When penning her review of the new ABC broadcast channel show “How to Get Away with Murder” New York Times columnist Alessandra Stanley described the show’s star and lead actress Viola Davis as “less classically beautiful.”
The critics of the characterizations went in hard. Even Davis herself stepped in the ring and commented in an interview on The Viewthis week.:
Being a dark-skinned black woman — you hear it from the time you get out of the womb. Classically not beautiful is a fancy term of saying ugly, and denouncing you, erasing you. Now it worked when I was younger; it no longer works for me now. Classically not beautiful is a fancy term of saying ugly, and denouncing you, erasing you. Now it worked when I was younger; it no longer works for me now. … Because really at the end of the day, you define you.
I know precisely what Stanley was saying. Traditionally, whenever directors and producers, including black ones, cast leading ladies in roles, they usually opt for ones that meet the European definition of beauty and have more European features: lighter skin, finer hair, straighter noses, etc.
Maybe, she should have said just that and left it alone.
But instead, she leaned on the established code.
“Classically beautiful” is just another term for Classically beautiful in Europe, but that would sound silly, and by this stage in our evolution as socially clashing beings, most of us knew too what she meant.
…because growing up the child of African immigrants in America, the standards of classical beauty was the opposite to the European model.
I always and only heard my mom and others lament positive attributes when talking about beautiful African women with dark-skin, like my friend Haja Jabbie, above. It seemed to me, growing up, like everyone wished they had smooth dark chocolate skin.
Girls with gaps in their teeth are iconically beautiful, I grew up learning. It was strange to hear people in American society talk of correcting a gap.
Equally, women with “ball” eyes like actress Alfre Woodard's were thought to have one of the most beautiful traits a woman could have.
Large bulging eyes are not necessarily similarly coveted in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
But c’est la vie. Global standards do not have to be the same world wide.
Not just in arts and film, we saw these oddball confining definitions last year, in the gymnastics world during the World Champtionship.
Perhaps in a jealous fit or out of immature teen frustration over a disappointing finish, 18-year old Italian gymnast Carlotte Ferlito spoke on US’s Simone Biles winning the overall competition in Belgium by insinuating that her race alone had to do with the win, not Biles’ performance.
Ferlito told the press after the event that she told her teammate that “next time we should also paint our skin black, so then we could win too.”
To defend Ferlito, the Italian gymnastics federation remarked that judges were attempting to change up the rules for people of color, remarking that the standards were changed to award “chances for colored people (known to be more powerful) and penalize the typical Eastern European elegance, which, when gymnastics was more artistic and less acrobatic, allowed Russia and Romania to dominate the field.”
Read: Artistic and Elegance are what European gymnasts are while powerful and acrobatic are attributes of “colored” people.
They weren’t completely off base if you listen critically to how television sports commentators describe Russian and Romanian gymnasts compared to Biles, Gabby Douglass and others. It’s precisely aligned to what what the Italian federation stated.
In Tennis, sports commentators often remark on how smart European players play while only talking of Serena Williams' strength, for example, overlooking that her brilliance in anticipating her opponents game, then making calculating and strategic moves to counter their weakness is what has made Williams the super champ she is today, not just her super muscular frame and brawn, alone.
Similar parallels can be seen in the Ballet world.
Ballerina Misty Copeland, the 2nd African American to win a coveted solo role at The American Ballet Company said stereotypes of African-American and Latino body types have “been one of the excuses … saying that African-Americans are too muscular or just aren’t lean enough,” adding “usually they say, ‘Oh, they have flat feet so they just don’t have the flexibility that it takes to create the line in a point shoe,’” she relayed in an NPR interview.
She added, “when people meet me in person, they’re usually surprised at how petite I am because there’s just [an] idea that because I’m black I just look a certain way.
Copeland noted ’how people would tell her she was “too busty” but when they’d meet her in person they’d remark, “You look like a ballerina, I don’t understand.”
Classy, elegant and beautiful don’t and shouldn’t be defined by one standard alone.
The world is too big a place for that. Too big, indeed.