Last week in lockdown viewing, I watched a Netflix mini-series called Self Made, based on the true story of the entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker (née Sarah Breedlove), born to formerly enslaved parents in the American South and eventual founder of a million-dollar haircare empire. It’s a show about race, class, gender, and the concept of beauty. If you haven’t seen it yet, and plan to, there may be spoilers ahead.
In Self Made, Sarah’s arch-nemesis is the person who introduces her to cosmetology. The wealthier, light-skinned Addie Monroe first gains her trust then insults her, telling Sarah she isn’t attractive enough to sell her product. Sarah replicates the product and finds her own success, but her rival follows her like a shadow. Addie dredges up Sarah’s flaws over and over through the decades.
While watching the show, I thought – hmm, this feels true to life. Grudges can fester for ages. Sarah’s own trigger-proneness was also recognisable; there are certain old woundings that shape us, and which have the strange dual effect of propelling us forward but also dragging us back. Impressed overall, I spent a little time looking up the original Madam C.J. Walker, and found that the biggest criticism of the show was the portrayal of the real woman – Annie Malone – who was villainised as Addie Monroe.
It is factual that Malone (herself one of the first African-American women to become a millionaire) had employed the real Madam C.J. Walker briefly, but why their association ended is not documented. No evidence exists of a lifelong feud. Perhaps there’s a whisper of truth in it: that the two entrepreneurs disliked each other. Still, the way the filmmakers extrapolate this possibility undermines the legacy of both women. It suggests that their struggles (and triumphs) against societal discrimination weren’t nearly as important as their rivalry. Besides which, if anyone should have a bone to pick, that’d be the ghost of Malone, who pioneered what Walker studied and built on, only to become the jealous bête noire of a biopic.
The show made me wonder, ultimately, about my own animosities. In the narrative of my life, in which I am the hero (just as you, in the narrative of your life, are its hero), I wouldn’t want my various antagonists to occupy much space at all, let alone screen time. Of course they’re there, of course they’ve influenced everything through their sabotages and betrayals. It may even be true that it’s individuals, not structures or circumstances, who make particularly painful imprints on us. We may connect them to a larger problem, say, misogyny – but the one who enacts it is the one who induces our bile. Still – it’s not the anti-hero who makes us the protagonist, just as there’s no need to suppress another in order to play the lead in one’s own life.
Yet people do. This is the weird tic inside Self Made’s fiction that makes it compelling even while problematic. Addie Monroe feels exactly like that person: the one with such a hawkish eye on another’s journey that they think they’re running rings around that someone without noticing they’re really just walking in circles themselves…
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 9th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.