Lupita Nyong’o has become a glamorous media favorite, but her ‘international’ allure won’t insulate her from having to navigate the politics of an industry and media prone to typecasting and pigeonholing actresses and women who share her complexion.
By Tiff Jones
A recent story about “regular black” people versus ethnic black people on US college campuses in theRoot.com made me think about the current media embrace of the multi-talented Lupita Nyong’o.
First published in April, the piece resurfaced again over the weekend. In it theRoot.com staff writer Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele reports that many black American students find that being “just black” in America is boring; Eromosele goes on to highlight the achievements of ethnic blacks from Africa or Europe, apparently at the expense of black American progress.
Comparatively, part of the reason US media has welcomed Lupita is because, like those ethnic college students, her blackness is ‘international,’ and in mainstream media-speak, ‘international’ is coded language for ‘exotic other.’
Not that Lupita’s talents don’t make her deserving of media attention. In fact, after her Oscar win for ‘12 Years A Slave‘ there was much media speculation about what was next for the 31-year-old actress, whether she would fall prey to the Oscar curse that seems to befall black actresses after they’ve received award recognition by the Academy. Quite the opposite, Lupita’s star is rising.
Not only has she snagged a role in Star Wars VII (J.J. Abrams was, reportedly, initially looking to cast a mixed-raced actress) she is also slated to adapt Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s acclaimed novel, Americanah, into a film, in which she’ll serve as star and producer (in collaboration with Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B). Lupita also landed the cover of People magazine’s annual ’50 Most Beautiful People’ 2014 issue, the cover of the July 2014 issue of Vogue, and an exclusive contract as the new face of Lancôme (making her the second black woman to serve as the cosmetic company’s brand “ambassadress”).
Her thriving in a mercurial business that has, so far, embraced Lupita has no doubt been refreshing. It’s also been impressive seeing Lupita use her platform to challenge conventional media standards of what’s deemed beautiful. However, Lupita’s popularity doesn’t mean that there’s been some huge and sudden shift in the dominant view of dark-skinned black and brown women in the industry. Lupita’s growing fame still isn’t the criterion for mono-racial black actresses; particularly those who are American-born. Lupita Nyong’o presents the type of interesting background, visual, and personality that has easily endeared her to the cult of personality. And the entertainment industry certainly loves to eat up stories about ‘other’ anything or anyone non-normative that will feed their affinity for pointing out others’ differences.
The media’s giddy fascination with othering non-American born black women in the entertainment industry, is what provoked handlers for figure-skater Surya Bonaly to fabricate a story about her origins, and what caused fashion photographer Peter Beard to sell some convoluted story about his discovery of Somali supermodel Iman, to the fashion world– a story that she admittedly helped perpetuate. For most black American women in the public eye (and in general), being ‘just black’ or not deemed a special enough snowflake apparently isn’t sufficient enough to garner visibility, opportunities, or respect. But American women who are visibly black are definitely interesting enough to vulturize before being totally erased from the equation.
In the 20+ years People magazine editors have been cranking out its ‘Most Beautiful…’ issue, only three black women have graced its cover: Halle Berry (who is biracial) appeared in 2003; it took the magazine nine years to put another black woman, a light-skin Beyonce, on the cover of Most Beautiful’s 2013 issue. While it’s been made clear that neither Halle or Beyonce is People’s (white) norm when it comes to the cover of the magazine’s annual list of superlatives, both are still the accepted standard when it comes to the preferred black female aesthetic in mass media, castings, and personal predilections.
Lupita has said herself that she didn’t always feel beautiful in her skin, during a poignant acceptance speech at an Essence awards luncheon earlier this year; and she’s emphatic about wanting to serve as an inspiration to other young black girls who don’t often see representations of themselves on TV or in magazines.
Some may (understandably) scoff at any suggestion that black beauty needs to be filtered through the white gaze and validated by white authority. Breaking News: It doesn’t. But it’s important to keep in mind that media images and characters that are inclusive matter to young black girls who are coming-of-age, being fed a steady diet of respectability politics, shadeism, racio-misogyny, and shady product endorsements that dissuade them from being proud of who they are, to such an extent that they feel the need to physically alter themselves to fit in. Also, distorted views on black beauty are often perpetuated intra-racially, driven by cultural imperialism; it’s important not to lose perspective of what breeds self-hate.
I’m still loath to call Lupita a ‘fetish,’ because she is immensely talented, deserving of all the wonderful things, and beautiful… period. And her image is needed in the fray. But when it comes to who is chosen to grace magazine covers and who become black leading ladies, the dominant media requires more dismantling, especially since there are a number of equally talented black seasoned actresses who have been in the business for years, but still come up against a dearth of plum roles because casting directors and producers often offer them to bankable (read: palatable) biracial or multiracial actresses– even in biopics where the subject is fully black; and industry folks will shamelessly costume a multiracial actress in blackface and prosthetic makeup to force it to work.
Lupita has become a glamorous media favorite, trendsetter, and is helping influence the way the world looks at dark-skinned black women. But her ‘international’ allure notwithstanding, this still doesn’t insulate her from having to navigate the politics of an industry and media prone to typecasting and pigeonholing actresses and women who share her complexion. She’s definitely carved out a niche for herself, but Lupita’s success doesn’t mark the end to the way mass media view black women who don’t often get the red carpet rolled out for them with such fanfare, or “regular black” students matriculating at Ivey League college campuses who may not get how special they actually are.
Tiff Jones is the creator and writer of Coffee Rhetoric, a blog about women, pop-culture, film and race. A contributor to both print and digital platforms, she has offered commentary on HuffPost Live and WNPR’s Where We Live.
A different version of this piece first appeared on the blog, CoffeeRhetoric.com.