Kerry Washington’s “Professional” Hair

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


Julia Robins is a Ms. editorial intern and a graduate of William & Mary. Follow Julia on Twitter @julia_robins.