Black hair and feminism: Beyonce, Willow Smith, Chris Rock, and Rhonda Lee

After I posted about Rhonda Lee, a meteorologist who was fired after defending her “ethnic” hair on Facebook to a racist and sexist commenter, I was thinking about black hair.


Right after I started Reel Girl, I saw an excellent documentary by Chris Rock on this subject called “Good Hair.”


The film begins with stills of Rock’s two young daughters. (I love that this film was inspired by these girls.) While we look at their pictures on screen, we hear Rock:

Those are my daughters, Lola and Zara. The most beautiful girls in the world. And even though I tell them that they’re beautiful every single day, sometimes it’s just not good enough. Just yesterday, Lola came into the house crying and said ‘Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?’ I wonder how she came up with that that idea?

The film goes on to document just how these little girls got the idea that their hair wasn’t good enough.

In the film, actress Nia Long tells Rock:

There’s always a sort of pressure within the black community, like, oh, if you have good hair, you’re prettier or better than the brown skinned girl that wears the afro or the dreads or the natural hair style…The lighter, the brighter, the better.


Comedian Paul Mooney explains the phenomenon to Rock most concisely:

If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If you hair is nappy, they’re not happy.

“Good Hair” ends as it begins, with images of Lola and Zara shown at a playground while Rock muses: “So what do I tell my daughters? I tell them that the stuff on top of their heads is nowhere near as important as the stuff inside of their heads.”

A few months after I saw “Good Hair,” I watched nine year old Willow Smith bust out of the gender/ race matrix, exuberantly celebrating her hair and her independence with her hit song and video, “Whip My Hair.”


Willow sings:

Whip your hair back and forth,

Don’t let haters keep me off my grind,

Keep my head up,

I know I’ll be fine.

She explained the song to MTV:

Whip My Hair’ means don’t be afraid to be yourself, and don’t let anybody tell you that that’s wrong. Because the best thing is you.

Just a couple weeks ago, when this picture of Willow, now 12 years old, made the rounds on the internet, her mother, Jada Pinkett Smith, was derided for bad parenting.


Jada responded to the criticism on her FB page:

This subject is old but I have never answered it in its entirety. And even with this post it will remain incomplete. The question why I would let Willow cut her hair. First the ‘let’ must be challenged. This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don’t belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power or self determination. I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit and her mind are her domain.

Willow cut her hair because her beauty, her value, her worth is not measured by the length of her hair. It’s also a statement that claims that even little girls have the right to own themselves and should not be a slave to even their mother’s deepest insecurities, hopes and desires. Even little girls should not be a slave to the preconceived ideas of what a culture believes a little girl should be.

How cool is that? And how different is Jada Pinkett Smith’s public message to her daughter, and about her daughter, than the more conventional and ubiquitous “good mom” message from this Elizabeth Arden ad?
And speaking of beauty, there are few factors more obvious to reveal that what we call “beauty” is indicative of the time we happen to live in than hairstyles. “Beauty” is all about culture and class, status and money.
If African-American women represented the majority of CEOs in America, professors and department heads of Ivy League universities; if they dominated our boards and Academy Award winners, movie dierctors and nightly news anchors and on and on, do you think for one second any viewer would write in that the black lady on TV looks like she has cancer?
The racist comment has nothing to do with hair or “beauty” and everything to do with what it means to be black and a woman in America.
You’ve got a better chance getting into the power ranks if you look the part. Every woman knows how important her appearance is and how intimately what she looks like influences her chances of success.
In the history of People Magazine, only two African-Americans have graced the “World’s Most Beautiful Woman” cover. I guess white people are just prettier than black people. Go figure. Note that Beyonce wins the title as a blonde.
If women ran Hollywood, do you think People would create a “most beautiful” issue at all? Or would the magazine come out with something more like “The Sexiest Woman Alive” featuring older stars on its cover? Real life “Sexiest Man Alive” winners include Pierce Brosnan at age 48, Harrison Ford at age 56, and Sean Connery at age 59.

Of course, it helps to come off as “sexy” when you’re portrayed in movie after movie as a hero and shown with “hot” sidekicks who are desperately in love with you. Though People covermen do have one thing in common with the women: Denzel Washington is the only African-American ever deemed “sexy” enough to win.

When Rhonda Lee defended her hair to a racist commenter, she wrote:

Little girls (and boys for that matter) need to see that what you look like isn’t a reason to not achieve their goals.

That’s the same reason Chris Rock made his documentary. It’s the same reason Willow Smith wrote her song, and Jada Pinkett Smith spoke up for her daughter. Is Rhonda Lee not famous enough or powerful enough to speak up for herself without getting punished for it?

Please support Rhonda Lee and sign the petition to demand that she get her job back.


Social media bullying preferred outcome: teen girl suicide or public figure speaking out?

Jezebel reports:


In another example of the ongoing wonderful, incredible, super duper “new niceness” internet phenomenon, another teenage girl has killed herself after repeatedly being called a slut and a “fuckin ugly ass hoe” by internet commenters.

Friends of 16-year-old Jessica Laney, who hanged herself on Sunday, “say bullying through social media played a major role,” according to WPTV.

Do you see the connection here with my last post?

A TV meteorologist, Rhonda Lee, is the victim of looks based/ internet harrasment/ sexism and she defends herself. She says that she does so in order to protect girls and teach them not to be victims. She gets fired for speaking up.

Supposedly, Lee was fired because her employer KTBS, has a policy, one Lee never saw, that employers not respond to comments. Do you think that policy might not make much sense in the year 2012?

