Why Black Hair On The Small Screen Represents More Than Just Character Identity
Among many factors — from inner strength to being innate nurturers — the beauty of Black women lies within our versatility. This is most visible with our hair, which can range from tightly coiled Afros to cascading deep wave inches. The autonomy that peeks underneath every strand plays an essential role in not only our identity, but Black hair representation. For decades, Black women have been forced to assimilate to a Western ideal of what beauty should look like. But in this millennial era, the community is boldly creating its own beauty standards.
This movement has been reflected on our television screens, as popular sitcoms use everyday women as inspiration to fuel conversations of cultural diversity, empowerment, and frustrations with society’s standards. “Our experience as Black women and Black men is so tied to our hair because of its connection to how we pass down traditions from family to family,” curator Ella Turenne, a University of California, Irvine Ph.D. student in visual studies (whose Love, Locs & Liberation play in 2018 detailed her relationship with hair and identity), tells TZR. “But we have experienced oppression based on our hair type, which is, unfortunately, another thing that bonds us together. The way people treat us because of our hair has caused this pain.”
The joy of feeling carefree with one’s hair, along with the struggles that come with being accepted for it, have often served as plot devices for classic TV shows like Living Single to modern hits like HBO’s Insecure. Thanks to ‘90s and ‘00s favorites like Moesha, Girlfriends, The Parkers, The Game, and Sister, Sister currently holding residence on Netflix, the topic of Black hair has been more prominent than ever. And the numbers don't lie: Insecure's Season 2 premiere in 2017 scored its biggest-ever same-day rating with 1.1 million viewers, and two days following its Aug. 1 premiere, Moesha became Netflix's fourth most-popular series.
But it wasn’t always that way. At the time, braids were a negative foil to pin-straight, relaxed hair. They were used to represent a rowdy “hood” character (like Queen Latifah’s character in 1996’s Set It Off) or a gang member headed to jail. Popular sitcoms catered to a white audience, which meant the characters were presented as more palatable (as seen with Hilary Banks’ primped styles on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). The more put-together or straighter the hair, the more digestible the character was for mainstream viewing.
“A lot of our hairstyles in modern history are based on stereotypes that we have been indoctrinated into,” Turenne says. “Because whiteness was the standard in beauty, this is what we were also forced to adopt in order to assimilate into society and to be ‘presentable.’ For a very long time, natural hairstyles were frowned upon unless you were portraying anything that had to do with slavery or any other kind of domestic work.”
For impressionable Black women viewers watching these sitcoms, it makes an impact on how they see themselves. “In the TV and film landscape, there’s a lot of respectability politics in terms of how visual culture is understood in Hollywood and what audiences understand as acceptable,” Brandy Monk-Payton, assistant professor in communication and media studies at Fordham University, tells me. “That definitely filters down to what images of Black hair we can get to see on-screen too.”
The sitcoms of the ‘90s and '00s (mainly on networks like FOX and UPN) were specifically crafted not for a white audience, but for Black viewers who could relate to the cultural nuances.
The titular character of Moesha, which premiered on UPN in 1996, was played by Brandy and embodied a carefree spirit. Rather than being associated with “ghetto” stereotypes, Moesha’s box braids were representative of the average Black American teenager. This idea of normalcy continued on sitcoms like Girlfriends. Premiering on UPN in 2000, the four main characters reflected Black hair’s versatility: Tracee Ellis Ross' Joan character freely sported her natural coils, Toni took ownership of wearing weaves, Maya played around with various colors, and Lynn didn’t fuss with taming her curly hair for corporate America.
The characters’ hair was seamlessly integrated into their varying personalities, as well as the storyline. “There was an episode where Toni has a white lover [Season 1’s “Everything Fishy Ain't Fish”],” Monk-Payton recalls. “At one point she says, ‘Get out of my kitchen!’ and he doesn't understand what that is. It's a cultural specificity that resonates with Black audience members and that is supposed to be a source of humor. But the joke is on the white lover.”
Early sitcoms gave their characters the freedom to experiment. As Turenne puts it, it was a luxury previously reserved for white actors at the time. “They are able to change their hair in lots of different ways without encountering any backlash,” she says. “But once Black women do anything like that, it seems as though it's something that's radical and everyone takes notice. That goes back to what is socially acceptable: what has been deemed the way our hair should be rather than the way we want it to be.”
While the range of Black hair continued to grow on television, the white standard still remained in the background — namely on ABC’s Scandal. The Emmy award-winning series, helmed by Shonda Rhimes in 2012, starred Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope. She used her power to fix multiple crises in the White House. Yet, as seen with her affair with the show’s white president, her identity remained tokenized. Pope consistently wearing her hair straight, going to bed without a head scarf or wrapping her hair, and waking up completely frizz-free was unrealistic. How To Get Away With Murder (a Rhimes production that premiered in 2014) did the opposite.
Annalise Keating (played by Viola Davis) wore straight wigs to “properly” represent herself as a respected lawyer. But as the series went on, she tossed white idealism aside and began letting her hair down — literally. “When she took off her wig, it was a really iconic moment that showcased vulnerability and strength,” Monk-Payton states. “I think that's also a counterpoint to Scandal where hair has been utilized in a really explicit way that was empowering.” Keating’s acceptance of her natural coils also arrived at the early stages of the natural hair movement that, thanks to social media and YouTube, showed more Black women relearning how to care for their hair.
