Shows Like 'Atlanta' and 'Insecure' Are Changing How We View Black Hair

A look into what today's shows are doing (or not doing) to normalize natural hair.
April 5, 2018, 4:25pm
Images courtesy of HBO and FX

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

In a recent New Yorker profile I read back in March, Atlanta creator Donald Glover went on to say something that surprised me; he’s jealous of Adam Sandler.

“What’s frustrating to me, is that when Adam Sandler does The Waterboy, about poor whites, he doesn’t have to worry about what poor whites are going to think," he said in relation to Atlanta. “What are black people going to think? Are other black people going to call me a coon?”

A whole season and five episodes in, I kind of know what he meant: His TV show, like Insecure, isn’t a deep dive of a show for black-ass divers. Topics of poverty and race aren’t focal points, but are instead, worn through styles, language, and humor.

Take the "Barbershop" episode of Atlanta, for example, and how it speaks about black hair. It plays out with a barber named Bibby (Robert Powell III) who seems more villain than barber. Throughout the 22-minute adventure, barber Bibby goes on to test the limits of our hip-hopper in training, Paper “Boi” Miles, who of course, just wants a damn haircut. By the middle of the episode, he’s stealing with Bibby. Three quarters in, he’s driving with Bibby. And by the end, the length Miles, a black man, was willing to go in service of his hair ends up speaking volumes.

Much of our identity as black folk are often wrapped by our strands for reasons that are institutional and complex. But here’s a TV show in Atlanta that tiptoes around the subject while addressing it in a million interesting and subtle ways. Lead characters come shaven and unshaven with hilarious antics. A black man goes in for a haircut but never makes it to his coveted cut. And without realizing it, we’re hooked, rooting for this natural haired, half-shaven personality and loving the hell out of him despite the struggle on his scalp.

Tonya Cryer, a member of the hair stylist team from Atlanta, told me just how refreshing the handling of hair often is throughout the series. With shows like Insecure and Atlanta catering to current and young black audiences, the treatment of black hair when matched with 20 years of wigs and cookie-cutter chemical care, serves as a fostering of new mentalities.

“Shows like Atlanta, with their many leads rocking textured, unkept, clean, and coiffed hair... and Insecure, with all the Afro and hawkish styles both make bold statements about our sense of independence without screaming it into our heads," Cryer said.

Over the past 20 years, Cyrer has began to view the India Arie lyric,

“It’s not about my hair”

as a more mentally ingrained message for today's audiences. A show like


with a

black leading woman in Issa Rae, doing awkward and black girl things remains adored in spite of unseeable textured hair. “Some cultures believed that our strength always lied in our hair, and the struggles we faced with styling, and conforming came from what we deemed as beautiful. That was reflection to a society that was never entirely made for us on television.

And Cryer’s right. Prime time television has historically catered to white eyes with silky hair. Just about every current black lead—from Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie Lyon on Lee Daniel’s Empire, to Kerry Washington’s high-powered handler on Scandal, and Gabrielle Union on Being Mary Jane—wares wigs or weaves. In classic cases like NBC’s 227 and CBS’s Girlfriends, there was a reliance on the permed (chemical heat which changes the structure of textured strands) and freshly cut. And TV shows featuring textured hair across the board had ties with the lower-class in What’s Happening!! and Good Times.

In This Is Us, however, the topic around black hair becomes a more stated topic addressed through adoptee Deja, and temporary foster parents, Randall and Beth Pearson. Titled "Still There," the episode deals in Deja’s trust for others as linked through hair. She won’t allow Randall or Beth to touch it, but after being teased for having nappy hair, Beth finally works her way into Deja’s shield and discovers that she has alopecia (bald patches). Beth talks her sage talk, and the black tradition of braiding hair follows so the world can be more accepting of Deja.

“My hair is natural—there’s no chemical in it. But my hair is pressed, and long, so the idea of natural hair as it relates to people like Tracee Ellis Ross will appear different,” This Is US writer Jas Waters told me. “You've always got to be open to what natural hair is. It shouldn’t just look like an afro, tight coils, or a Caesar. Black hair isn’t a monolith, like we as black people aren’t a monolith.”

Waters looks at the approaches by shows like Atlanta and Insecure as further responses to societal shifts, and the unstated changes in our thinking compared to years prior.

“Tyra [Banks] was the first to wear a lace front on TV, Beyoncé followed. As a black woman, I thought it looked amazing but then everyone wore it, and it was slightly less amazing, like we were all trying to dress like someone else. There was a lack of individuality, and we’re coming out of that. Issa Dee is now allowed to look like Issa Rae. Earn looks like Donald Glover, every actor from Blackish looks like themselves. With our hair, we are beginning to really exist in and out of this world without putting a label on it, and that’s amazing.”

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