By Mariam Bagadion
I want to talk about Viola Davis. In the span of two weeks, she made two great strides: being the first African American woman to win an Emmy for a leading role and (SPOILER ALERT) promoting the visibility of the bisexual community through that exact award winning role as Annalise Keating, the powerhouse lawyer/professor of How to Get Away with Murder.
Davis’s win sparked an age old conversation, one that Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o did back in 2014: black women can win awards just as easily as their white counterparts, as long as they are given a chance. Davis was one of two women of color nominated for Leading Actress in a Drama and one of three (that’s right, one whole person more) women of color nominated for a leading role in anything, be it Drama, Comedy, Limited Series, you name it. So why is this a big deal? Why are these trailblazers so important?
It all comes down to one word: representation.
Let’s turn back the clock to 2009. For my fourteenth birthday, I went to see The Princess and the Frog in theaters. Unsurprisingly, the theater was filled with young African American girls excited to see a princess who looked like them. A lot more recently, Barbie released a limited edition doll based on the Disney actress/singer Zendaya. The doll is the first to have dreadlocks, which Zendaya herself was criticized for having worn at the 2015 Oscars. Both Tiana and Zendaya are models these young girls never had before. Until Tiana and the Zendaya Barbie doll, their perception of being beautiful or having a happy ending came in the form of Cinderella, Rapunzel, or the generic blonde Barbie in her pink mansion and pink convertible. In the same way, Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o alter the perception of success that young African American girls may be used to seeing. They see that winning is not reserved only for the Meryl Streeps or Jessica Langes of the world, but could also be theirs.
“Representation alters the perception of success that African American girls see.” Tweet this Quote!
Lupita Nyong’o finished her acceptance speech in 2014 with this glimmer of hope: “No matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.” But there are still barriers. Viola Davis addressed this very strongly in her acceptance speech, stating that, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” Yes, there is a long way to go, but women like Viola Davis are slowly breaking down the walls. Less than a week later, Davis continued to her important work of representing those who aren’t often heard. There are definitely some spoilers ahead for season two of How to Get Away with Murder so proceed with caution.
In the season premiere, Davis’s character, Annalise Keating, hires a lawyer to help the man she framed for her husband’s murder (I know, it’s confusing, but try to keep up). Annalise and the new lawyer, Eve, establish their friendship as schoolmates in Harvard Law, but as it always is in this show, there was something they weren’t sharing with their viewers. Near the episode’s end, Annalise apologizes to Eve for hurting her to which Eve responds that she wasn’t upset that Annalise left her for her husband. Two minutes later Annalise kisses Eve, cementing Annalise’s bisexuality. This is amazing for two main reasons: one, because bisexual characters rarely appear in popular media, and if they do, their identity as bisexual is erased in favor of a gay/straight label (i.e. Piper Chapman in Orange is the New Black who is constantly referred to as a lesbian despite being in a straight relationship before being sent to jail). The second reason is Annalise’s entire character. Since season one, Davis has portrayed a merciless, powerful, smart woman of color. Now Annalise has been proven to be a merciless, powerful, smart, bisexual, woman of color. Davis has given recognition and validation to two marginalized groups, a feat not many actors or actresses can attest to. I can’t wait to see what other barriers she and Annalise knock down in the upcoming years.
Mariam is a first year student at St. Cloud State. She is studying English with a concentration in creative writing. She is also minoring in Film Studies, with the goal of being a screenwriter after graduation. In the meantime, she writes short pieces of fiction and enjoys reading books.
Photo courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/viola.davis/