Coffee Rhetoric: #LessClassicallyBeautiful: Viola Davis Sticks it to New York Times & Mass Media

January 08, 2015

#LessClassicallyBeautiful: Viola Davis Sticks it to New York Times & Mass Media

Photo credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
This past September, New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley wrote a passive-aggressive feature on actress Viola Davis and her role in the titillating new series favorite, How to Get Away With Murder. Stanley not only ascribed the ‘Angry Black Woman’ trope to Davis’s character Annalise Keating (and acclaimed TV producer and screenwriter Shonda Rhimes) in the opening paragraph, but she also suggested that the actress inhabited an unlikely position as a leading a woman on Primetime TV, because she isn't as “classically beautiful” as actresses like Halle Berry (who is biracial) and Kerry Washington (whose aesthetic, style and stature are considered 'safe' enough to placate, and even inspire, mainstream TV and film viewers).
Stanley’s backhanded slight set off a firestorm on social media, prompting Black women, Viola Davis’s fellow Black actresses, and Shonda Rhimes to take Stanley and the New York Times to task for flippantly reducing Viola to nothing more than a racial trope and for further marginalizing a segment of Black women who don't comfortably fit within the confines of Stanley's definition of classic beauty.
Black women are either angry (and the only group seemingly wrong for expressing anger), stoic, or too ‘uppity’ for our own good, as Stanley pointed out in her piece; or we can’t simply be beautiful, multifaceted, and desired without incident or cloaked in a bunch of qualifiers and juxtaposed against white womanhood, or what’s deemed to be ‘acceptable’ Black femininity… and ‘acceptable’ Black femininity seemingly doesn't have room or love for Black women who look like Viola Davis—mass media reminds us of this every chance they get through erasure, ridicule, cherry-picking and exclusion.
Insult notwithstanding, Stanley’s NY Times piece also helped precipitate a necessary, and ongoing, discussion that challenges mainstream beauty norms via the hashtag #LessClassicallyBeautiful, and that has  empowered Black women to speak up in droves and declare that yes, we are and can be classically beautiful in our varied skin tones, features, and body shapes; and even when we’re angry, vulnerable, or  complicated. Articles like Alessandra Stanley’s also illustrate the need for and importance of diverse media representation, in journalism (especially) and in the entertainment industry (always).

Not one to miss the opportunity to reinforce the need to be steadfast and visible in the face of an industry and institution that constantly tries to erase Black women who don’t fit a certain aesthetic, Viola Davis challenged Alessandra Stanley and mass media last night during her acceptance speech, after winning an award for ‘Favorite Actress in A New TV Series’ at the People’s Choice Awards.  Her beautiful dark skin offset by an audacious, form-hugging hot pink Escada gown, Viola gave a wry, shade-filled smile and said,
“Thank you Shonda Rhimes, Betsy Beers, and Peter Nowalk for thinking of a leading lady who looks like my classic beauty. … I’m just so proud to be an actor and so happy to do what I do. And I’m so happy people have accepted me in this role at this stage in my career.”
While this isn't Viola’s first time addressing the infamous NY Times article, the marginalization of Black actresses in Hollywood or colorism in general, it bears repeating—to those who don’t, and refuse to, grasp what it’s like for Black women trying to navigate racial micro-aggressions and misogynoir, in our everyday interactions and while trying to be successful at our jobs—particularly when reinforcement of the message comes in the form of subtle, wonderfully snarky shade during a moment of triumph.