How many prime time TV series in the US in the past decade or so have starred a woman of color in the leading role? As far as I can tell, very few… But ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder does. The pilot episode kept me hooked and in addition to the twisted plot it was refreshing to not watch yet another white, straight, male character take care of all the action.
A New York Times writer was also intrigued. In fact, she was so intrigued that she wrote a column praising the selection of Viola Davis for the main role, considering that, in her eyes, Davis is “older, darker-skinned, and less classically beautiful” than other leading actresses. Not so subtle, really. As Davis said in response to that, “classically not beautiful is a fancy term of saying ‘ugly’ and denouncing you, erasing you”. Calling Davis less classically beautiful was an ice-cold way of suggesting she is less-than. Not really belonging on prime time TV. But Davis isn’t stepping to the side for anyone.
The fact that this whole dialogue is happening in the media, made me think of the series of emails I have received from my aunt in Iceland with links to biographies from the Brown Girl Collective. The biographies have centered on African American women who made history and all have had another thing in common – that I had no idea they existed. They were educators, activists, writers, doctors, and pioneers in a society that would not make room for their ideas and fully acknowledge their contributions. A society that would rather keep them on mute.
Our version of history will never be accurate unless we include herstory. And women’s history cannot revolve only around white women in the U.S. and Europe. Although the countless white women who faught for much needed rights deserve all the attention white male leaders, inventors, and pioneers have got, women of color have a claim to no less space in our minds.
In the same way, our representation of the world will be massively skewed and oppressive if the media spotlight only shines on white men and women.
Growing up with the misconception that “people like me” have never accomplished much on their own, resisted successfully, turned brilliant ideas into practice, and stood out from the crowd, is a recipe for discouragement. Discouraged people can be kept down. History and media have an equal potential to be dangerous tools of oppression and powerful catalysts for social justice.