This newfound acceptance was reflected in the latter half of the 2010s, with Insecure, Black-Ish, Orange Is The New Black, Dear White People and — most recently — I May Destroy You. As with Moesha’s box braids, natural hair is now normalized. It mirrors reality, where Black women are now less likely to be fired because of their natural hair at the workplace. In 2019, New York City’s Commission on Human Rights created guidelines that supported those who were previously harassed due to their choice of hairstyle. According to the New York Times, residents now have the legal right to maintain “natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such as locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.” That July, California became the first state to ban hair discrimination.
Insecure, coincidentally based in Los Angeles, has been praised for not only having a predominantly Black cast, but also having characters who played around with their natural hair. It’s thanks to Felicia Leatherwood, Issa Rae’s longtime hairstylist who has been working on the series since its 2016 premiere. “I love type 4 hair. The tighter the coil, the more fun I have with the hair,” she tells The Zoe Report. “I know that there are a lot of women out there who have this texture and they don't know what to do with it. So it's my opportunity to basically represent the natural hair community.”
But because natural hair can be unpredictable, maintaining continuity on screen is also essential. “If we're shooting by the beach, the mist in the air is going to demolish your hair and it starts to shrink. It could be two people having a conversation that could have taken two days or eight hours [to shoot],” Leatherwood explains. “In that time the hair would have shifted a few times. So it's our job to watch the monitor to make sure that if the hair is on the left, it stays on the left.”
As much as Insecure displays authenticity, I May Destroy You presents the extremes. Created by British actress Michaela Coel, the series follows Arabella Essiedu as she navigates the trauma and healing process after being raped. Her hair is a character within itself, reflecting every state of Arabella’s journey: the electric purple wig is tied to her fantastical lifestyle in Italy; the disheveled pink wig, which is blatantly meant to look fake, is central to the traumatic incident; the Naomi Campbell-straight black wig represents the protagonist trying to find herself; the shaved head at the hair salon is a moment of redemption; and the ice-blonde bowl cut is utilized as part of a revenge plot in the final scenes.
Bethany Swan, the show’s hairstylist, brought Coel’s visions to the screen. “It's all about experimentation and that's how wigs and hair can be amazing. It's an extension of our personalities,” she tells TZR. “People with pink hair [are typically] outgoing. From her social media presence, Arabella is confident and people look up to her. But after we see the trauma she goes through, [the hair becomes] more of a faded pink. It's got roots and is a little bit lived in. We start to associate that kind of hair with what she's going through.”
She continues: “For the scene where she was at the hairdresser, I wanted to make sure there [the viewers knew she was wearing a wig]. So we see her take it off [to reveal] braids underneath before her head is shaved. Usually, shaved heads can be quite cathartic in that it’s removing emotions. With this, it felt much more like a catalyst, where she's suddenly this explosive woman who's ready to take down [her abuser].”
When discussing the progression of Black representation on screen, looking behind the camera is essential. Black hairstylists like Leatherwood, who understand how Black hair works, and white stylists like Swan who make it a priority to learn about various textures, are just as important in crafting what we see in these characters. “I cannot stand the idea of someone sitting in my chair and me feeling uncomfortable because they may think, ‘She doesn't know what to do,’” says Swan. “I can’t do my job without knowing about every hair texture and every skin tone. So you have to make sure people [on set] have all the knowledge that it takes to make [the actors] look how they need to. If you're a Black actress with anything from 3A to 4C hair, you need to be able to walk into a room and see products that work for your hair. ”
Hollywood has long had issues with lack of diversity, with Black actors having to bring their own products on set or struggle to find someone on set who knows how to properly manage their hair. Sometimes it goes as far as contracts, with First Wives Club star Ryan Michelle Bathé revealing that a job between 2004 and 2005 had a clause that stated production was “not responsible financially or otherwise for your hair, and performers must come to set with it done.” Last November, Gabrielle Union was fired from America’s Got Talent following multiple claims that her various hairstyles were “too Black” for the competition show. Now, there is a Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild that makes sure those hired by production companies aren’t discriminated against in the workplace.
While Hollywood is not exactly at a place where diversity is balanced, steps are being taken. “Part of humanizing Black people is about physical appearance. Taking care of them on-screen also requires taking care of them off-screen,” Monk-Payton says. “It's been really fascinating to see the ways in which television is trying to account for the political climate with Black Lives Matter. I'm interested to see how guidelines will be altered for the future. In the past year, we've gotten shows like I May Destroy You, Lovecraft Country, and Watchmen. But they’re all on HBO. I think that there is cultural specificity operating in a lot of these programs.”
But the industry has come a long way from when Leatherwood began. “When I first started with natural hair, people laughed a little bit. They were like, ‘You're only doing textured hair, that's it?’” she recalls. “It's not just about braiding hair, but nobody understood [at the time]. So I'm really glad that now when people think about natural hair, they think about texture. Our hair is honestly our DNA. It's like your own personal identity because no two heads are alike.”