Is Lupita Nyong’o A Fetish?

March 4, 2014  |  

Everyone is talking about Lupita Nyong’o. And I mean, everyone.

And why shouldn’t they? Nyong’o is not only beautiful, smart and can wear any got-damn color in the rainbow and still look fantastic, she is also very accomplished. Her most recent achievement: winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her powerful portrayal of Patsey in the also Oscar winning film 12 Years a Slave. It would make sense that all attention would be on Hollywood’s newest “It” girl.

However not everyone has been comfortable with some of the attention. As noted recently by mononymous writer Charish in the piece, The Fetishization of Lupita Nyong’o:

I‘m also weirded out by the onslaught of white people who are just plain gob-smacked by her exquisiteness. I’ve received an enormous amount of trending Facebook articles from various fashion sources that seem almost amazed by how beautiful Lupita is. It irks me that people don’t find it ironic how Nyong’o has preformed one of the most gut-wrenching representations of an enslaved black woman. Her character, Patsey, shows the reality of an enslaved body; this body is allowed to be ogled, worked to death, beaten, and raped. This body does not belong to Patsey and for some reason, it feels as though Nyong’o’s body doesn’t belong to her either.”

This objectifying of N’yong’o has not been lost on me (and based on the rumblings on my timeline, it has not been lost on others as well) and I think the above paragraph is a perfect articulation as just how icky some of this “admiration” has felt. But is it all bad?

As noted in the essay Suddenly, Being Africa Is Cool, writer Melinda Ozongwu believes that the sudden interest in Nyong’o, among other African A-listers Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor, has created  opportunities to challenge some long-held and believed stereotypes and perceptions:

 “I had a conversation with a friend who was uncomfortable with the media’s fixation with Lupita. She felt Lupita was being ogled for her ‘exoticness’ and that she was willingly allowing herself to be Hollywood’s dark-skinned mannequin. That the attention was in reality some sort of obsession masking America’s discomfort with race, and an overcompensation for what Lupita symbolised with her role in 12 Years A Slave. I say, let them be obsessed, so that an image that is so familiar to us becomes less unfamiliar to them. Let them learn to pronounce our names and enjoy our beauty. And let us enjoy the celebration because they came late to the party. They are just confirming what we’ve known all along – we’re pretty damn cool.”

Real Colored Girls Christa Bell and Mako Fitts Ward echoed similar sentiments about Nyongo’s role in challenging perceptions in the piece: Pretty Hurts: How Lupita Nyong’o is Healing the Beauty Game. However they focused on her effect on crafting a new set of beauty standards to counter what they have called an “conceptual erasure” of darker skinned black women in the media. More specifically:

One way to heal the fissures created by a global white supremacist beauty mandate is, of course, to increase portrayals of gorgeous, dark-skinned Black women in the representational sphere. We have to come up with creative strategies to heal our trauma around beauty and to create new versions of ourselves to celebrate and love. In the same way that Sweden has, for example, implemented a new rating system that considers the portrayal of women or that writer Inga Muscio documents the prevalence of rape culture in film, we must figure out ways to ensure that we aren’t triggered by images of us as abysmal creatures from the white imaginary.”

And Enuma Okoro, who in the piece What Actor Lupita Nyong’o Can Teach Us About Beauty, sees N’yongo’s importance as a way to help tear at racial categories and colorism in general, writing:

Understanding a little of this history of racial categorization can help place the issue of colorism in some much-needed context. It is easy to see why a woman like Lupita shining in the public eye is a sight for sore eyes. It is refreshing to have the world recognize her physical beauty as a woman, period. But, what I find admirable and even more fascinating about Lupita Nyong’o, besides her stunning good looks and her amazing fashion sense, is her own work to highlight another group of people who have been historically ill-treated for actually not having enough color at all. While the world rightfully celebrates Lupita Nyong’o in all her dark-skinned beauty, she herself has tried to educate the world about the condition of people with the rare genetic disorder of albinism in Kenya, her home.”

Not to mention that Nyong’o has seemed to even embrace her role as transformative figure. Recently at the Essence’s 7th annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon she took to the podium and gave a passionate speech about receiving a letter from a girl, who was considering skin bleaching. Speaking of her own struggles to accept a skin tone, which was so contrary to what was deemed beautiful by the world’s media, Nyong’o said:

And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade to that beauty.”

In a sense, Nyong’o is almost like President Obama, who is coincidentally half-Kenyan. While not the first black, African or dark-skinned woman to win an Oscar – or even thought of as beautiful – she does embody a comfortable symbol of hope and change against deeply-entrenched beliefs held by our society, race and global culture, just as our current sitting president. Whether or not her impact will be a strong enough blow against the current status quo is yet to be seen. And if the President’s uphill and constant capitulation is any indication, this transformation of the larger society’s opinion of our (black, African, dark skin) beauty and worth is very doubtful. And I hope one day, we stop looking towards the larger corporatized and racist culture for our own validation.

However, after personally playing witness to black folks openly and in some cases proudly, speaking about their shame over their skin tones (or the dark skin tones of others), it is clear that many of us haven’t done a good job of reaffirming our own beauty. So maybe having a visual role model to the diversity of our beauty is exactly what we need. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with acknowledging that much.


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