At last night’s Screen Actors Guild Awards, Viola Davis won Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series.
While the Academy continues to fail at recognizing the work of actors of color — and while movies mostly fail to give those actors Oscar-nabbing opportunities outside of the slave, maid, famous historical figure trifecta — the awards for TV, and the landscape of television more broadly, is picking up the slack. Last night also saw a victory for Uzo Aduba of Orange is the New Black, which meant the top two awards for female performers on TV went to women of color; Orange is the New Black also won Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series.
In her speech, Davis described how, when she tells her daughter bedtime stories, the four-year-old always requests, “Mommy, can you put me in the story?” Davis went on to thank the people “from the top up” for putting her in the story: “for thinking that a sexualized, messy, mysterious woman could be a 49-year-old, dark-skinned African-American woman who looks like me.”
Let’s set aside, for a moment, the question of whether or not How To Get Away With Murder is a good show (…it’s not, really) or whether or not Davis is particularly excellent in it (Davis is to HTGAWM what Connie Britton is to Nashville: an A-list talent drowning in the suds of a subpar soap), or whether there are worthier shows and actresses who could have taken home this trophy in her place (who does a writer have to honey trap around here to get some love for Keri Russell of The Americans?). Davis’s win is still noteworthy in an industry that regularly overlooks the contributions of people like Davis: women over 40 and women of color.
The speech is worth watching not just for what Davis said but how she said it: so emphatically, with the just-right balance of assertiveness and humility. Davis wore her natural hair, as she did at the Oscars in 2012 and has at several high-profile events. She’s said that her husband encouraged her to go without her wig: “He said, ‘If you want to wear it for your career, that’s fine, but in your life wear your hair. Step into who you are!’ It’s a powerful statement.”
The styling choice echoed one of the most talked-about scenes from HTGAWM, in which her character, Annalise Keating, — who wears wigs in her public life — removes all her makeup and takes off her wig at the end of the day. On The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Davis talked about her thinking behind the scene. “I was so adamant about it. I said, ‘Listen, she can’t go to bed with a wig on. She cannot be in her bedroom with a wig on, because women do not go to bed with their wigs on. A whole portion of women out there are marginalized, I want to be a real woman. Let’s go for it. I’m a character actress.”
Davis has spoken publicly about her struggles with alopecia areata before; at age 28, she lost half of her hair. After that, she told Vulture, she wore a wig everywhere: “I wore a wig in the Jacuzzi. I had a wig I wore around the house. I had a wig that I wore to events. I had a wig that I wore when I worked out. I never showed my natural hair. It was a crutch, not an enhancement … I was so desperate for people to think that I was beautiful. I had to be liberated from that [feeling] to a certain extent.” Though she still wears wigs on HTGAWM, at photo shoots, or when she doesn’t have the time or energy to style her natural hair, she does not wear a wig every single day, every single second, anymore. “It used to never be an option,” she said. “I had something to hide.”
As Buzzfeed points out, only three women of color have ever won the SAG Award for Outstanding Performance Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series: Davis, Chandra Wilson (in 2007 for Grey’s Anatomy), and Sandra Oh (in 2006, also for Grey’s Anatomy). The one thing they all have in common: starring on shows produced by Shonda Rhimes’s ShondaLand.