Recently, during a debilitating illness and after reading three novels and catching up on all my past New Yorkers, Elles, Allures, and Harper’s, I needed something to binge watch. I was hesitant to start something new as I realized that shortly my favorite shows would be back on the air and I had just finished the summer’s programs I am hooked on. How much television one can watch is surely the existential question of this decade. But I had to watch something. I was simply too sick to leave the couch. So I chose How To Get Away With Murder.
With one episode I was hooked. Not necessarily by the initially clever plot which I sensed might go off the rails quite soon (I was right and I mourned the simple elegance of Annalise and her kids working a new and sordid case each week and instead embroiled in one tawdry murder and then another, all of their own making), but by the amazing Viola Davis. Within seconds she had me entranced. I was in love.
There was a small moment when Viola’s Annalise almost lost me, though. The first time she wept I was incredulous. I wanted her to be as tough and endlessly ruthless as Glenn Close’s Patty Hewes onDamages. I couldn’t believe Annalise actually gave a damn about that cad of a husband! How could a woman like her weep for a man like him?
And then came the episode where Viola Davis slowly and methodically removed her make-up and wig. She stripped herself of her false eyelashes. Within minutes she casually jettisoned all artifice. She brutally wiped her face. She went to bed. Like us. Like a normal person. She simply unmade herself and went to bed.
But really, she presented herself naked, truly naked, absolutely naked. Stark naked. On national television. She gave us full frontal nudity of the most shocking kind. More than any unclothed body. And her bare face and head stayed with me for days. I couldn’t stop thinking about the strength and vulnerability of the transformation and how it had absolutely nothing to do with Annalise and everything to do with Viola Davis.
It was a statement. A radical, gorgeous and brave statement. And she owned it. And since that episode she has easily and just as casually repeated herself, climbing into bed with her errant husband, confronting her assistant in the kitchen, weeping in her mother’s arms and kissing her lover goodbye on the front stoop: her hair wrapped in a plain scarf or just bare, her face its own shining color and texture, her eyes without their glamour.
When have you seen that? When have you seen a woman on television or in the movies go to bed and wake up looking like you? They don’t. The lie on the pristine pillow in full makeup, their hair artfully arranged and their bodies smooth and hairless. They may be naked, really naked, but they are not nearly as naked as Viola Davis.
I was so moved by this honesty and bravery that I began to Google Davis. I found that she suffered from alopecia and had worn wigs for years until recently when she began to attend social functions and awards ceremonies in her natural hair. Frankly I hadn’t noticed. She just looked lovely. But Davis needed to do more. And make no mistake: it IS Viola Davis you see, not Annalise Keating. It is a decision by the actress to bare her self; to show all her vulnerabilities, emotional and physical. It isn’t the character making the statement. It is Davis making the statement for her character.
In an article by Amy Wallace in the New York Times Magazine last year, she wrote, “Annalise Keating may be the most stereotypically beautiful woman Davis has been tapped to play, but soon after accepting the role, she began lobbying to highlight the character’s vulnerabilities.”
“She’s pushed me on this,” said Peter Nowalk, the series creator. “She’s big on the fact that we all wear masks in public, depending on what’s necessary. She wanted to show Annalise in private moments, when no one else was around. Davis told me that she wanted Keating “to be messy,” multifaceted and complicated. “Vanity destroys your work,” she said. “That’s the one thing you have to let go of as an actor. I don’t care how sexy or beautiful any woman is. At the end of the day, she has to take her makeup off. At the end of the day, she’s more than just pretty.”’
And in Vulture in May, Davis is quoted as saying: “One of the reasons I stopped watching TV was that I didn’t see myself on TV. I’m not just saying as a woman of color or a woman of 49, but just as a person. I see a lot of sexy women who are hard, cold, look like they have windswept hair and lip gloss and light makeup when they say it’s no makeup. I work out five days a week, and I’m still not a size 2. So I wanted to see a real woman on TV. I wanted to see who we are before we walk out the door in the morning and put on the mask of acceptability — ‘Please see me as pretty, please love me.’ There was something for me that I didn’t buy about Annalise in private. It felt like who she was in private had to be diametrically opposed to who she was in public. And so in order to do that, I felt like I had to physically take the wig off.”
There is that famous, viral video of the young woman who shows photos of herself with and without makeup, rather shocking photos, which elicited all manner of ugly and horrific remarks. There are the countless “makeover” and contouring videos which appear daily in which “real” women transform themselves into someone else with the aid of makeup, lashes, hair and clothes. This is nothing new. What is new is that people like Davis are finally making us confront both our reasons for physical transformation and our fear of what it means. Who do we want to be and why? We can give lip service to the very true idea that our beauty comes from within but I do not know a woman, one who wears makeup or does not, who doesn’t suffer a frisson of worry every time she looks in the mirror.
When I was 13, I snuck mascara into my purse and put in on in the school bathroom. When I was 15, I tried to cover my imperfect skin with pancake makeup and elaborate eyeshadow. When I went to college in the early 70s I gave up makeup all together, just like all the other girls at my school. But then I went to work. And every day for the next dozen years I got up and put on some kind of face. My makeup was never terribly elaborate but I felt better with it on.
As I have aged there are days and days when I don’t wear makeup at all. I tell myself I am getting ready for my “old” face, the one which is creeping up on me. But I know full well that I really think I look better with something on: mascara, a little power, blush, a neutral lipstick. It is my armor against having to reveal everything at once. When I take it off I can see the difference, just like those girls in the videos, just like Annalise Keating. But that’s the real transformation: not the makeup itself but the acknowledgment of our selves without it.
I don’t care what Viola Davis does or doesn’t wear when she dresses up and goes out. What I do care about and admire so is her willingness to show the world that what we see isn’t always what we get and that what lies underneath can be as gorgeous as anything we layer on top. If we are strong enough to show it.
(This post originally appeared in The Broad Side)