by Neyat Yohannes
Van (Zazie Beetz) lies half asleep in bed next to a fully-awake Earn (Donald Glover), whose headphones are blaring to such a degree that they’re supplying the score for the second scene of Atlanta’s series premiere. Van accepts, with some reluctance, that sleep is a thing of the past and listens to Earn describe the peculiar dream he’s just had. After a quippy back-and-forth that introduces us to Van’s no-nonsense attitude—a clear coping mechanism for the cards life has dealt her—we are reminded that despite what we hope for with his curious lede, Earn is merely a mortal man who hasn’t evolved past dreaming about canoodling with hot women. The two make-out before an “I love you” arrives a beat too late, prompting them to get out of bed and start their respective days.
What’s not mentioned above, or in any of the high-brow think pieces published with haste just minutes after this instant classic premiered, is that we meet Van with her bonnet on. If that’s not titillating enough for the black women in the audience, we also watch Zazie Beetz engage in a full-on kissing scene with that blue and orange scarf still secured to her head. And what’s more, during a mild argument with Earn, we watch Van undue her bantu knots as she starts her day. If you’ve ever had a black girl for a roommate, or a lover, or just happen to be one, there’s nothing foreign-sounding about the above observations. Bonnets and protective styling are part of the average black woman’s daily routine. But what’s radical is the fact that we get to see them realized on-screen. It isn’t done in a showy way or with awkward comedic timing. Instead, they are presented in the same mundane way a character might pour a glass of water or sit at a desk—just another everyday occurrence.
But it isn’t everyday we see the black woman getting ready. Not on TV or film, at least. While women-driven shows like Broad City shamelessly reveal what female-identifying people do behind closed doors, it’s easy to forget about intersectional feminism in the midst of our excitement. The nighttime regimens and morning practices of black women are seldom shown on the big or small screen, so the inaugural episode of Atlanta is something particularly noteworthy. It’s one of the few and far between instances of a black woman going through the motions of her daily routine with an audience before her to glean new levels of awareness from her every move.
While the aforementioned scenes in Atlanta were perhaps too subtle for those outside the realm of the black experience to notice on more than a subconscious level, the scene from How To Get Away With Murder during which Viola Davis’ character, Annalise Keating removes her wig is considered a landmark event. It’s apparent that it continues to interest many inquiring minds because when you begin typing Viola Davis’ name into Google, the first result is her name followed by “removes wig.” In her debut book, You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain, Phoebe Robinson describes this momentous occasion as “THE SINGLE GREATEST MOMENT IN BLACK WOMEN TELEVISION HISTORY.” She makes this proclamation with purposeful caps lock and then justifies why lowercase letters just wouldn’t do. She says:
It’s not an overstatement when I write that watching a part of the black woman’s beauty routine reflected back at me made me praise dance the way I do when I’m in the Pillsbury crescent‑roll section of my grocery store. This scene was so real, so honest, so raw, so everything because this is what a lot of black women look like when not in public. To present that to America was huge. Not only did it show what beauty preparation is like for many black women, it let most, if not all, non-black people into a world that had previously been off‑limits to them. (excerpt from You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain , courtesy of New York Magazine).
And this world was introduced to them on a network—American Broadcasting Company (ABC)—that’s been around since the forties. To provide context, ABC came into fruition two full decades before the Jim Crow laws were no longer in effect. So it’s clear that covering the black person’s narrative wasn’t apart of their initial mission. Especially not a black woman’s narrative. Considering ABC didn’t cast its first black Bachelorette until 2017, the Annalise Keating wig removal scene serves as even more cause for celebration.
That said, it was also during the forties that Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Academy Award. She was named Best Supporting Actress in 1940 for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. While it was much to the chagrin of many black folks of the time—and of today—that McDaniel won the award for portraying a slave and perpetuating the Mammy archetype, it’s important to note that she did make strides for black actors in film. In her book African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900-1960, Charlene B. Regester gives McDaniel her props and acknowledges the fact that she lent a hand in black actors breaking out of sedentary roles in film. Regester writes:
Hattie McDaniel empowered herself in Gone with the Wind (hereafter GWTW) through her transformation of the subservient (subordinate, dehumanized, and devalued) into the dominant (defiant and directing). She managed this through her commanding presence, strong posture, exertion of power, and fearlessness in the role of Mammy, and in doing so McDaniel redefined and reconstructed public images of African American womanhood. The point is debatable, but through her performance McDaniel did move this character (and character type) out of the margin and into the film’s center. (Regester, 131).
