For the first three episodes of How to Get Away with Murder, Viola Davis—the Oscar-nominated, Juilliard-educated film actress—could not walk. She hobbled across the screen as though her shoes were too tight. Her makeup was gaudy and out of touch with her skin tone, her fake eyelashes verged on ridiculous, and her wig just looked really bad. Then, during the fourth episode, she took it all off.
Annalise Keating, Davis’ character, took off her wig, her eyelashes, her jewelry, her makeup— her entire façade—and looked at herself in the mirror. I was blown away.
As a black woman, I recognized the ritual she performed immediately. I had seen it in only a few closed spaces—in my home, in black hair salons, in my black friends’ bathrooms after we went out. With black hair and makeup, you’re always changing and covering. Then you wash everything off, look in the mirror, and see a secret, clean, unacceptable you. And here was Viola Davis, that brave, beautiful woman, exposing her secret self to millions of viewers nationwide.
I have never seen a black woman do this on television. On Scandal, Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope steps out of the shower, hair perfectly wet and curly, and then in the next scene it’s perfectly dry and straight as if by magic. She goes to bed and wakes up, hair unmussed and unwrapped. Nicole Beharie and Lyndie Greenwood—bless them—fight demons all day in Sleepy Hollow and never stop to worry about their weave or their curl pattern. Television clings to the myth that the beauty ideal is just as attainable for black women as it is for white women. But it’s not.
Black women do a lot of work on themselves. We try to conform to an ideal of beauty that was not made with us in mind. We lighten, we lengthen, we straighten, we slim, and, most importantly, we do it in secret. In secret, because if we try to explain, we know we’ll get to the painful truth—if we don’t do all this work, we have no chance at being beautiful.
Television, when there are black characters, skips right over the bathroom scenes. The commercials rarely show the black equivalents of beauty products. Black women just appear—long straight hair, long eyelashes, perfectly even skin. Television keeps our differences secret, insisting that black women can conform to white ideals of beauty effortlessly—see, they’re not so different after all.
But we are. How to Get Away with Murder exposes this. Annalise Keating is so uncomfortable in her garish getup, she literally cannot move in it. Her heavy, sloppy mask is a desperate cry for affection, evident in her barely concealed self-loathing and her constant attempts at seduction. In the last scene of the fourth episode, she first takes off her wedding ring, and then she removes everything else she uses to make herself “beautiful” for her white husband, who she has just confirmed is cheating—again—with a young white girl.
Annalise Keating realizes, as do many black women, that for all her beauty tricks, she’s trying to please an audience—a predominantly white audience—that cannot be pleased. She’s trying to look like something that she will never look like, and nothing she does will ever be enough. That is why black women keep their beauty secrets, and that is what television has never truly addressed. Showing black women in front of the mirror means confronting the real faces that white America has marked as “wrong” and “needs improvement.”
The problem with diversity in the media isn’t that there aren’t any black bodies on screen, it’s that there’s barely any sign of the particular unwanted-ness that black women struggle with every day, the “less classical,” “chocolate/coffee/caramel,” “nappy,” God-given beauty we spend a lifetime trying to understand in secret because it’s disregarded in the public sphere. How to Get Away with Murder has a chance to change the dialogue about what is beautiful. Television can show black women, and everyone for that matter, that what we do in front of the mirror is not something that needs to be hidden.