In the narrative surrounding the Emmys on Sunday, Kerry Washington was cast as a modern-day Diahann Carroll. But all the talk about the history of African American women in television, sparked a question in my mind: Who is the modern equivalent of Cicely Tyson, the dark brown-skinned, naturally coiffed sister who earned nine Primetime Emmy nominations and three wins? Is there room for such a woman–a black woman whose appearance defiantly contradicts the prevailing beauty standard?
My apologies to fans of Ryan Reynolds and Ryan Gosling, but I swear I can’t tell those two actors apart. Andrea can attest that I refer to them as “the random Ryans.” To me, the pair are illustrative of a modern bland and homogenous entertainment beauty aesthetic.
When I was a little girl the 70s, Hollywood favored gritty realism. Studios intentionally cast actors as disparate in their physicality as Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino and Robert Redford; Barbra Streisand and Ali McGraw and Tyson. No one blinked at a show like All in the Family, starring two middle-aged leads, or its spin-off, The Jeffersons, whose female lead, Isabel Sanford, was more than two decades older than her TV partner, Sherman Hemsley.
But the age when actors like Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason could serve as headliners in films seems to be long gone, replaced by a narrower expectation of appearance–all hairless, bronzed and white-toothed. A Tom Cruise versus a Kris Kristofferson. If female, lithe and blonde and young–always the appearance of young, even for women who truly are in middle-age. Can you imagine a modern actress of any age volunteering to play aging and washed-up, as 42-year-old Bette Davis did in All About Eve? And if the way into the Hollywood spotlight has diminished, you can be damned sure that women of color will be left out in the cold.
If hyper-mainstream prettiness is paramount when casting, then where does that leave Black, Latina, Asian and Native women, who still struggle to recognized as attractive within the confines of the eurocentric beauty standards? Kerry Washington is beautiful and talented, but what of beautiful and talented black and brown women whose appearances don’t fit so neatly into the ideal–who aren’t young and petite and honey brown with long, silky hair. Would America still be shipping “Olitz” if Washington possessed a different look? If she were browner or nappier or closer in age to Tony Goldwyn, who is 53? (Some particularly odious Scandal fans and Olitz ‘shippers already shade Goldwyn’s real-life wife, Jane Musky, an accomplished production designer and art director, for looking her nearly 60 years. The logic goes that such a handsome man could never be truly in love with an older woman–even one who has stood by his side for 26 years. He must certainly be nursing a “thing” for the younger, more conventionally pretty, Kerry Washington.)
Viola Davis said last year: “I’m a 46-year-old black woman who really doesn’t look like Halle Berry, and Halle Berry is having a hard time.” When I look at the actresses who are cast and feted as up-and-comers, I don’t see many Marsha Masons, but I see even fewer Violas or Cicely Tysons or Esther Rolles or Isabel Sanfords.
The same can be said, incidentally, of a different sort of artistry–fashion. Forty years after American models of color turned out Paris, as part of a 1973 benefit to restore Versailles, one of those models, Bethann Hardison, has to lead a charge against designers who only want their supermodels super white.
Had Kerry Washington snagged an Emmy on Sunday night, she would have been the first African American woman to take home an award for lead actress in a drama–and for a role that positions her as one-half of an interracial couple, including the POTUS, no less. I suppose this is progress. But I can’t help thinking that in 2013, despite gains, Hollywood is an even more hostile place for women of tremendous talent, who would have once been celebrated.