“Self-Made,” Real-Life Themes in Netflix’s Madam C.J Walker Series
The first time I learned about Madam C. J. Walker was when I chose to study her for a written report in the fourth grade. It empowered me as a child to learn that the first self-made female millionaire in America looked like me. She was plus sized, she was Black, and while short in stature, she never allowed anyone in the room to make her feel small. Born into a world that gave a million reasons why she couldn’t succeed, she still did. Madam C.J. Walker’s story of dedication made me believe that I could do anything.
Over the years, I’ve found myself periodically revisiting Madam Walker’s life; usually when I’ve needed inspiration, affirmation of my capability, or a reminder of the legacy of magical excellence that I am privileged to continue as a Black woman. So, it’s ironic that a major series chronicling her story has been released at a moment that I feel myself at a major professional crossroads. Thanks to the COVID-19 quarantine, I had plenty of time to watch Netflix’s newly released series Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker when it hit the platform last weekend. Once again, the woman born to former slaves as Sarah Breedlove has left me both empowered and speechless.
My immediate reaction to the four-part series is one of contentment. It was beautifully cast, costumed, propped, and designed. The cinematic elements were award worthy, and quickly rekindled my affinity for early 20th century fashion. Although some have criticized the use of modern music in the production, which is a period piece, I enjoyed the mixing of media and I truly appreciated how it turned out. What stood out the most in Self-Made – more than the aesthetics, fictionalized additions for television storytelling, or personal impact – were several major themes it explored which are still very prevalent in the lives of Black businesswomen today.
The Fragile Balance of Success, Gender Expectations, and Love
The Self-Made series exposes a challenge that Madam C.J. Walker faced and female leaders in 2020 continue to encounter in romantic relationships: partners who support their endeavors until those endeavors become “too much.” Madam Walker’s second marriage initially appears to be filled with love and support, until her husband begins to feel slighted in the shadow of her success. While he first encouraged her vision with vocal and hands-on support, his demeanor changed when he realized that her goals would at times rank higher in priority than her so-called wifely duties.
His jealousy and emotional shift through the series reveal a veiled sentiment that is still relevant in many professional women’s relationships: your passion and success are only worthy of support as long as you leave room for the man in your life to feel like a man.
Sometimes it can feel like there is a threshold of acceptance for a woman’s success. Your dreams are cool unless they interfere with someone else’s normal or until they complicate your ability to keep up house, home, and him. It’s a story that’s all too familiar for many, but it shouldn’t be that way and I, for one, am glad that Madam Walker had the foresight not to fold under the pressure. Some have argued that the Netflix presentation perpetuates the idea that women can’t have it all, but I disagree. The Netflix series shows that women having it all is not achieved without encountering challenges.
Women can certainly have success, love, and family, but we also may face individuals whose egos get bruised by witnessing our growth or waning dependency on them. Thus, we have a choice in how we handle those situations and deciding whether or not compromise can be achieved with those people.
Madam Walker knew that the legacy she was building would be so much bigger than herself. She chose family by keeping those near who wanted to be there, but she did not limit herself for the sake of her relationship status. That act alone was revolutionary in her time, and personally, I commend it.
One of the other recurring themes in the series was colorism. Yes it may have been written a bit theatrically at times, and differed from what Madam Walker may have experienced in her real life, but it was still a significant concept to navigate for emerging Black leaders at that time. Madam Walker built her business at a period when Black people were newly navigating certain levels of privilege, and I have no doubt that her rise was challenged by a culmination of intra-cultural sexism and colorism.
Colorism today is much more subtle, but still very present in it’s own way. For example, when looking at the upper leadership of many enterprises, there is often a decreased number of Black and brown people represented, but it is usually coupled with a much more narrow range of skin shades among those present. In various forms of art, we also often see Black men paired with Black women who are lighter in skin tone. Even in cartoons, such as Disney’s second installment of Wreck-It-Ralph, we see the lightening of brown-skinned characters like Princess Tiana, which subconsciously conveys a message that somehow lighter skin is more attractive than dark. The point is that colorism’s reach may be slowly decreasing, but it is still very much there.
In the age of social media and evolving messages that encourage the appreciation of melanin in all of its shades, Self-Made serves as an effective reminder that while colorism may have historically given some African Americans more privilege than others, we all lose when buying into the beauty standards and fallacies of worth that are centered around it.
“Female enterprise is good for us all.”
We see Octavia Spencer make this proclamation several times in her portrayal of Madam C.J. Walker, and for good reason. The repetition drives the point home that when women succeed, we all succeed. We are all enriched and we all benefit. Many of us know this, yet almost 101 years after Madam Walker’s death, some people still have to be convinced. Support Black women and other women-owned businesses because our perspective allows us to see and address unique needs that may go unseen in the mainstream. When we create products, services, and businesses that address those needs, we enhance our cultural economy, create jobs, generate revenue that pours directly back into our communities, and create opportunities for the next generation to thrive. Female entrepreneurs have valuable things to contribute for the betterment of their intersecting communities and deserve the same level of support when their services are on point with, or better than, major competitors. That’s it, that’s the tweet.
There is room for Black sisterhood in Black female entrepreneurship; we all suffer when we fail to see it.
We see this theme play out in two ways, primarily through the fictional battle between Madam C.J. Walker and her friend-turned-competitor, Addie Munroe. Fun Fact: The real Madam used a product created by a woman named Annie Malone who did have a hair grower that helped Sarah Breedlove nurse her hair back to health. However, unlike what is portrayed in the series, Sarah actually did become a successful sales agent for Malone. They did part ways over a conflict, but it seems that both went on to be successful business owners and philanthropists without all of the back and forth presented in the show. Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, recently addressed the criticism about the retelling of their relationship in the Netflix series, which was inspired by her book.
The ongoing rifts between Walker and Munroe demonstrated what results when strong Black women don’t know how to support their sisters in business. When we allow ourselves to be threatened by another sister’s emerging power, we lose the potential to connect and mutually succeed as a united front. There are amazing results in harnessing our power to support each other. In the series, this is proven by the example of Mrs. Margaret Murray Washington and the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) who join together in support of Madam Walker’s vision. Their action, in stark contrast to Addie Munroe’s, reminds us that we all win when we stand together.
The importance of watching who you welcome and keep in your circle.
In Self-Made, Madam C.J. Walker had several individuals close to her who went from being supportive of her endeavors, to actively trying to influence her downfall. People who had helped with getting her salon and manufacturing company off the ground, later turned to conspire with her main enemy. I don’t know how the details compare to what she really experienced, but I do know that these storylines serve as shining examples of why you must be very careful when forming your circle of close loved ones. We all have friends, but we all reach a point in which we have to discern the ones we can really count on to give us the truth, advice, and counsel without strings attached, and those who may falter in their own favor if the price is right. It’s a tale as old as time, and unfortunately, the need to pay attention often rises as we ascend.
In conclusion, Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker was a great mixture of real life lessons and highlighting a true pioneer in women’s entrepreneurship. Thank you, Madam C.J. Walker, for the strides you made in helping Black women to define and appreciate our own standard of beauty.
See. Do. Inspire. #StayKultured