Kerry Washington’s “Professional” Hair

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Scandal has been lauded, and rightfully so, for its decision to give us a rare look at  Kerry Washington’s natural curls in its fourth season premiere last September. But little has been said regarding the brevity, content or meaning behind the hit television show’s portrayal of Washington’s hair.

So let’s lay it out.

September’s season premiere opened with a camera-pan over miles of turquoise waters before settling on a small island off in the distance. We then see Washington, lounging on the beach of an unmarked island, reading Gone Girl, and sipping on a glass of expensive red wine before getting cozy with one of her lovers. Here on this island, far away from any semblance of the “real” world, she’s not the character Olivia Pope; she’s chosen the pseudonym Julia Baker. This scene of escapism lasts for a little less than three minutes. For the remaining 40, we get to see the “real” Olivia Pope in the “real” world, with hair that “real” professional women sport.

Washington’s curls make a another appearance in episode six. This time, there’s no escapism, at least not in the literal sense. Olivia Pope is in her own bed, in Washington, D.C., with her own name and natural curls. But she’s not alone. No, she’s having a sort of sexual fantasy/nightmare that ends with her assassin father shouting at her to “wake up” and begins with her going back and forth between both of her love interests. This scene only lasts about a minute; she has straight hair for the rest of the episode.

So twice now, Washington’s natural curls are associated with sex and fantasy, while her straight hair has been repeatedly associated with power and success. Maybe Scandal’s showrunner Shonda Rhimes was aware of what she was doing in these scenes. Maybe she was purposefully constructing a critical commentary of our society: that our society only allows black women to be natural in a hyper-sexual, far off, foreign realm—and that to really be successful, they must conform to arbitrary beauty standards put in place by the white establishment.

If she was, people didn’t seem to get it.

The Cut got the idea that a blowout is necessary for returning to D.C., “the land of the power hair,” and that her natural hair said “Escaping my life,” while her straight hair said, “The Pope is back.”

People’s take was that a black woman could only mean “business” if she wore straight hair.

Women of color have historically been hyper-sexualized, labeled exotic and seen as a commodity to capture and own. I’m not saying that this was Rhimes’ intention, but man is she dangerously close to playing into that trope.

And she has the opportunity to do so much more. The iconic scene in another of Rhimes’ popular Thursday-night TV shows, How to Get Away with Murder, is the one in which main character Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) removes her wig—a conscious and clear criticism of the “conventional beauty” standards our society strains to impress upon black women. Says Davis,

Who Annalise is in public is a big fat lie, and we have to see her taking off the armor, which is so thick, it becomes all the more dramatic when she removes it, and you see all the pain.

Our society has done a very good job of driving home the idea that straight hair is professional hair. And it’s done an even better job of hiding the foundation on which that idea is built—that “professionalism” is synonymous with “whiteness.” And now Scandal, inadvertently I’m sure, is enforcing the idea that a woman who chooses to defy such standards, to go after success with natural hair, will be seen as someone who can’t be taken seriously.

In her essay, “Straightening Our Hair,” bell hooks writes about this relationship between black natural hair and professionalism:

In a discussion with black women about beauty at Spelman College, students talked about the importance of wearing straight hair when seeking jobs. They were convinced and probably rightly so that their chances of finding good jobs would be enhanced if they had straight hair. When asked to elaborate they focused on the connection between radical politics and natural hairdos, whether natural or braided. One woman wearing a short natural told of purchasing a straight wig for her job search. No one in the discussion felt black women were free to wear our hair in natural styles without reflecting on the possible negative consequences. Often older black adults, especially parents, respond quite negatively to natural hairdos. I shared with the group that when I arrived home with my hair in braids shortly after accepting my job at Yale, my parents told me I looked disgusting.

Hair and television might both seem small and trivial, but they carry the weight of what is buried deeply beneath the foundation of our society. It’s a lot easier to discount the whole thing, to claim, “It’s just a show, it’s just entertainment, it’s not political.” But it is.