Hattie McDaniel, though wildly successful in the film world, was a rather tragic figure. Regester doesn’t ignore this in her praise of McDaniel and even underlines the devastating aspects of the actress’ life, which include suicide attempts and depression. It’s also worth mentioning that regardless of her active representation of black women on-screen—granted, in servile roles—she was repudiated by her community and mainstream black media.
Fast-forward to the year 2000. The new millennium brought us the Y2K bug, frosted lip gloss, and low-rise jeans. But for black women with healthy appetites for television, the most meaningful gift was the premiere of Girlfriends: an American sitcom that followed the lives of four very different young black women living in Los Angeles. The series had an eight-year run and black viewers aggressively sought it out because it provided an accessible alternative to shows like Sex and the City, notorious for leaving black folks out of the narrative save for the fetishization of them (read: the season six arc where Miranda dates her black neighbor, Blair Underwood). That, and it was also just a damn good series that any audience could enjoy. Its IMDB page boasts an impressive list of accolades to prove it.
Girlfriends also sky-rocketed the career of the ever-exuberant, Tracee Ellis Ross. We had the honor of watching Ross get ready every week during the early aughts and we’re allowed the same access even today, as we try to keep up with Rainbow “Bow” Johnson’s chic hairstyles on the ABC hit show black-ish. Tracee Ellis Ross has always had a strong command of her hair. Even in the instances that don’t grant us permission to her morning or nightly routines, it is clear that her hair is never an afterthought. Aside from her stellar comedic timing and vivacious personality, her hair has always been her crowning glory. It doesn’t overshadow her and it isn’t her prized possession, but rather, it serves as a beacon of light for black women struggling to maintain their natural hair. It’s something to aspire to when the going gets tough with all of the expensive leave-in conditioner, time-consuming protective styles, and homemade hair masks.
In 2014, Ross spoke to Entertainment Weekly about the natural hair boom in network television and her relationship to it. She said:
I think it’s huge that I’m wearing my natural hair texture on ABC in primetime. As Dr. Rainbow Johnson on black-ish, I think my hair is part of the reality of this woman’s life. She has four children and is an anesthesiologist and a wife. She doesn’t have a lot of time to fuss with beauty, so her look is pretty simple. I’m very conscious of how I wear my hair on the show, and yet it’s the way I wear my hair as Tracee. You hire me, you hire my hair, and you hire my ass. It’s all coming with me.
Much like Hattie McDaniel brought black actors out of marginalized roles with little to no speaking parts, Tracee Ellis Ross has managed to bring natural-haired black women to the forefront. And with them, their routines.
However, it isn’t just natural-haired black women breaking barriers on-screen. Cue the BET series Being Mary Jane created by Mara Brock Akil, the same woman who helped bring Girlfriends to your television set. The show follows the public and private life of Mary Jane Paul (Gabrielle Union), who’s a successful television news anchor based in Atlanta. Mary Jane struggles to strike a balance between her demanding career, nagging family, and the near-impossible task of finding the perfect guy. Being Mary Jane is unique in that it spends an unprecedented amount of time showcasing Mary Jane’s routine. The majority of episodes begin with Mary Jane getting ready to start her day and end with her preparing for bed.
Each morning, we watch Mary Jane begin with her daily affirmations in the form of reading the quotes she’s pre-written on the post-it notes that litter her headboard, generously-sized picture window, and bathroom mirror. We watch her traipse around her immaculate home, take a luxurious shower, remove her bonnet, and apply her makeup as she readies herself t for another exhausting day of work at Satellite News Channel. And the same goes for her nighttime routine. The series puts Mary Jane on display as she wipes the day off, takes her IVF injection, ties her hair up, and slips into bed to answer emails.
