experience.
I remember feeling very perplexed and somewhat uncomfortable when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won their Academy Awards. They are both very talented actors and they both deserved the awards they got. But when I was older and finally watched and understood Training Day and Monster’s ball (as I was too young to watch them when they came out), I wondered why the only roles that black people could win big awards for, were when they were being over-sexualized or portraying very violent characters who broke the law. I wondered this because I have seen many great movies featuring black actors where they aren’t playing roles that perpetuate negative stereotypes.
Without the push of social media and women of color demanding to be more than the punchline (looking at you pitch perfect 2) things have slowly started to change. Octavia Butler won for best supporting actress in the Help and Lupita Nyong’o won for 12 years a slave. But I still have to wonder can black womxn only win roles when they are portrayed as subservient. Viola Davis’s historical night I believe can cause the shift that women of color are more than the harmful stereotypes that keep them from those opportunities Davis mentioned in her speech.
There’s a shift in the way women of color are portraying themselves and they way they are being portrayed. The many stars choosing to wear their hair natural, something I don’t think I would have seen ten years ago. The unapologetic, strong, powerful black women that are becoming more common on my screen. “So, here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes. People who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black. And to the Taraji P. Hensons and Kerry Washingtons, the Halle Berrys, the Nicole Beharies, the Meagan Goodes, to Gabrielle Union.”
Here’s to all these people, these strong powerful womxn who I have grown up with. The womxn who are telling young black kids that they are okay just the way they are. That the darkness of their skin, the curl of their hair, the fullness of their lips doesn’t make them ugly or less desirable.
Here’s to the people telling young kids of color there’s no one way to be. That speaking a certain way, talking a certain way, looking a certain way doesn’t make them more or less (enter racial/ethnic minority here). I’m black because society has constructed the hue of my skin to have contextual, historical, and social meanings attached to them. Although they are social constructs they are still very real. I wish I grew up knowing that my black was beautiful. I was always told by my parents but I was surrounded by images, pictures, words, and everyday interactions that caused a lot of unnecessary internalized hatred, that I’m still trying to unlearn.
When Viola Davis, Uzo Aduba, and Regina King won last night it was like a wave of relief entered a place dominated by white men. When those acceptance speeches were made it was like something I had been waiting on my whole life, even though I did not know I was waiting for it. It was that breath of relief that kids of color could see people who looked like them being successful and being powerful. . Young black kids can be named most beautiful person (even though I don’t agree with that kind of shallow forms of ranking) it still has an impact, just seeing a woman like Lupita Nyong’o on the cover of People has an impact. I’ve never seen so many beautiful black womxn that resembled me in mainstream films and television.
My hope is that by these actors being recognized for their talent and being brave enough, strong enough, and having enough leverage to talk about the racism that they experience, even when receiving the highest honors in their industry. It will make it a little easier for the next generation of womxn of color to demand to be more than just a stereotype. More than just dead hooker #2. My fear is that this media industry that is run by the heteronormative patriarchy that thrives on white supremacy, as giving us a bone for the next 50 years a womxn of color doesn’t win. A bone of tokenizing one person to speak for an entire group of oppressed people. I hope that this is a step in the right direction and not same excuse used countless times to erase the intersectional struggles that a lot of us face everyday. So congratulations to Viola Davis, Uzo Aduba, and Regina King. Thank you for making it easier for the next generation. Thank you for making that insecure black kid, that still lives inside me feel better, and begin to erase the internalized hatred I was taught by the media. Thank you for letting me know it’s okay to be black. Thank you for existing in all your wonderful glory.*
*I really want to thank all the directors, producers, actors, and all the moving parts that go into every part of the film and TV industry that make it possible for people like Viola Davis to have a platform and pushing them over the line.
(If you haven’t watched Viola Davis’s speech I encourage you to go watch it).