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.


ReelGirl Star of the Week: Willow Smith

Girls and hair, girls and hair, girls and hair! Toys marketed to girls– more often than not– involve hair. Very long hair. Barbie, of course, is well known for her waxy blond locks. Strawberry Shortcake and her friends Plum Puddin’ and Lemon Meringue wear stiff rectangles of hair that stretch to their knees. Even toys that don’t make you think about hair, say horses, get transformed into “My Little Pony” with girls shown on TV brushing their animals’ flowing manes and curly, pink tails.

Rapunzel Braiding Friends hair Braider

The latest addition to the plethora of hair based toys is Disney’s Rapunzel doll, sorry, I mean “The Braiding Friends Hair Braider” that “lets your little lady easily braid the Rapunzel doll’s hair.” This toy goes with the new Rapunzel movie, now called “Tangled” because the guys who run Hollywood decided they didn’t want to award a female character the title role. The abundance of toys marketed to girls and focused on grooming relentlessly reinforces that what’s important for them isn’t what their bodies can do, but how they appear.

This is why I was excited to see that Willow Smith, the nine year old daughter of actors Jada and Will, has a new video out called “I Whip my Hair.”

Yes, it’s abut hair. But sometimes the most effective way to create change is to make use of our current obsessions in order to alter them. This video is about what hair can do, not how it looks; which of course translates to what’s important is what Willow can do, not how she looks. Willow dances around her school, swinging her hair, obviously enjoying not only her singing and dancing skills, but the way it feels to move her body. She is also enjoying being looked at, not in an objectified way but she is celebrating being a dancer and singer and yes, being a star. In the video, she is admired by both boys and girls watching her– no small accomplishment for a girl when men too often decide it’s bad marketing to put her in the title of a movie.

Watching Willow jump around her school, past the rows of lockers is reminiscent of the well known Briney Spears catholic school girl video where she’s got her shirt tied up, baring her midriff in the cliched sexual fantasy. Ten years later, I feel like we’ve made some progress. Willow isn’t wearing sexualized clothing. She is wearing some make up– including what looks like white mascara and rhinestones– but she looks like she’s having fun with it, playing with costumes, not made up in a serious, creepy Jon Benet Ramsey way.

Willow Smith

Not only that, but Willow is a girl of color enjoying her hair– sadly, a radical statement. Even girls restricted to decorating their locks on TV usually aren’t wearing cornrows. Chris Rock did an excellent documentary called “Good Hair” about black women, girls and the ingrained, internalized racism, passed on from moms to daughters. Rock’s film is funny and analytical, but Willow uses a different tactic. By putting out a video that gets over 7 million YouTube hits in one week, instead of complaining about our culture, she changes it.’s Lori Adelman comments reports on the video:

What many may not know is the meaning behind “Whip My Hair”. In a recent interview with MTV, Willow Smith explained the inspiration behind her lyrics:

” ‘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.”…Willow has a message for you, too, buried in the chorus between exuberant if repetitive directives to “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.”

Willow Smith is ReelGirl’s Star of the Week.

Check out her video here.