I wear a few hats on campus. Along with being a graduate student and a Feministing contributor in constant search of my next post, I am also the President of the Campus Coalition for Sexual Literacy (CCSL). CCSL, an org that is an affiliate to the National Sexuality Resource Center, promotes sexual literacy through community forums and serving as a liaison between students and campus health providers. This past Wednesday, with the help of HBO, film distributor Roadside Attractions, University of Michigan academics and student organizations, we held a private screening of Chris Rock’s Good Hair 2 days before the film premiered in Michigan.
While the event, and the conversation that followed with the 300 audience members was powerful and revealing, the film really underwhelmed me. The sexist comments and the framing of black hair issues was striking. In addition, the portrait of Black hair excluded some important voices that were equally vital to the black hair conversation. However, the film did make a contribution by grappling with the relationship that decision-making about hair has with age. Lastly, it educated the masses about the harm involved with relaxers using two methods that are bound to be widely received–humor and famous people.
So let’s break this down.
What do I mean by sexist? I am not just referring to Andre Harrell, music executive, referring to women as broads. I am talking about the fact that Rock never used his interviewing time to pose a moral question to black men about their role in promoting the straight-haired standard of beauty. Instead, he asks them about how they feel about having to fork over money for weaves and relaxers. And this just seemed like a totally irrelevant question. Additionally, the issue of black women restricting themselves physically because they are afraid their hair will go from straight to kinky was not presented in the film as something that could negatively affect the overall health of black women. The conversation instead became about the frustration some black men have with not being able to touch black women’s hair and engage sexually with wild abandon. While I think it is important for black women to feel limitless when creating sexual intimacy, this is also about the importance of an exercise regimen and the possibility that some may shy away from that because they want to preserve straight hair.
So who was excluded? Well, just about all the black hair experiences that fell outside of Los Angeles, New York City and Atlanta. This struck me as odd because having spent some time living and working in the DC metropolitan area, it just seems that black hairstyles are on a different wavelength there. It was interesting to me that he spotlighted Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Condoleezza Rice’s hair as linked to their success. However, it also means something that congresswomen who have risen to prominence in the DC Metropolitan area, such as Eleanor Holmes Norton and Donna Edwards have their hair cut short in Ceaseresque styles. Additionally, rural black women and their hair stories simply had little to no representation in the film. Finally, Dominican hair salons, a crucial player in hair relaxation in black communities on the east coast, were totally omitted. And since the film only lasted 90 minutes, it just seemed that he could have filled the final 30 with a more inclusive picture of Black hair.
On to a pro, the strength of the film was that it grappled with age and hair through featuring parents and their children with Rock and his daughters as the main subject of the film. It’s not to be missed that relaxers are a choice often made by parents for their daughters. Often, these young girls are either not at the developmental stage where they can even grasp the weight of the decision to relax, straighten or add extensions. Or they are informed and their parents have decreed that relaxers are the only option. In this way, many black girls don’t really get rights to their hair until after they leave home or they are 18. And even then, the influence of their parents is monumental.
I am usually the first to be critical when people shelve the blame of social problems on the parents, but with black hair we have to be more critical about parental influence. I am not exactly ready to call parents child abusers who douse relaxers filled with potentially harmful sodium hydroxide on their 3-year-old. Many black mothers who relax their daughters’ hair are probably not as informed about the health consequences. Additionally, they might do so to demonstrate how much they care about their daughters appearance to challenge stereotypes that frame them as neglectful. However, the fact remains relaxers are potentially harmful. And if the film accomplished anything, it transmitted this important message humorously (That [soda] can’s gotta GOOD perm!) that people of color should take seriously.