Here is Gawker’s analysis  of it:

Regardless, the Lee story seems to be further evidence that many companies still have no idea how to navigate the complexities of social media, despite obviously drinking the Kool-Aid when it comes to the idea that social media is an integral part of success nowadays. The result is a company getting a Facebook page in order to facilitate community engagement while simultaneously hampering its employees from engaging even slightly with that community. Essentially, they’re stripping all the “social” out of “social media,” and then firing employees who push back at all against their archaic policy.


Please sign this petition demanding that Rhonda Lee get her job back.

White woman on TV attacked for appearance, defends herself, gets celebrated; black woman on TV attacked for appearance, defends herself, gets fired

Rhonda Lee, a meteorologist for KTBS TV, the ABC affiliate in Sherevport, Louisiana was fired from her job after she publicly defended herself against a sexist and racist comment made by a viewer on the station’s Facebook page.



The viewer wrote:

the black lady that does the news is a very nice lady. the only thing is she needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair. im not sure if she is a cancer patient. but its still not something myself that i think looks good on tv.

Lee responded:

Hello Emmitt–I am the ‘black lady’ to which you are referring. I’m sorry you don’t like my ethnic hair. And no I don’t have cancer. I’m a non-smoking, 5’3, 121 lbs, 25 mile a week running, 37.5 year old woman, and I’m in perfectly healthy physical condition.

I am very proud of my African-American ancestry which includes my hair. For your edification: traditionally our hair doesn’t grow downward. It grows upward. Many Black women use strong straightening agents in order to achieve a more European grade of hair and that is their choice. However in my case I don’t find it necessary. I’m very proud of who I am and the standard of beauty I display. Women come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities, and levels of beauty. Showing little girls that being comfortable in the skin and HAIR God gave me is my contribution to society. Little girls (and boys for that matter) need to see that what you look like isn’t a reason to not achieve their goals.

Conforming to one standard isn’t what being American is about and I hope you can embrace that.

Thank you for your comment and have a great weekend and thank for watching.


KTBS defends its decision to fire Lee, claiming that she violated a company policy, one that she has allegedly violated before, concerning social media.

If harsh viewer comments are posted on the station’s official website, there is a specific procedure to follow. Ms. Rhonda Lee was let go for repeatedly violating that procedure after being warned multiple times of the consequences if her behavior continued. Rhonda Lee was not dismissed for her appearance or defending her appearance. She was fired for continuing to violate company procedure.


Lee said that she has yet to see this policy.

Lee’s response to the comment couldn’t have been more calm, focused, or right on target. It gave me chills to read it. How could someone in management (if they planned on responding at all rather than ignore it, that is, allow it) have responded any better than that? Do you think they would have or could have written:

Little girls (and boys for that matter) need to see that what you look like isn’t a reason to not achieve their goals.

No one could say that but Lee, the victim of the sexism and racism. She has to speak for herself, without shame. That is the lesson to teach kids about bullying, racism, and sexism.

But instead, the lesson learned is that when Lee refused to be a silent victim, she was punished. Fired. How can a nation that acts like it is concerned about bullying, whose President speaks on the issue and says its important one for the whole country, allow this to happen?

In October, Jennifer Livingston, a morning anchor with WKBT TV in Lacrosse, was attacked by a male viewer for her weight.


Livingston defended herself in an on air editorial that lasted longer than four minutes. She finished her statement by thanking her colleagues, family, friends and all the others who came to her defense. Her story made headlines and she was on “Good Morning America” talking about her experience.
Just like Lee, Livingston mentioned young people:

“This was a personal attack,” Livingston said.  “Calling me obese is one thing.  Calling me a bad role model for our community that I’ve worked at for 15 years and especially for young girls when I have three girls was a low blow and I thought it was uncalled for and I wanted to call him out on it.”


Livingston also urged children who were victims of bullying to defend themselves, a lesson she says she teaches her own daughter. By making her speech on TV, Livingston walked her talk.

It is particularly important that women speak out publicly because, historically, women have been shamed into silence. This shaming/silence tactic is evident with everything from rape to sex tapes; again and again, it is the victim and not the perpetrator who is supposed to be humiliated.

Just yesterday, Anne Hathaway was “shamed” when someone took a photo of her. When Matt Lauer smirked during a scheduled interview on the “Today Show” that he’d seen a lot of her lately, Hathaway didn’t hide away, but responded: “I’m sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies the sexuality of unwilling participants.” By speaking out, Hathaway directed the shame back where it belongs, on Lauer for his idiotic comment when she was trying to promote her movie, on the photographer who took the photo, and on the one who paid for the picture.

The attack on Lee is sexist. No one would be upset about that hairstyle if she were male. The taunting and comments that women receive on the internet about our appearance is epidemic and shows that sexism is alive and well in America. Attacking women for how they look, just putting out the threat that women could be attacked for how they look, has been an effective way to keep women in their place for much too long. Courageous and public acts like Lee’s and Livingston’s show all women how to deal effectively with this kind of bullying.

Of course, the attack on Lee is also racist.

It’s great that media outlets, viewers, activists, and colleagues supported Livingston when she defended herself against a bully. Lee deserves that same support now. That racism and sexism are protected in America in 2012 so that a woman defending herself against it loses her job makes me sick.

Please sign this petition demanding that Rhonda Lee get her job back.

Read Reel Girl’s latest post on the Rhonda Lee story: Black hair and feminism: Beyonce, Willow Smith, Chris Rock, and Rhonda Lee