As #OscarsSoWhite brings a sharp focus to the backstage of Hollywood’s racial politics, the red carpet has long operated as Hollywood’s front stage, a platform that, while largely policed by dominant standards of beauty and behavior, nonetheless functions as a popular site of negotiated cultural terrain. The increased attention to red carpets since cable-era television falls in line with the ever-expanding award-show circuit, now a veritable industry that relies on lavish studio financing and rich media discourses to construct various narratives—often around historical significances or personal milestones—to package actors and projects vying for gold.
The recent racial scrutiny has only highlighted Hollywood truths already evident, namely that access and recognition for black actors come on the condition that they conform to the limited white cultural imaginaries of black representation. These limitations then extend to the Oscar narratives for black actors nominated for Hollywood-approved roles. Disney’s 2011 smash hit The Help—a white savior narrative on and off-screen—is case in point: a movie about racial injustice written, produced, and directed by white filmmakers, led by a white protagonist, about black maids in 1960s Mississippi. Come Oscar season, Viola Davis was pushed (per studio dollars) to lead the film’s Oscar hopes in the Best Actress category. While on the one hand representing Hollywood-sanctioned narratives of race, Davis used the Oscar trail to complicate stereotyped arguments about the conditions and agency of black actresses, culminating in her decision to appear at the Oscars wearing her natural hair for the first time in public.
With this move, Viola Davis ties Hollywood’s racial prescriptions to the deep-rooted cultural politics of respectability around black hair, and, in so doing distinguishes herself from such controlling narratives. As the “raw material, constantly processed by cultural practices which thus invest it with meanings and value,” black women’s hair in Hollywood and society-at-large has a contentious history of restraint by mainstream beauty standards, represented no less by Davis’ admission of her own career of wearing wigs. In stepping onto the red carpet with her natural hair, Davis flips her Oscar narrative on its head from one supporting the industry’s status quo—by representing The Help—to challenging the constricting hegemonic standards of blackness, beauty, and respectability in Hollywood.
 Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle (1994), p.101; See also: Ingrid Banks, Hair Matters (2000); Maxine Leeds Craig, Ain't I A Beauty Queen? (2002)