Viola Davis, The 2015 Emmys & Why Pop Culture Matters
When Viola Davis was announced as the winner of the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (the first Black woman to do so) a few days ago, I screamed so loud that I startled my husband (and probably my neighbors too). Her win matters to me for so many reasons.
For starters, it is rare that I see an approximation of myself on TV. In her Emmy winning role as Annalise Keating in Shonda Rhime’s How To Get Away With Murder, Viola Davis brought black as dark and hips as full as mine to prime time. When she removed a full face of makeup and her wig in one of the first episodes of the show- I was completely undone. In a culture where women go to bed and wake up with their ‘make up done and hair did’- she was unveiling the messy real, and causing us to see: this is beautiful too. And then, for her character to be powerful, intelligent, sexy, complicated and the lead role- it is everything.
Moreover, after years of being typecast in downtrodden roles-despite a Julliard education and years of acting experience- I wanted to see Viola Davis recognized for work that reflects the level of her skill. Truth be told, I really wanted to hear her give an acceptance speech as well. Viola Davis always speaks with such conviction, eloquence, and depth- she’s that wise Aunt in my head. Her acceptance speech did not disappoint. After quoting Harriet Tubman, she noted in her most famous line of the night: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” I went to bed as soon as her speech was over. She had come, I had seen, and we had conquered.
Alas, my logging off twitter before the Emmys were over meant missing the drama that was Nancy Lee Granh’s tweets. In case you missed it: the General Hospital actress took to Twitter after Viola’s speech to note that she was not here for it, as the Emmy’s are not the place “for racial opportunity,” and Viola Davis “has never been discriminated against.” As can be expected, she got a pretty good twitter beating- and attempted to retract and apologize. I found all of Nancy Lee Granh’s tweets on this matter upsetting, but I’ll write about one:
How mistaken she is. In this day and age- actors are relevant a great deal. What Nancy Lee Granh failed to realize is this: there are many women of color who will never learn about the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women or the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals. But chances are, these women will know about Annalise Keating, or Olivia Pope, or Mary Jane. It matters for these women to see a woman that looks like them break a glass ceiling. No, an award will not fix racial injustice- but it does provide a picture of potential for many who see race as an insurmountable barrier. Viola Davis’ speech highlighted the lack of opportunity women of color face, and her win highlighted possibility.
It almost goes without saying that in this day and age, policy/politics and pop culture feed off each other. Would UN Women’s #HeForShe campaign have been as successful without actress Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame? Probably not. There’s a reason many pundits have credited SNL’s Tina Fey with sinking Sarah Palin. There’s a reason Barack and Michelle Obama hang with Jay-Z and Beyonce. Pop culture matters- perhaps more in this internet age than ever before.