It becomes political when black women have to go out of their way to find someone in the entertainment industry who looks like them.

It becomes political when black men and women can’t get a job because dread locks, twists, braids, etc. are seen as “unprofessional.”

It becomes political when the U.S. military calls for hair regulations that specifically targeted men and women of color. (While the Army, Air Force, and Navy have since rolled back these discriminatory restrictions, the fact that people in power thought such regulations were OK in 2014 is abhorrent.)

As a white woman, I don’t have to worry about not being taken seriously based on the natural appearance of my hair. I don’t have to spend extra money on products or devote serious time styling my hair to make it look “acceptable,” because my hair is the standard that such acceptability is based upon. I get to see women in the entertainment industry every day who look like I do, even if they have to go out of their way to do so.

No one wants to talk about contentious issues regarding race on a show starring and created by a strong, successful, inspiring black woman. But they’re there, deeply buried, and they’re coming out through Kerry Washington’s hair, of all places.

Photo of Kerry Washington—with straight hair—from Flickr user David Shankbone under license from Creative Commons 2.0

juliarobbins

 

Julia Robins is a writer based out of Richmond, Virginia. She graduated from The College of William & Mary in 2014.

Comments

  1. Olivia has had curly hair before season 4. In the cases in which it came into play, it was to show her sans the superficial wear of being a high ranking, public relations practitioner in the country’s capital. Olivia Pope having straight hair shows one thing to most black women, that it’s unfair for Olivia to have to wear neutrals, and straighten her hair to be held in the esteem her clients hold her, instead of her work being enough for them. Its representation may fall short of any intentions Shondaland have with it because it’s never directly discussed on the show, but audiences, especially black women have derived meanings from Pope’s hair that have more to do with the injustice of Olivia’s aesthetic being the basis for her clients to regard her as serious instead of her work.

  2. I don’t think it has anything to do with race. I have curly hair that I often straighten for work because I think it looks more put-together. Nothing more to it.

    • Check your privilege. I am a white woman with curly hair, and while I have to endure comments and “compliments” (one executive remarked that she loved my “crazy, Gypsy hair”), there is definitely no racial overtones when my curly hair is discussed, a privilege that is not extended to women of color, particularly black women. Racism and black hair is a very well-documented problem in the United States.

    • What causes you to think it looks more put together, though? That’s what systemic racism is – a part of American culture/society that is so engrained that we no longer connect the dots to race. It stands to argue that, if the roles were reversed, you may curl your straight hair for work because you think “it looks more put-together.” And there would be “nothing more to it.”

  3. Rina Reynolds says:

    While I don’t want to question the author’s assertion that this may have something to do with race, I actually challenge anyone to find professional women of any race portrayed with naturally curly hair! It is a Madison Avenue issue. No financial magazines portray women with curly hair as professional. It is inevitable that on the days when I flat iron my naturally curly hair…I will hear 4-5 comments from colleagues and clients complimenting how professional I look. The alternative assumption is that I look unprofessional when my hair is curly?

    I have dubbed the phenomenon, “Bedroom v. Board Room hair!”

    • Ana Avalos Ramirez says:

      I completely agree with your bedroom vs boardroom theory! I spent most of my 20′s and 30′s blowing out my hair, not wanting to wet it, even avoiding exercise all to save the blow out. It took me well over 2 years to retrain my curls, and most of that time to learn to love them again. At nearly 40 years of age I can finally rock my curls with confidence, and have to remind my 12 year daughter on a daily basis that her wild curls are absolutely beautiful. I hope one day she’ll love her as well, as for me I only wear it straight street ice been to the hair salon abs I must admit it dies feel pretty dang good to run my fingers through it, but nothing feels as good as those curls blowing in the wind!

  4. Janell Hobson says:

    To say that the issue of “straight” vs. “curly” hair has “nothing to do with race” is to conveniently ignore that Curly vs. Straight IS about race, about class, etc. (To be “curly” is to be closer to a non-white aesthetic, to be “natural” and not of the so-called refined and elite set).

