You may have noticed: Lupita Nyong’o is having quite a moment.
Lupita Nyong’o is on the Hollywood Issue of Vanity Fair. Lupita Nyong’o has a beauty feature in Essence. Lupita Nyong’o is on the cover of Dazed and Confused. Lupita Nyong’o has a fashion shoot in Italian Vogue. Lupita Nyong’o is modeling for Miu Miu. Lupita Nyongo’s on the cover of W! Some may argue we’re reaching Lupita Nyong’o over-saturation. I’ll argue that there’s no such thing as too much Lupita Nyong’o. It’s actually extremely vital that we see Lupita Nyong’o — and faces like hers — as often as possible.
Why? Because looks-wise, Nyong’o, who was born in Mexico and raised in Kenya, flies in the face of the traditional young Hollywood starlet. She is black. Her hair is short. Her skin is dark.
Just as a reminder, here’s what “young Hollywood” usually looks like:
In 2010, Hollywood-oriented glossy magazine Vanity Fair declared, “a new decade, a new Hollywood!” Nine “fresh faces,” all of them white. This was the same year — the same month — that Gabourey Sidibe was being lauded as a breakout star for her performance in the Oscar-nominated film Precious, and she landed the cover of Ebony. Why was Sidibe left out of the “fresh faces” cover? Surely there are many reasons, including the fact that all of the VF ladies are very very slim. But it’s important to face the facts: We’re living in a society that shuns dark skin.
Our collective history, in terms of visual perception, has been constructed upon the myth that lighter is better; the very word “fair” means both light and pretty. We also associate darkness with wrongness, evil and danger. There are other cultures in which black is power; darkness is rich and positive, like the best soil. But Western society — from the fetishization of “alabaster” skin to New Orleans paper bag parties — has, for centuries, denigrated, devalued and debased those with black skin. Even our language around degradation: to “blacken” one’s name, to “tarnish” a reputation —is problematic. Dark skin is also viewed as negative in certain African and South Asian cultures; for instance, India’s skin-bleaching market is huge.
And here, in the US? The women of color who do well here — the top-earners, the most visible, the ones with ad campaigns and cosmetic contracts — are not dark. CoverGirl may consistently hire women of color for ad campaigns, but they’re usually beige-ish, and often have light hair. Then again. how many dark-skinned women find success and fame, are accepted into the mainstream? The cosmetics companies hire who the music industry pushes and who the movie industry casts. We’re all operating in the same system, one that elevates and celebrates women who adhere to a certain standard of beauty — one based on Anglo-Saxon features.
We’ve posted this before — the trailer for the documentary Dark Girls — but it’s important to remember just how toxic our environment is for people with dark skin. Over and over, people recreate Dr. Clark’s “doll test” from 1940s and find, over and over, that children — often too young to read — when shown a black doll and a white doll and asked to identify the “bad” or “ugly” doll, will point to the black doll. In Dark Girls, one woman recalls: “I can remember being in the bathtub and asking my mom to put bleach in the water so that my skin would be lighter.”
So there’s no such thing as too much Lupita Nyong’o. Let us all gaze upon the stunning beauty of Lupita Nyong’o. The point is not to reduce Lupita Nyong’o to her skin color. She is an adept and skilled actress. She earned a degree in film and theater studies from Hampshire College and an MFA from the Yale School of Drama. She wrote, directed and produced a documentary. She is many things. And she should be able to live her life without feeling like the poster child for a cause.
But in this increasingly visual culture, one in which we’re inundated by images all day long — especially images of women, especially images of young women — she is a glorious and refreshing sight. Her face everywhere helps us, as a society, on our journey as we come to terms with recognizing and embracing non-Caucasian beauty. Visibility is key. Again: Visibility is key. If you don’t see dark faces, how can you see dark faces as beautiful? (And yes, I know, black been beautiful. I know.) We need to live in a time where the stories told in Hollywood are more diverse, so that the “young Hollywood” issue becomes more diverse, so that the things designed to entice us into spending our hard-earned money (movies, magazines, mascara ads) more closely represent our reality.
As long as we have to make a big deal about black actors on the main cover of Vanity Fair, as long as diversity on the fashion week runways continues to be a goddamn problem, as long as “young Hollywood” is only white, there is no such thing as too much Lupita Nyong’o. We need Lupita Nyong’o, and Michelle Obama, and Atong Arjok and Ajak Deng and whomever else we can get — big, glossy, dressed to the nines and looking gorgeous. In fact, Nyong’o says, in the Vogue Italia interview:
…The rise of the Sudanese model Alek Wek, a beautiful black woman with short hair, helped me change my perception of myself… I’m not sorry to take advantage of this burst of fame to inspire other women to appreciate the afro more.
If their visibility can stop ONE little girl from asking her mother to pour bleach in the bathtub, then it’s worth it. Because when someone complains about our “relentless, pointed obsession with the physical appearance” of Lupita Nyong’o, my answer is: Are you fucking kidding? There’s no such thing as too much Lupita Nyong’o.
Lede images by Tom Munro for Vogue Italia.