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The Respectability Politics of Lupita Nyong’o

The Respectability Politics of Lupita Nyong'o

Ahead of last weekend’s Academy Awards, The Hollywood Reporter published a feature on the anonymous comments of Oscar voters who explained with “brutal honesty” the reasons behind some of their picks. Instantly apparent was how many of the observations seemed arbitrary, or petty, or completely off-base. In the Best Supporting Actress category, one voter made the horrifying observation that Lupita Nyong’o had allegedly “brought sexuality” to her role as a victimized slave girl in 12 Year’s A Slave.


There was another who implied that all the “commotion” over her in recent months was simply because of the amount of “empathy and sympathy” that her character draws out from audiences, as if that effect on the viewer had nothing to do with her skill as an actress and everything to do with the fact that she was playing a slave. All unsurprising estimations from the 94% white, 76% male voting Academy.

Another voter’s remarks, though, especially stood out, pointing to a thread that has become a large component in Lupita’s meteoric (and ultimately well-deserved) rise from hardworking unknown to A-List it girl. The voter’s assessment was not just of her performance in the film, but her performance off screen. He (or she) commended the actress for “handling herself impeccably” during awards season, adding:

“She has acted like a movie star: she looks great, she is grateful, there’s no pictures of her drunk at some party. She’s played her part well.”

It may seem harmless on one level, but the comment is enormously telling. It highlights not only the politics that we are all vaguely aware of when it comes to who does and doesn’t get the Oscar, but the politics of respectability that have, for better or worse, colored so much of Lupita’s attention and success. Because what if Lupita hadn’t played her so-called part so well? What if she had been snapped drunk at a party? What if she wasn’t Ivy-League educated, poised, articulate, calculatedly and well-styled, full of such earnest awe and gratitude? And more importantly, what “part,” exactly, is she expected to play?

Consider last year’s it girl, Jennifer Lawrence. Much of Lawrence’s charm, what has seemingly endeared her to fans and voters alike, is the fact that she’s beautiful but brash, clumsy, outspoken, quick to drop an f-bomb or flip the bird, and unapologetic about her love of sports and junk food. If Lupita had exhibited those characteristics, if she were less poised and less stylishly presented, would she garner the same appreciation that she’s been getting? Would she still have won the Oscar? The ideal answer would be “Yes, of course.” But the thing about the ideal anything is that it doesn’t always reflect reality.

For better or worse, Lupita’s beauty and persona have become incredibly politicized. She’s ultimately a positive figure, standing as a reminder of the power of representation. During her childhood she was inspired to act by Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple, thirty years before that Whoopi was inspired to act by Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek. And today, as she revealed in her moving speech at Essence’s luncheon for black women in Hollywood, she’s received messages of gratitude from young, dark skinned girls who feel empowered to embrace their complexions the way Hollywood has embraced hers.

But there’s something to be said for the exotification of Lupita, and the heavy burden that all the attention she gets, so much of it hinging on her singular beauty (by Hollywood’s standards), has brought her. There have been other black actresses who look like her, but few have come so close to the potential of true leading lady, true A-List star. Perhaps part of that is down to the fact that she isn’t African-American, but Kenyan, a fact that only further exotifies her and distances her from the so-called baggage that comes with black American actors. Perhaps part of it also has to do with the role which introduced her to us – is Hollywood subconsciously in awe that she is not Patsey, or more specifically a Patsey of the 21st Century?

Lupita is the “right” kind of (dark) black woman for Hollywood. Her aesthetic, though different than anything we’ve ever seen before, is digestible because its wrapped up in a package that makes people like the Oscar voter feel comfortable, unthreatened. Which isn’t to take anything away from her – her impact is sorely needed, and important. Hollywood already has a problem with showcasing black actors and telling black stories. Perhaps she could change that. However the question is not only if its prepared to accommodate Lupita’s presence, but if it’s ready to open doors for other women who look like her. In other words, how much impact can Lupita even make?

As writer Janell Hobson recently pointed out in an essay titled ‘Black Female Too-Muchness,’ the problem is that Lupita has been propped up as a sort of exception to a rule, a standard to which all other black women, especially those who look like her, are held. Earlier this week, there was a controversial cartoon released depicting a little black girl with posters of Lupita plastered across her bedroom wall, while posters of Nicki Minaj are stuffed into her trash can. By denigrating Minaj and putting Lupita on a pedestal of exemplary black womanhood, the artist, and those who share the sentiments of the cartoon, do not only Minaj but Lupita a disservice.

Ultimately, the politics of how Lupita Nyong’o has been received are largely out of her control, as were those final votes that allowed her to walk onto that stage last Sunday and into Academy Award history. Yes, Lupita is amazing, talented, and beautiful, but as her star continues to ascend there’s a sense that the near saint-like status that we’ve all been complicit in could be damaging somehow. The activist Janet Mock’s words in her memoir Redefining Realness may speak rather aptly to Lupita’s condition now, the condition of being the exception to Hollywood’s rule. “Being exceptional isn’t revolutionary,” Mock writes. “It’s lonely.”

Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.

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