Viola Davis as Barbara Jordan: Trailblazer, Leader, More Than a "Common Asexual Mammy"

This post was originally published on Coffee Rhetoric March 28, 2012 and has been updated with current information and re-posted in commemoration of Women's History Month ... 

I am passionate about a number of social issues, paticularly those pertaining to the well-being of Black women. And while I may project my voice and stand in solidarity with others, about certain things, I am leery and strategic about whose and what rhetoric I co-sign.  I’m solitary in my work  and don’t belong to or align myself with any new movements because, from my' vantage points, they often implode and it stops being about the issue(s).

That aside, I've found the language and writings of a certain subset of Black women to be very problematic. They attribute their work to Black Women Empowerment (BWE) and consider themselves the voices of reason for the elevation of Black womanhood. There are undoubtedly some women who have managed to successfully carve out a niche and use Black feminist and BWE platforms to inform and provide legitimate, insightful, and thought provoking content about the importance of recognizing race within feminism and feminist theory. They’ve been tireless about advocating for Black women and young girls, in a society where we're often invisible, ridiculed, and further marginalized. 

Then there’s an offshoot of women who've latched onto the BWE movement, claiming to have Black women's best interest in mind, but will deride and shame those who don't have the resources to navigate their plight successfully or as gracefully as they'd like. These women liken their snark to “tough love”, but I interpret it as nothing more than Mean Girl propaganda and respectability politics; which is often elitist, biting, and mocking. The line of demarcation that separates their agenda and that of most other BWE/Black feminist bloggers is clear. They're targeting a specific demographic of Black women... I get that. But for those who don’t fit the aesthetic they believe Black women should have-- which is a look and disposition often dictated by patriarchy and western standards of beauty and femininity, you’re nothing more than an unfeminine, "Black male-identified" Mammy or Ghetto Queen according to the discourse and memes generated by those platforms and Barbara Jordan is no exception to their rule.

Barbara Jordan was one of the most notable Black female figures in this country. An educator, lawyer, politician, and leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Jordan was a trailblazer who helped change the face of  politics and shattered myths about what a Black woman’s capabilities were limited to. If anyone’s worthy of having their life brought to the big screen, it’s her.  None of Barbara’s groundbreaking accolades make a difference to some however, because they seem consumed by how she looked and are of the opinion that her particular aesthetic will somehow ruin the Black Woman’s “brand.”   
Fresh from riding the wave of her much talked about role as Abilene in the movie “The Help”, Viola Davis seems up to the task of tackling the life of Barbara Jordan in a biopic she’s slated to star in and produce with her husband; much to the chagrin of chauvinist-sounding critics and definitely to the dismay of  a popular BWE blogger, who wrote
"It’s a competitive world. I can see how this would likely play out in any movie: the WW partner would be portrayed as conventionally attractive and feminine, while Ms. Jordan would be portrayed as an asexual mammy at best. Or as a "butch"-looking lesbian at worst. Thereby continuing to lift up WW’s collective “brand” while tossing BW’s collective “brand” under the bus. I don’t want to see some mess about Closeted, Asexual Mammy."
"For me it’s not about homophobia. It’s about [African-American] women’s collective “brand.” If there’s going to be a biopic about a closeted, civil rights era [African-American] lesbian who dated White women, I’d rather see one made about Lorraine Hansberry, who carried herself with feminine grace and glamor [sic]. What I’d really like to see are some biopics about AA women like Lena Horne and Gloria Ray Karlmark (one of the Little Rock Nine who moved to Europe, married a European man, and has lived very well). I want to see biopics of [African-American] women who lived well in the outer world." 

I understood the critiques surrounding the politics of Viola’s role in “The Help” and Viola has even expressed her uneasiness about having played a maid however, I can’t help but think that Viola being a darker skinned Black actress, on the cusp of playing an unglamorous role about another darker skinned Black woman, is what's unsettling some folks within that particular movement… and that’s troubling to me. It seems that, like Jordan's femininity, Davis's feminine wiles is being called into question lest she play a sexpot or prove that she has the same allure as Halle Berry or Paula Patton, in movies. I also think it's ridiculous to undermine Barbara Jordan's work and intellect, just because she didn't look a certain way... particularly since she was a Civil Rights leader and politician, not Erica Jong

In a February 2013 interview with The Telegraph, Viola intimated that she wasn't the 'type' of Black actress Hollywood champs at the bit to cast in their movies,  "(...) I'm a woman of a certain level of attractiveness, a certain hue. I'm just saying this in a completely objective way."

  "(...) I'm looking for great narratives -- as an actress you're only as good as your narrative. I don't want to be a social statement or a reaction to a social statement. We haven't seen Black actresses as smart so I have to create a character who's really smart." Or, "We haven't been seen as sexual so I have to create a completely sexual character. It becomes almost allegorical in nature. I don't want to be an allegory. I feel the most revolutionary thing I can do is create narratives where you see a fully realized human being."
Black women — particularly those hiding behind the cloak of the Black Women’s Empowerment movement— should know better and be astute enough to realize that we are not one-dimensional, monolithic beings with nothing more to offer other than how we look or how sexy we are or aren't. Halle Berry can attest to the fact that sometimes it takes more than baring your breasts in a movie to keep film goers and movie critics riveted. Being overtly sexy and sexual on-screen or off doesn't dictate a Black woman's appeal any more than acting demure and 'ladylike' indicates whether one is feminine enough

Black women can be as overtly sexy as choose to be, and if we aren't or if it's something that doesn't come naturally to some of us, that's OK too. Barbara Jordan may not possess the superficial traits that will enable Viola to vamp it up on screen the way the project's detractors would like her to, but her story is profound, and to a lot of other people that is sexy.


Steven said...

I am sure those cosigning on the BWE poster's opinion are all in their 20's or 30's, so they must be excused for their shameful ignorance of Barbara Jordan's story. As someone who came to adulthood in her time, I saw Barbara Jordan as a tough, HARD, powerful a Black woman sent to Congress from Texas in 1973 had to be. She gained the grudging respect from friend and foe alike. Just like the post in the Relevant Reading section said, she was a politician, a political leader, not a pole dancer. She wielded power and impacted real, everyday people's lives in ways Beyonce...for example...could not even imagine. (No disrespect intended, but Bey may be able to bend Jay-Z to her will, but her wiles won't work on the likes of Trent Lott.)

TiffJ said...

Hi Steven,
Thanks for your insightful comment. Yes, you're absolutely right about Barbara Jordan wielding power and impacting people's lives. She's a true trailblazer whose story DESERVES to be depicted on the big screen... particularly since so many women in the Black community complain about there not being any on-screen role models.

In this day and age, people need to realize that a Black woman's (or any woman, for that matter)-- allure isn't monolithic; it's, in fact, multidimensional.