A Fight for Visibility for All Shades of Blackn
Editor’s Note: This interview contains spoilers for Sunday’s episode of “Survivor’s Remorse.”
Chronicle News Services
“NEW YORK--Do you know what every dark-skin girl thinks when she sees only light-skin girls in magazines?” Missy Vaughn (Teyonah Parris) asked on “Survivor’s Remorse” on Sunday night. “They think their dark skin has made them invisible.”
“Survivor’s Remorse,” about a family learning to deal with life in the spotlight after one of its members, Cam Calloway (Jessie T. Usher), joins the N.B.A., has examined issues including homophobia and classism over the course of its three seasons on Starz. On Sunday, it took on another longstanding flash point among blacks that nevertheless is rarely addressed in TV drama: colorism and how it shapes prevailing commercial ideals of beauty, especially in regard to African-American women.
In the episode, Ms. Parris’s character, a media consultant, arrives at a photo shoot to find the model she hired has been replaced by one with a lighter complexion. Incensed, she cites a notorious historical tool of discrimination among blacks before firing the model.
“You’re telling me that in Atlanta, Ga., the black people capital of America, the modeling agencies couldn’t find one other model who came in on the dark side of the paper bag test?” she asked.
(In the “test,” once used in some black sororities, clubs and other groups, anyone with skin darker than a brown paper bag was denied entry.)
“The show is good for having conversations that are not often had on mainstream television,” Ms. Parris said. “It takes a sensitive subject, throws it up in the air and makes you really consider everyone’s stance.”
The actress, a Juilliard graduate known for playing Dawn Chambers in “Mad Men” and Lysistrata in Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq,” discussed the episode in a recent phone interview. These are excerpts from that conversation.
Missy’s fictional fight is seen within not only the black community but also Hollywood. Do you see changes in the depictions of black women in the industry?
Whether it’s by revelation or their hands have been forced, I do see a wider representation. Naturi [Naughton] on Starz, who is the wife of the main character [in “Power”]. Viola Davis is leading a network television show [“How to Get Away With Murder” on ABC]. Gabrielle Union [on “Being Mary Jane”]--all amazing shows. I do think the conversation is shifting, for the better, to be more inclusive. When one of us gets it--light, dark, whatever you are--we’re all winning. As black women, we’re miles behind our white counterparts in being offered the space to create and craft female characters in major blockbuster films.
Why is Missy so adamant that the light-skinned model be replaced by a darker-skinned woman?
At the end of the episode she says, “In any form of affirmative action, there’s a benefit to society that outweighs the collateral damage to certain individuals,” and that sums up her whole position. It’s “I have the opportunity to take a stance and put a woman who looks like me, who has not been considered by the media and television to be traditionally beautiful, in the forefront and change people’s minds about what is beautiful.” So I did that, and then I show up and not only is it not the woman I chose, but it’s a woman who represents everything I was trying to get away from.
When Missy tells the model the truth about why she fired her, is it personal vindication or business?
We take ourselves into everything we do. [For Missy], it’s business because I am making the decision. And it’s personal because my life has influenced who I am as a businessperson. Completely separating those things is very difficult, and I think we see that it in this moment.
Missy and her husband, Reggie, are at odds on how to handle the model casting, highlighting different views on fixing issues of representation.
Missy feels like it’s the smaller pieces that make up the whole. Every piece must be done to perfection. Reggie feels like “Oh, this isn’t exactly how we want it, and it’s O.K., because there are more pieces to come.” I think she feels like: “Whenever I have the chance to make a difference, I’m going to do it. It’s my responsibility this time. No one is going to say, ‘You perpetuated the very thing that made you feel uncomfortable or less than.’” Does that make her wrong? I don’t know.
A lot of people recognize you as Dawn from “Mad Men,” a woman who broke barriers.
Dawn made herself uncomfortable and made sacrifices so that Missy and young women of the next generation could be in a work force or job that doesn’t typically welcome women of color--and made it possible for us to be and thrive in those spaces.
Teyonah Parris says “Survivor’s Remorse” is “good for having conversations that are not often had on mainstream television.
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