When I was offered the chance to speak with Shameless star Shanola Hampton about her experiences in Hollywood as a woman of color and her thoughts on racial profiling and nudity on-screen, I never realized the impact her story would have on me.
As we spoke, I learned that the challenges Hampton has faced in her career haven’t come only from the color of her skin. Any woman can understand her pain and frustration when she talks about the other kind of discrimination still running rampant in Hollywood today. Think gender discrimination doesn’t exist? Hampton begs to differ.
“If you look at men who are the leads of shows and women who are in the leads of shows, you would find that there’s quite a gap in what the pay point is for the women and the men. So, yeah, that’s a problem,” Hampton said.
Being a person of color in the business is challenging
Beyond the gender discrimination is, of course, the racial discrimination that still prevails in some parts of the country. I grew up in the South and I’m sad to say that there were words used, even by members of my household, that I never want to repeat. Luckily, I moved out of that environment and, for the most part, the world changed. But it’s perhaps the racial discrimination I encountered as a child that has left me reluctant to broach the subject, as if someone of my race and culture isn’t allowed to discuss it.
When I shyly told Hampton what the subject of this article would be about, she had no problem with it and immediately put me at ease with her friendliness and willingness to open up about her experiences. Right off the bat, she jumped into the difficulties she’s faced trying to find good roles.
“Being a person of color in the business, it’s challenging to find parts and challenging to find parts that are not stereotypical or that see you in a different light,” Hampton said. She commended Showtime for having the guts to portray her character Veronica as a black woman, but without toning down her features. On the show, Veronica doesn’t straighten her naturally curly hair, but proudly wears it in dreadlocks. Rarer still is the fact that Veronica isn’t seen as strange or unusual for this, but simply beautiful.
“If you look back, you will see that’s not something that is often done,” Hampton said about the media’s reluctance to depict women of color with their natural features.
But with one step forward often comes two steps back. Hampton spoke about the uproar that came after Shonda Rhimes was referred to as an “angry black woman” in a piece about how her female characters behave on Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder. Hampton says it’s a conversation that would never have come up if the two characters being discussed had been men rather than women.
“So we’ve come a long way, yet we have a long way to go,” Hampton said.
Raising children who understand racial profiling
Knowing that Hampton was the mother of a little girl, I wondered kind of message she wanted to give her daughter as she grew up in this world. Her answer took me completely by surprise when she admitted that, in light of recent events involving young men of color and law enforcement, she was more worried about the message she wanted to give to any future sons she might have.
“It is more and more obvious that the racial profiling of the world that we live in has become detrimental and it takes lives,” she said.
Hampton also acknowledges that the situation has to be approached from both sides. Citing an “ultimate respect” for law enforcement officers and the judicial system, she said she also wants to teach young people a respect for the law and to listen to officers.
“Don’t give anybody a reason to pull out [a weapon],” she said.
It’s a statement that was both logical and a little heartbreaking. I couldn’t help but think how sad it was to live in a world where parents would have to give this kind of instruction to their children, yet I know that I would teach my children the same thing. Hampton wants her daughter and her future sons to know that there’s a time and a place to voice your grievances with law enforcement.
“I want to teach her that sometimes things are going to happen that you feel like are unfair, but it’s not always in that moment that you need to speak on it. Sometimes you’ve got to back up and just listen for a second. Then later we can deal with what happened [and] if it wasn’t fair or it was unjust, go through the proper channels that way.”
While it may not seem fair, giving young people this understanding of the law could help save lives. Hampton believes that it’s up to parents to give their children what they need to overcome this kind of discrimination and racial profiling. “It comes from education. As parents, as aunts and uncles, as elders who are very aware of what’s happening in the world, we have to give them tools.”
Nudity: there’s a very fine line
As a woman in the media, Hampton sets an example every day of her life, whether she likes it or not. On Shameless, she has had her fair share of nude scenes, but it wasn’t a decision she came to lightly. Raised in the South by a father who is a minister, Hampton’s first step was to discuss the opportunity the show would bring her as an actress and the nudity that might be required. She knew going on-screen and showing her body for the whole world to see wouldn’t just affect her, but her family as well.
Once she had her family’s blessing, Hampton had to decide for herself if she wanted to do it and what kind of message she would be putting into the world. “How I approached it was this way: you want to make sure that you’re telling a true story and it’s not gratuitous. If you’re just showing boobies for the sake of showing boobies, that’s a problem for me and that’s something that I don’t go for.”
Hampton understands that some people had an issue about a recent episode where Veronica showed her breasts a lot, but she still felt it fit in with her requirements. The episode depicted Veronica shortly after giving birth to twins and was an honest portrayal of what it was like for a woman to deal with the pain of breastfeeding. It also showed a woman trying to find her sexuality with her husband after pregnancy and giving birth. “That, to me, is a role where television is telling a true story.”