In the first episode of Netflix’s Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, in a moment of doubt, Madam C.J. Walker (Octavia Spencer) looks in the mirror and sees a version of herself from years before. Instead of her thick, long hair in an updo under a fashionable hat with pink flowers on the brim, her reflection is balding. Instead of matching earrings and lace, she is unadorned and plain. In her mind, she hears comments from her business rival Addie (Carmen Ejogo) that tell her she doesn’t have the right look to be selling hair products. When it becomes too much to bear, Walker smashes her reflection—she has come too far refining her appearance to turn back. She then straightens up and steels herself to go back out into the world.
Walker’s fraught relationship with her appearance, because of what a racist society around her says is beautiful, is intrinsic to her story. In both real life and in the miniseries (based on a biography of the creator of hair products for black women), Walker understood that for women—particularly black women—appearance is tied to employment and financial gains.
Another series that illustrates how a woman must navigate appearances to live and work in a patriarchal, racist society is Hulu’s documentary series Hillary. In four episodes, Hillary tells the story of the first woman to win the nomination for U.S. president from a major political party. Both Walker and Clinton bridged generations going through social and political change that provided opportunities for women—but only if they looked the part. For Walker, that meant having long, thick hair and light skin in a time when those in power valued shiny straight hair and white skin that mirrored beauty standards based on white women’s bodies. For Clinton, that meant balancing the image of a well-groomed wealthy housewife with the professionalism of a politician—the image of which was based on white men.
The second episode of Hillary (titled “Becoming a Lady”) opens with makeup artists working on Clinton’s face. “It’s a burden,” Clinton says after multiple sets of hands arrange her hair, pat powder onto her cheeks, and paint lipstick on her lips. Clinton says that she spent up to an hour and half on her makeup and hair every day during her campaign for president in 2016. Over the 600 days of the campaign, that comes out to 25 days of getting her hair and makeup done. The show often leaves the camera running while makeup artists come in to touch up Clinton’s face, revealing the work behind a woman’s appearance that usually happens out of sight.
Clinton speaks a lot about how she can’t change who is on the inside while going through transformations for her outward appearance based on her role in society. Discussing these physical transformations is an acknowledgment that her appearance, like Walker’s, is a tool for survival when women are often kept from participating in parts of society. When her husband Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, Hillary Clinton assumed she could carry on her life as she had been—not wearing makeup, working as a lawyer, and keeping her maiden name. An interview Hillary takes part in shows how wrong that assumption was when a reporter said, “You really don’t fit the image we have created for the governor’s wife in Arkansas.” Jerry Jones, a former attorney at the law firm where Hillary worked, said, “Hillary, to my knowledge, was the first First Lady of the state of Arkansas who had a full time job outside of being outside of being First Lady.”
These comments and questions illustrate how much the ideal version of white femininity at the time excluded working women and women who didn’t prioritize a feminine appearance. After Bill lost his reelection, Hillary changed her last name to Clinton, started wearing makeup, and changed her clothes to be more feminine, emphasizing her role as a wife based on the expectations of others around her so as not to hamper her and her husband’s goals.
Both Clinton and Walker used their husband’s name to lend them security and professionalism. Their names and appearances were both used in part because the world around them valued men’s existence over women’s. When Addie attempted to demean Walker in conversation by repeatedly calling her by her maiden name, Sarah Breedlove, Walker insisted that she call her Madam C.J. Walker. It’s not that Walker or Clinton didn’t value themselves or their own names, it’s that the men and women in the dominant culture didn’t. So Clinton and Walker adapted as best they could using what they had control over: the way they looked and the names they used.
Self Made also emphasizes how women’s appearances are tied to financial gains throughout the series. In the third episode, Walker imagines being circled by the image her husband wants to use in advertisements for the Walker company—the image of a light-skinned, thin black woman with long, shiny hair. Walker herself doesn’t fit into that image and it haunts her throughout the episode while she decides what image to use to sell her products. Walker’s daughter Lelia (Tiffany Haddish) says she wants to move to New York, where “you can wear your hair however you like,” noting the economic and social freedoms that then allow women freedom in their personal style.
It’s a testament to Self Made that it never ignores or glosses over the racism and colorism black women face regarding prejudices about their appearance and how it affects economic independence. But the show falls short in other areas, with the writing sometimes falling flat and emphasizing hollow melodrama over more nuanced conflicts. Walker’s life is interesting enough on its own without needing to add predictable storylines like affairs and corporate espionage.
And although Hillary examines how Clinton was affected by gendered expectations, and how her role as wife and mother supported her husband’s political ambitions, it didn’t expand to include the women around her. Not enough attention was paid to expectations for women of color, either, or the advantages Clinton had because she was white, even amid the adversity she faced. Her journey was certainly affected by sexism, but her whiteness offered her protection that women of color, like Walker, wouldn’t have been given.
Both Hillary and Self Made tell the stories of women who want to be allowed to work, but don’t have the power to ignore sexist and racist conventions about how they should look. “The point of this convention, the point of the company, is to give women like us choices, freedom,” Walker says in the final episode of Self Made. If only that were true.
Rae Nudson is Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, The Cut, and Hazlitt, among other publications. She is working on a book about how women use makeup to help define their roles in society. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.
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