Have Black Actresses In Their 40's Redefined What's Sexy? Viola and Taraji Weigh In!

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Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson The Hollywood Reporter

Less classically beautiful? Na-uh, hunny.


Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson are holding their own on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter, where they stand among television drama actresses Lizzy Caplan, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jessica Lange and Ruth Wilson.  To celebrate the cover, the six women sat down for a round table discussion where they spoke candidly about typecasting and stereotypes in Hollywood rooted in racism, agism, and of course, sexism.

Viola, who was recently labeled as being a non-classic beauty by the New York Times earlier this year, lead the topic by revealing that she was initially uneasy when she landed the role of Annalise Keating  on ABC's hit new series How to Get Away With Murder. Before she played the intelligent, money-making and lusty wife "Annalise," Viola said she'd never seen a leading woman, especially one called to be "sexy," who looked quite like her on the big screen:

There was absolutely no precedent for [the role]. I had never seen a 49-year old, dark-skinned woman who is not a size 2, be a sexualized role in TV or film. I’m a sexual woman, but nothing in my career has ever identified me as a sexualized woman. I was the prototype of the ‘mommified’ role.

Then all of a sudden, this part came, and fear would be an understatement. When I saw myself for the first time in the pilot episode, I was mortified. I saw the fake eyelashes and, "Are you kidding me? Who is going to believe this?"

She also added:

I was going to have to face a fact that people were going to look at me and say: 'I have no idea why they cast her in a role like this. She just doesn't fit. It should have been someone like Halle Berry. It's her voice, and she doesn't walk like a supermodel in those heels.' And people do say that, they do. But what I say to that is the women in my life who are sexualized are anywhere from a size zero to a size 24. They don't walk like supermodels in heels. They take their wig and makeup off at night.

Viola certainly has a point. Since receiving our "in," into Hollywood, Black women have been largely typecast not only based on being Black, but also based on the various shades and looks we comes in. In most of our favorite movies and TV shows, the love interest role has been reserved for stars who fall into a certain Hollywood standard of beauty.  Stars who were darker skinned and not as petite were often limited to playing faithful best friend or the infamous “momma” role. Perfect example of this, being Viola's famous portrayal of a 1960s maid in the movie The Help, which helped launch Viola into superstardom, despite the fact that two years prior, she played the 'Mayor' of the city of Philadelphia in the Hollywood A-list film Law Abiding Citizen alongside Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx.

However, the tides have certainly changed, because now Viola is the leading actress in a show where she plays the desired, middle aged professor and spouse who gets her way (and gets away) with just about everything. And she didn't even have to keep her wig on.

“…My big “a-ha” moment was: “This is your moment to not typecast yourself, to actually play a woman who is sexualized and do your investigative work as an actor to find out who this woman is, and woman up and put a real woman on TV who’s smack-dab in the midst of this pop fiction.”

Viola Davis snatching her wig off Viola as How to Get Away with Murder's 'Annalise Keating' removing her wig and make-up before bed

Come through, Ms. Davis!

Viola also admitted that along with not stressing a wig for a gig, she is also not going out of her way to get snatched before getting sexed.. on-screen that is:

I refuse to drink a smoothie for breakfast to get down to a size 2 [before a sex scene]. It's just not going to happen with me. I've done a couple of sex scenes in How to Get Away With Murder, even one where was I thrown up against the wall, and I'm like, "I really don't want to get thrown up against the wall anymore." I threw my back out! (laughs) I had to just allow myself to be uncomfortable. I'm not going to stand in front of a mirror, or else 'Viola' will kick in and go, "OK, my titties are saggy and I have stretch marks.

In the same round table discussion, the beauty that is Taraji P. Henson, who has admittingly expressed being able to relate to Hollywood typecasting, spoke on her role as the beloved 'Cookie Lyon' on FOX's Empire. Like Viola, the 15-year veteran actress Taraji expressed her initial fear of playing Cookie, and her experiences with embracing and seeing herself as an attractive, strong minded and confident being:

”Cookie scared the hell out of me. Just before I got the role, I'd said, "F— it all, I'm going back to theater." I felt lazy and like I needed to sharpen the tools. So I did theater at The Pasadena Playhouse. Then my manager said, "You have to read this script." I'm like, "Hip-hop? Oh my God, what are they trying to do? Fox is going to pick this up? This isn't HBO?" And then I got nervous and started pacing the floor. "Oh my God, Cookie is bigger than life. You will love her or hate her." Empire has forced people to have conversations that they were afraid to have. And that is what art is supposed to do. I just didn't know it was going to shake things up this much!”

And like many of us who are still adjusting to the industry just now getting "hip" to hips and curves, Taraji expressed her personal hang-ups with debuting her derrière on-screen:

“Taraji: My first time being nude was my first movie, Baby Boy. I knew the scene was coming. I remember thinking, "Taraji cannot be in that room." So I literally went home and stripped down naked, stood in front of the mirror and looked at every morsel of my body, and I dealt with it. The next day, I was so free. I was so ready.”

Taraji P. Henson Baby Boy Taraji in 2000 as Yvette on Baby Boy

Taraji booty grab 15 Years Later, Taraji as 'Cookie Lyon' Showing Anika what a 'Real Azz' do!

My, my, how a lot has changed!

What are your thoughts on the shift in the industry's standard of beauty and what is considered "sexy?"

Bonus: Taraji and Viola covered Ebony together in 2009. The caption read, 'Where are all the roles for black women?'  Yes, times have definitely changed.

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