Under the Wig: The Year of Natural Hair on Television


In “Let’s Get To Scooping,” the fourth episode of ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder, there is an unforgettable scene in which Viola Davis’ character, Annalise Keating, sits in front of a mirror and carefully removes her wig, revealing her natural hair. It’s an iconic moment, not just within the context of the episode — Keating is letting down all of her defenses and removing the armor that she wears all day before confronting her cheating, white husband — but also iconic within the greater television landscape. Despite the (small) strides that TV has made in recent years with diversity, it’s still rare that a black woman is encouraged to show her natural hair on television. But, as Tracee Ellis Ross, star of ABC’s Black-ish, wrote in Entertainment Weekly this week, 2014 is the year it’s starting to change.

In a review of the How to Get Away With Murder episode, A.V. Club contributor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya writes about the importance of Davis’ wig coming off: “It’s an intimate, powerful moment television doesn’t often show: A black woman removing all the elements white supremacy tells her she has to wear to be beautiful, successful, powerful. And let’s not forget that that wasn’t just Annalise taking it off: It was Davis, too — Davis, who remains brave in a world where a New York Times critic can get away with calling her “less classically beautiful.” There’s a pressure black actresses have to fit the standards of white Hollywood beauty — long, silky, straight locks of hair — and that black women everywhere have in order to live up to the standards of our white women peers. It’s not uncommon to have our natural hair judged by others, even when we’re just children (and especially famous children), or to have our “kinky,” “nappy,” or whatever hair seen as dirty or uncombed, simply because it’s different.

Growing up, Sunday nights in my house were dedicated to my hair. My thick, textured, and uncontrollable hair broke even the most unbreakable of combs and, because my mother worked all week, it was impossible to dedicate the time to it every morning. So on Sunday nights, I’d sit in front of the television, whining and complaining — I’m tender-headed — as she put my hair in thick braids that were supposed to last the whole week but were almost always gone by Wednesday because I couldn’t leave them alone, instead absently undoing them in class until my hair was a messy, sort of afro that added a few inches to my height. It was then that my white classmates would poke fun at my hair or curiously touch it; once a teacher even called my mother to discuss how unruly my hair was.

It’s a strange feeling as a kid, to feel lonely and embarrassed because of something as silly as the texture of your hair. It was made worse by the fact that I was always watching television when getting my hair braided, always watching either white women with perfect hair or black women with silky blow-outs or chemically straightened locks — there was no one that resembled me on screen. It was why I briefly straightened my hair, in an attempt to resemble the women on television rather than understanding it was more important for them to resemble me.

In the first season of Orange is the New Black, we learn that Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba), who regularly wears her hair in tight Bantu knots, has adoptive white parents. In her flashback Season 2 episode, we find out the origins of her hairstyle: A black nurse does Suzanne’s hair when Suzanne is feeling left out because of her new little sister. It’s a hairstyle that Suzanne’s adoptive mother couldn’t do herself, and it provides Suzanne with a feeling of being closer to her culture through her hair. There is a connection there, one that Suzanne continues to seek out through her life, eventually finding it with Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) who temporarily becomes Suzanne’s “prison mom” and proceeds to do her hair. Orange is the New Black, primarily because of its setting, has some of the best depictions of natural hairstyles on television and understands the bond that comes along with it.

All of this is why I found myself nodding along while reading Tracee Ellis Ross’ essay in Entertainment Weekly. “I think it’s huge that I’m wearing my natural hair texture on ABC in prime time,” she correctly states. ABC doesn’t whitewash the series, in plots or hairstyles, and it’s a refreshing step in the right direction when it comes to diverse faces on TV. “You hire me, you hire my hair and you hire my ass. It’s all coming with me,” Ross continues. Ross not changing her hair for Black-ish, Davis removing her wig on Murder, and the hair-bonding on Orange is the New Black may all seem small but representation of natural hair is important, and these smaller moments can lead to bigger representations of diversity in the future.