    If “straight hair” automatically means “professional” then what are we saying about those whose natural curls immediately mark them as “unprofessional” (i.e. not white enough, not Anglo enough, not Gentile enough, not elite enough?).

    Julia Robins, I appreciate you engaging this discussion from your position as a white woman. We black women have discussed this issue ad nausea, and I very much would like to see more non-Blacks talk about the politics of hair. Hopefully, we can start talking more about the variations in white aesthetics as well – why Blonde hair is still prized above other colors (is this just about whiteness? Is it also about youth and girlishness?)

  5. OMG just stop with this! Why the choices of a how a black tv character wears her hair as seen through the lens of a random white women is NOT what Ms. needs to be discussing. This is not a zoo experiment. And Olivia’s hair whether curly or flatironed is still a wig/weave combo regardless.

  6. Ms Magazine, if you really wanted a thinkpiece on natural hair in Shondaland and what it says to black women in real life, why on earth didn’t y’all have any of the myriad talented black woman writers out there do it?

    • I read the piece not knowing who wrote it. Let’s give credit where it is due. The piece is critical, concise and respects the audience.

  7. We are going to see more and more black woman wearing their hair natural. In my workplace (large institution) it’s already the norm. I mean black women in the workplace are being hired in professional jobs with their natural hair, after being interviewed by their white future supervisors. Also, women seem to be more inclined to discuss a black woman’s hair then her male peers. I currrenlty wear my hair permed by choice. Black woman are now experiencing that wearing your hair natural allows it to grow long and strong. Besides there are styles for natural hair that don’t have to be just an afro. There are many ways to style natural hair.

  8. I disagree with the other women saying that it applies to all curly haired women. Black women’s hair is not just considered curly, but nappy. Historically (and today) we have had to permanently straighten our hair to fit in with white America. While I am sure white women deal with the “curly hair” problem it does not compare to what WOC in general and black women in particular deal with.

  9. Im Just Saying says:

    or… quite literally she didn’t have a blow dryer on the island… or in jail. it’s pure logistics! No spray sheen… no sheen!

  10. Piece gave me chills. Nice.

  11. The issue of hair type is only important because it reflects how we see ourselves as black women and how others see us. As a boomer we where proud of ourselves regardless if your hair was straight or curly or tight and kinky; but again we have drifted back to accepting what others do, it pains me to see young sisters with weaves, bleaching products and having hair so straight it looks unnatural. Our men also have brought into the concept that the closer your woman looks like a Caucasian the prettier she is and the more desirable she is. Diversity has shifted more and more towards a European standard of beauty and acceptance so our white brothers and sisters do not fear us we want to be you.

    • As stated boomers dont care get an education, take care of yourself, contribute to your community and country; thats important not the length or type of hair you have. Age is wisdom that is why the natural trend is a middle age movement. Hopefully, the brain will last longer than the hair.

  12. This is such a fascinating article and discussion! I actually had the same exact thoughts concerning race and hairstyle while watching Scandal, as well as How to Get Away w Murder! In both shows, the women wear straight hair while in their power-role environments, and curly in more private, unguarded moments. It’s fascinating to me how much impact a hairstyle or texture can have! The taking off of the wig was indeed a powerful scene and message about race/class.

    I agree systemic racism plays a part in it. To get that beautiful, sleek Olivia Pope hair costs a fortune, I’m sure – which again most women can’t afford to spend that much money on their hair, regardless of race! I feel badly that so many black women must subject themselves to time-consuming, costly hair processes in order to achieve a certain look. If they want to do it for themselves, that’s their decision. But if they feel they must due to societal/professional pressures, that’s a horrible shame. Which is why I think it’s reinforcing the wrong message when Olivia’s character never goes au naturel when in the White House/DC. Why can’t she be a smart, educated, successful black woman in her own hair?? Not even once?

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