Lena Waithe is making moves. While working on “Master of None” she became the first black woman to receive an Emmy for comedy writing, from there she went on to executive produce the critically acclaimed drama “The Chi”, and she currently has an agreement to develop more scripted content for Showtime. She’s doing big things for sure and as a queer woman watching this I am inspired more than you could ever know.
When I watched her Master of None coming out episode I got my whole entire gay Black life. And it’s important to note both those things… my GAY, BLACK life. Lena was able to articulate a particular gay rite of passage that can often be full of hurt, anger, and tension with humor and compassion. Her voice is necessary because of the intersectionality of her gayness and blackness, that voice matters and I’m so glad she’s found a way to amplify her art.
A few weeks ago, when Lena showed up on a red carpet with her signature locks shaved off, the tresses were replaced with a clean close cut. Her image was noticeably more masculine, and she was asked about the change in her appearance. In response to one question about her look Lena said,” I felt like I was holding onto a piece of femininity that would make the world feel comfortable with who I am,” Waithe went on to say that after cutting her hair she felt “so free and so happy and so joyful,…”
Lena was speaking out in her own way about gender oppression and the toll it takes on the gender non-conforming. When you don’t look the way people EXPECT you to look, people tend to get uncomfortable, and when people are uncomfortable they can react in unpredictable ways.
Lena kept her long hair so that prospective employers, investors, and viewers would invest in the art of a feminine woman they could identify with, but at some point, she realized that her art deserved an authentic representation of herself and she cut off the last remnants of traditional femininity. Now, long hair isn’t particularly feminine or masculine but in our society, it’s often associated with the feminine so when Lena cut her hair she was concerned with being seen as too masculine. As a woman she was worried how that impression would affect her success as an artist. Her concerns were real and valid and something queer women deal with on a daily basis.
In a patriarchy, if a woman dresses in a more masculine manner she is seen as taking up a space that does not belong to her and is often treated with hostility and contempt. I have been gay bashed twice in my life and both times I was presenting as distinctly masculine. The message my attackers sent was very clear, “If you want to dress like a man you can take a beating like one.” Since then I have tried to find a balance in my style so that I am not such an easy target. I find that both men and (straight) women are nicer to me when I present more feminine. This speaks to the reality a lot of queer women feel. Our freedom of expression must be balanced against our physical safety and comfort. A lot of us crave an authenticity outside the boundaries of traditional femininity, but many of us are not prepared to deal with the repercussions that may follow.
In a society that claims to strive for equality why is this still such a point of contention? Why are we so insistent on these rigid boxes that stifle BOTH men and women and leave anyone who isn’t comfortable within their confines frightened to break out? We were shoved into these constructs right out the womb and you would think that as adults making the rules we would work to change them, but a lot of us just grow up and fall right in line with the patriarchy offering these same constraints to the next generation. We have our gender reveal parties and decide our children’s gender futures before they even take their first breath.
Lena is brave and wonderful, but she doesn’t have superpowers. We are the ones with the actual power to break apart the boxes they will try to put the little girls who come after us in. By showing up and being present as we authentically are, we can change the way society defines the feminine. If we don’t change perceptions on a fundamental level, then we deny our communities the chance to grow and learn to love women as three dimensional whole beings. Sometimes, all it takes is a small step to make a great change in a big way.
Cover photo Vanity Fair