In an especially memorable episode, Mary Jane is in crisis mode when her hair stylist cancels her appointment without notice—a frightening phone call that, more often than not, every black woman has been faced with. By the time Mary Jane learns her stylist has flaked, she has already removed her sew-in, revealing Gabrielle Union’s real hair. While she has a healthy, gorgeous head of hair, Mary Jane is petrified at the prospect of going to work the next day to do a live news segment sans weave. So in a last-ditch effort, she calls her niece over that very night to reinstall her old weave. While Mary Jane relaxes with a glass of wine as her niece, Niecey tends to her hair, she confides in her:
You know why I begged you to come over here? Because your perfect aunt was terrified of going to work without her weave. Terrified that no one would think I was beautiful. That people would think I was average and I’d be invisible. So maybe that pedestal you put me on is a little too high. I’m human (Season 2, Episode 7: Let’s Go Crazy).
This intimate look at a situation black women deal with all the time is refreshing to see on TV. The black women in the audience can relate to it and everyone else is given the opportunity to gain a better understanding of black haircare. Moreover, this is a chance for non-black viewers to start to comprehend the pain black women feel as they attempt to reconcile their beauty with what the rest of society considers ideal or beautiful.
In the last several years, the most accessible place for black women to catch glimpses of each other’s beauty rituals aside from being in the same room has been YouTube. We all know by now that YouTube served as a launching pad for an outstanding number of creators including black folks like Issa Rae (formerly of Awkward Black Girl fame and currently the creator and star of the HBO hit Insecure) and Donald Glover (who started out on Youtube doing derrickcomedy and is now the creator/star of the previously mentioned FX hit Atlanta) who’ve moved on to full-fledged careers in television. YouTube is also home to a slew of vloggers who’ve found a way to monetize their passion for the billion-dollar industry that is beauty.
Black women religiously flock to the pages of vloggers like ItsMyRayeRaye and Patricia Bright who’ve long since passed the millionth subscriber mark. They’re just two of the countless beauty enthusiasts out there who’ve made careers out of the beloved Get Ready With Me (GRWM) video. Whether it’s a tutorial on getting your edges laid or simply a woman trying out her new eye shadow palette in front of the camera, GRWM videos have fast become a practical and emotional tool. They provide insight on navigating an industry that often ignores melanin and kinky hair. They also just serve as an oasis that allows black women to see themselves reflected in something other than a mirror.
The GRWM video is certainly not exclusive to YouTube’s black community, but it is an invaluable asset to black viewers who rely on it to provide them with beauty information that isn’t readily available. These videos review products while keeping the black consumer’s best interest in mind; which is rather revolutionary because despite the black consumer’s buying power being worth well over one trillion dollars, the black buyer is arguably the most neglected. And these videos come in all shapes and sizes. Some GRWM vloggers are talkative and will regale you in a hilarious “what had happened was…” type of story while revealing the secrets of a good contour. Others are less chatty and offer a more soothing option with soft, serene music to achieve that easy-like-sunday-morning aesthetic. Some are more lifestyle driven and are perfect for the black woman who just wants to live vicariously through an “It” girl who actually looks like her. A black woman having the ability to open her laptop and watch another black woman have brunch or decorate her apartment is a simple joy, but it isn’t taken for granted because we all know these are infrequent happenings.
With new shows like Atlanta, Being Mary Jane, Insecure, Queen Sugar, and the like, it’s easy for the black woman to feel as though she’s been presented with an embarrassment of riches. For once, she doesn’t have to watch a show just because it boasts black cast members. She finally has a few options and most of them are available during the coveted primetime slots. But in the grand scheme of things, mainstream media still has a ways to go when it comes to the visibility of black women. For so long, black girls have clutched classic films like Waiting to Exhale or Poetic Justice close to their hearts and continue to re-watch them for just another glance at Janet Jackson’s iconic box braids or to fall under one more wistful spell as Angela Bassett sits in front of her vanity.
The archives of the black woman on-screen-and-doing-her-thing are no doubt gaining new files, but these moments are still limited and meant to be savored. Before a black girl wearing a bonnet on-screen is no longer a needle in a blonde haystack, it is perfectly within every black woman’s rights to press rewind and watch the hell out of these scenes. Afterall, they’re what keep her buoyant in a world that makes drowning easy. Until they’re no longer an exciting rare occurrence worth writing about, scenes of the black woman getting ready will always be of the utmost importance.
Neyat Yohannes works as a freelance writer and a regular contributor to Okayafrica, Hello Giggles, The Coalition Zine, and Blavity.