Longreads

The trouble with the fuss over Lupita

I can’t shake the feeling that the overnight interest in the lovely Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar winner in the supporting actress role for the movie 12 Years a Slave is a lot like the interest in the South African Khoi woman Saartjie Baartman. Sure Lupita is not being poked and prodded and having body parts measured to see how she fares against the ‘normal’ woman like Saartjie was during the 19th century in Britain and France but it feels a lot like look-at-the-‘native’-who-made -it.

It is true that in her industry especially, a woman’s success is judged by her beauty & style first and talent second. The women in this industry are also co-opted into this because they know this fanfare is what can potentially drive us consumers to see their work, which is what most actresses devoted to their craft care about.

I agree with the sentiments of some that Lupita is being seen as exotic. She is a beautiful woman no doubt . Beautiful for a black girl is how it comes across to me.

Let’s get it out of the way, it always warms my heart to see someone’s dreams come true and I think she’s lovely. I do just love that she’s a dark-skinned African woman with a short haircut. I hope she will have a long fulfilling and successful career so this isn’t about her, it’s about how she is being received and what it says about black women in the media.

Lupita has brought the topic of her skin colour on the agenda during her acceptance speech for Best Breakthrough Performance Award at the 7th annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, when she spoke of how she prayed to God to lighten her skin—and the significance of her seeing model Alek Wek, ‘A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was,’ said Lupita ‘I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful.’

It is interesting that she spoke of Alek Wek because she came to mind when I wondered the last time in recent history that we had so much fuss over a beautiful dark-skinned black woman.

Lupita, I am sure was inspired to share her own story in response to a letter she received from a young girl who wrote to her saying: ‘I think you’re really lucky to be this black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.’

As a dark-skinned black woman from Africa, I can’t help but acknowledge the relevance of Lupita’s Oscar win in enhancing the esteem of young black girls the world over who are unable to fight the constant message that white is right. But it would be dishonest not to point out that despite her dark skin, Lupita comes in a nice tidy package – she’s skinny and does not display the African bum as my own is often called.

It’s like the Princess Tiana doll which made ‘history’ as the first African-American Disney Princess, everything about her features are like the white princesses except she is a few shades darker.

We know this because from actress Gabourey Sidibe whose breakout role in Precious did not come with her becoming an overnight media darling, in fact all her media attention is nearly entirely based on how she needs to lose weight. I loved her twitter response to the haters in social media after the Golden Globes: ‘To people making mean comments about my GG pics, I mos def cried about it on that private jet on my way to my dream job last night.’

It still all boils down to the old classification of field slave and house slave who would have ‘finer’ features i.e. lighter skin, softer hair and a tinier frame.  It shows time and time again that only a certain kind of black woman infiltrates mainstream for example singer Beyoncé or actress Halle Berry are crossover artists because white audiences can ‘relate’ to them. They have all the other ‘right’ features – fair skin and ‘good’ hair whereas an artist like India Arie is too much of a sista to cross the colour line in a major way. Eventhough nowadays it has become trendy to talk about curves and being bootylicious as long as it comes in, for lack of a better word, white package.

On our televisions we are constantly bombarded with products promising to make us ‘fair and lovely’. Women in Asian countries are showing record numbers of eyelid surgery to make them look more ‘western’. Host of The Talk, Julie Chen, has recently admitted she had eye surgery because earlier in her career she was told the way her eyes were would prevent her from going to the next level.

Reportedly Chen was told: ‘Let’s face it Julie, how relatable are you to our community?…’ her then boss went on to say ‘On top of that, because of your Asian eyes, sometimes I’ve noticed that when you’re on camera and you’re interviewing someone, you look disinterested. You look bored.’

On the skin lightening front, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says, 77 percent of women in Nigeria use skin-lightening products, the world’s highest percentage. That compares with 59 percent in Togo, and 27 percent in Senegal.

Many women who use skin-lightening creams are chasing the concept of beauty that says lighter-skinned women are more beautiful and successful.

Can you blame them? In film how many women of colour are portrayed just as an interesting character not dealing with race? How many women of colour make the cover of major magazines? In fact sometimes they are deliberately left out like in March 2010, when Vanity Fair’s ‘young hollywood’ issue did not include anyone of colour.

How many children’s books have characters of colour not dealing with the subject of race and integration?

