LAYENI: The curious case of Lupita Nyong’o

The media’s fixation on the young actor’s beauty reveals a disturbing trend

If you haven’t heard of Lupita Nyong’o, then where have you been? She’s the totally beautiful, totally stylish Mexican-born Kenyan whose stellar performance as Patsey in “12 Years A Slave” has skyrocketed her into Hollywood fame. And this Sunday, the world awaits her divine ascendance onto the red carpet at the Oscars. What will she wear? Will she beat Jennifer Lawrence and win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress? WHAT. WILL. SHE. WEAR?!

Notice anything strange about my treatment of Nyong’o? I treated her like an image. No worries about who she really is. Instead let’s focus on her beauty and her clothes. Since Lupita first burst onto the scene, the media has been obsessively consuming her in a way that I find problematic. Media outlets have fixated on her beauty in a way that Dr. Yaba Blay, a professor at Drexel University, says makes her the “exception and not the rule.” The best way to understand this point is by understanding the media’s past treatment of black female actresses.

Halle Berry. Gabrielle Union. Kerry Washington. What do these three black women have in common? The fact that they can never coexist. The media has a tendency of elevating one black actress over any others. There seems to be room for only one black Hollywood “it girl” at a time. Now that we’re hearing more about Lupita Nyong’o, Kerry Washington’s stardom has died down and we hear about her less.

Coming back to the “exception and not the rule” idea, the media has constantly shown one dimension of black female beauty, à la Beyoncé and Halle Berry. But what if you’re a black woman and don’t look like that? Further, what if you’re a dark-skinned black woman? Where can you look in the media to see someone who looks vaguely similar to you? For a long time, nowhere. In an age where the skin-bleaching epidemic is overtaking Africa and here in the United States where colorism and the light skin vs. dark skin debates are ever so present, dark skin is seen as pathological, morally incorrect. Many dark skinned black girls suffer from intensely low self-esteem because it seems like everywhere they turn, hip-hop music videos, fashion magazines, television, and even their families, there is an underlying and everlasting principle: light is right and black is bad. However with the release of the film, “12 Years A Slave,” something wicked this way comes.

Enter Lupita Nyong’o.

Dark skin. Short natural hair. Out of this world beauty. Every time I see a photo or read an interview about Nyong’o, I can’t help but notice the air that surrounds her. In one way or another, she is always exoticized. Not only is her African-ness emphasized but so is the fact that she was born in Mexico. Not only is her education at Yale School of Drama emphasized but so is the fact that “12 Years A Slave” was her first acting job before she even graduated. The media is so interested in deconstructing her into every article of clothing she wears. In interviews her beauty or fashion sense is usually commented on first, or interviewers ask to go shopping with her. Being beautiful is not a bad thing, but when it becomes everyone’s primary fixation and it starts to subsume an entire career and achievements, well then it’s a beast of its own.

Further — Lupita being a dark-skinned black woman whose beauty has been universally acclaimed — her beauty is set up as the exception for black women instead of the rule. For her to be beautiful and black is unheard of, against the norm, something that we don’t see often, so it must be an exception. This idea totally disregards the millions of beautiful black women who are beautiful simply because they are. Also, being a dark-skinned woman myself, I look somewhat similar to Lupita but I am not her. I dislike the media’s idea that somehow, some way, through Lupita’s beauty, I can be redeemed and seen as beautiful too, and that all dark-skinned women will be saved and redeemed by its exceptionally beautiful sisters.

This is not the truth, and it will never be the truth. While we sit back and relax this Sunday watching the Oscars, I hope that we can all question the way the media is causing us to consume Lupita, and that we can genuinely like her not solely because she’s beautiful but because of her talents and who she is, all the while seeing the beauty in ourselves.

Kemi Layeni is a first-year in the College.

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