I’m over black “it” girls.
It’s indisputable that Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar-winning actress, fresh faced fashion darling, and kick- ass flight attendant co-star of Liam Neeson is having a moment. Lupita’s face is everywhere, much like Jennifer Lawrence after the Oscars last year, but this time there’s something different to celebrate. Lupita, born in Mexico and raised in Kenya, has natural hair, dark skin, and is just the kind of public personality many people have been waiting for with hopes that she might tip the balance of unequal representation the tiniest bit further in favor of more than just Caucasian faces.
Of course, it’s fantastic to see Lupita adding racial diversity to many of the primarily white circles of Hollywood. It’s was incredibly encouraging to see how warmly the public accepted her after 12 Years a Slave opened at the box office. Up until Sunday, it felt like there was no possible way for Lupita to get better press. And then she won the Oscar.
Now what? Though many hopeful optimists and wishful thinkers would like to believe otherwise, Hollywood’s race problem isn’t fixed. In fact, though Lupita has achieved a wonderful goal and might continue to make fantastic films, we’re not even close to better representation in Hollywood — and we’re light years away from equal.
The problem with Lupita Nyong’o has nothing to do with Lupita herself (she’s great!), the issue lays in the smug satisfaction that even some of the most “progressive” Lupita enthusiasts get from singing her praises. Somewhere in the time it has taken to for the internet to explode with a barrage of thousands of compliments suggesting how “regal” or “striking” or “flawless” Lupita is, we’ve placed Lupita on a pedestal from which she is sure to fall. We’ve constructed an idea that she, the sole female Oscar nominee of color for this year, needs to be perfect while Jennifer Lawrence trips her way down the red carpet. Thanks to one movie, one award, and a few fashion ads, people think Lupita has paved the way in to superstardom for dark skinned black girls all over the world, but the truth is that path is still super gravelly at best, and often only allows one traveler at a time.
Last year’s black “it” girl was Kerry Washington. Remember her? We’ve all also heard the occasional reference to other Hollywood tokens like Halle Berry, Viola Davis, Zoe Saldana– all black it girls of one moment or another. If we’re making so much progress with representation in Hollywood, why is it that we can only have one black “it” girl for every 25 caucasian actresses? Why is it that as soon as Lupita is in, Kerry is out?
Though Lupita physically resembles many Black women for whom it is a rarity to see themselves reflected in the media, she’s also a model minority of sorts. Yale educated, foreign and thus distanced from a long American history of slavery and institutionalized degradation, and humble beyond belief. These things don’t make me any less happy to see Lupita win an award for which she was very deserving, but they also fail to convince me that I, as a Black American woman have been represented this year by Hollywood.
We shouldn’t have to settle for one example of blackness in the spotlight at any given time. Imagine if rather than being a woman of the moment, each talented black actress that makes her way onto to scene stays there, is offered fashions spreads, and the opportunity to play roles that will win them Oscar awards. Imagine if Lupita didn’t have to stand on a pedestal alone. Doesn’t that sound like something to celebrate?
Yes, I am proud of Lupita and excited to see some beautiful brownness in my magazines, but it’s going to take more than Internet communities fetishizing her natural hair to ensure that her reality can happen for other black women. So what can be done?
Rather than ogling Lupita until you inevitably get bored, if you really mean it when you say you love seeing her natural hair on the red carpet and seeing racial diversity in the Oscar nominees, buy tickets to movies with black actresses in roles other than the standard nanny, maid, or mystical sidekick, subscribe to magazines that promote racial diversity even when it’s not in and make some noise when other don’t. In short, put your money where your mouth is. If you can spend money on seeing The Vow in theaters, you can spare $12 to support equal representation while getting your popcorn fix.
Don’t settle for the black “it” girl. Blackness isn’t a trend, and black talent isn’t an anomaly. Lupita Nyong’o and the countless talented black women like her are deserving of so much more than a single season of attention.
Reader submission by Alexsis Johnson