Red Carpet, Black Hair: Viola Davis and the Politics of Respectability at the Oscars

Curator's Note

 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.[1] 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.

[1] 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)


Great post, Raffi. I appreciate your idea that Viola Davis used the red carpet as a site of resistance the same night she accepted her Oscar for The Help. It’s interesting that her decision not to wear a wig has become part of her star image. I think of the time she appeared in “How To Get Away With Murder” without a hairpiece – at a narrative moment that stressed authenticity. For Davis, natural hair seems linked to a “truer” self. For a star like Zendaya Coleman, however, wigs and hairpieces are linked to shifting modes of performativity and enhance her image as a fashion chameleon, which is part of her brand. I wonder if the difference between authenticity and performativity is generational, or if something else is going on?

I really enjoyed your post, Raffi, especially hearing Davis talk about her hair and the media's response to the natural look. I like Julie's point too about how her hair has become a marker of authenticity. I recall during the first season of HTGWM, there was also a lot of fan talk on Twitter about her (ill-fitting) wigs, leading up to that crucial "reveal" in the show. Clearly, hair has played an important role in Davis's star image on and off screen. Yet, a powerful black female celebrity like Beyonce gets flack in the media for keeping her daughter's hair natural, suggesting the politics of respectability around hair are very much alive. I'm curious how Davis has been able to work around these constraints so well...maybe incorporating these hair politics into her performances has become another way for her to subvert idealized white beauty norms.

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