And let’s be honest how many movie roles are out there for black actors outside of ‘black movies’ or telling the story of an oppressed black figure? You will see even less interracial romantic comedies unless it is dealing with the subject of ‘interracial love’.

There are sort of two problems with the Lupita obsession; one of them being the attention has been less on her performance but more on her beauty & style.

What is the single most talked about factor regarding US First Lady Michelle Obama – her style.

In South Africa a seven-month pregnant parliamentarian was pulled to shreds in social media during the red carpet (yes I also ask myself why parliamentarians need to do a red carpet, I understand where it comes from historically, 20 years in a new democracy the first democratic parliament needed a public display) walk to the State of the Nation Address because she just didn’t tick the fashion boxes. It was open season on her body too.

It reminded me of a women’s day text I received nearly a decade ago from a black male friend where he said it was tough to be a woman in our world but harder to be a black woman.

The other problem is the colour and body issue.

Like many black kids, I was not immune to the sights of black women with their discoloured blotchy faces – the result of applying skin-lightening creams on their faces. Luckily I was not raised to believe in this habit, frankly those women looked scary. But there was a great deal of talk in my extended family about my dark skin. I remember coming home from school after walking in the blazing sun and a family member said ‘my god look how much blacker she’s getting’. I remember thinking it is not something I can do anything about, not a single thing.

I was also told to walk around the house with a peg on my nose for as long as I could stand it so my nose would ‘not be so flat’. And that I should always wear A-cut dresses to cover my bum and not make it look so big.

I will not lie the early days of the obsession with Beyoncé’s bum made me feel prouder because she made it sexy for me to have one too and it helped a lot with how I was perceived during those insecure teen years but still it was a lot like Saartjie, it was something to talk about and be exhibited – not good. But Beyoncé couldn’t cover it all for me because I didn’t tick the two other ‘beauty boxes’ – hair and skin.

I am not saying it’s all the media’s fault but they are powerful and our kids don’t stand a chance against what’s being thrown at them no matter what they are told at home. We can’t ignore the fact that the icons we see in the media are important; it is wonderful to see someone who looks like you being successful especially when all evidence is telling you that you need to be something else to attain that. At the same time symbolism only goes so far, we have to perhaps as an important first step make the changes in our own homes too, rejuvenate what it means to be beautiful, think consciously what we expose our children to right down to the toys we let them play with. Listen to the subtle messages our children get about themselves in those music videos. And yes it is never going to be as simple as having one Obama, Oprah, Alek or Lupita – I dream of a time when we will say that she is a talented actress first not just a beautiful actress or when one is not marked as a great black woman but a great woman.

We can actively do something about it or choose to deal with it as elegantly as American actress/comedian Amy Poehler when asked about the lack of a black woman on Saturday Night Live since the depature of Maya Rudolph : ‘Ugh, I don’t want to talk about this. Pass.’

P.S. In the 86 years of the Academy here is a list of how many black actors have been awarded
1939       Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind
1963       Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field
1982       Louis Gossett, Jr. , An Officer and a Gentleman
1989       Denzel Washington, Glory
1990       Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost
1996       Cuba Gooding, Jr., Jerry Maguire
2001       Denzel Washington, Training Day
2001       Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball
2004      Jamie Foxx, Ray
2004      Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby
2006      Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland
2006      Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
2009      Mo’Nique, Precious
2011       Octavia Spencer, The Help
2013       Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

Sources
Lupita’s speech from Black Women in Hollywood http://www.essence.com/2014/02/27/lupita-nyongo-delivers-moving-black-women-hollywood-acceptance-speech

Or watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPCkfARH2eE&feature=share

Gabourey Sidibe quote: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/01/14/showbiz/tv/gabourey-sidibe-golden-globes-comeback/

South African Parliamentarian story: http://m.mg.co.za/index.php?view=article&urlid=2014-02-14-the-woman-in-yellow-who-got-dissed-at-sona%2F#.Uxj7bIVUPIi

Julie Chen’s eyes: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/julie-chen-reveals-asian-eyes-628307

Stats on skin lightening: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/04/20134514845907984.html

Amy Poehler article:  http://www.salon.com/2014/01/08/amy_poehler_on_black_women_and_snl_ugh_i_dont_want_to_talk_about_this_pass/

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