Monday, 10 March 2014

The Princess in Nairobi Blue

"Once upon a time, in a wonderful land where most everyone had magical portals that showed them everything going on everywhere, an unlikely princess named Lupita did an unlikely thing; she became a star."

I used to believe that the age of the breakout superstar was over.  Now that we have reality TV and YouTube, any schmuck with a camera can become famous - there are after all 25 letters other than 'A' to go with the '-list celebrity' qualifier. But I'm willing to consider that I may have been wrong, because Lupita. 

Everyone's been talking about Lupita Nyong'o. She's talented, stylish, intelligent, gracious, funny and articulate. More importantly (to me at least), she's undeniably African; dark, with short cropped hair and a surname people are constantly asking to be taught to pronounce. She's also just won an oscar - she's only the 7th black woman to do so, the second African woman, and the first black African woman. In other words, Lupita Nyong'o is a Big Deal.

Unsurprisingly, there's talk about whether the buzz she generated is really commensurate to her achievements: 12 Years A Slave was her first film (is Non-Stop out in Nigeria yet?), she just graduated from drama school, and her only previous acting credit is in Shuga, a Kenyan series funded by MTV. Yet on the strength of these accomplishments alone she was the most talked-about actor this awards season - she did countless talk shows, magazine covers, interviews and appearances, and designers were apparently vying to dress her for the Oscars. It doesn't add up!

Or does it? Why the fuss about her? Why am I, a Nigerian woman, writing about her?

American culture is the most exported culture on the planet. I would make bold to say that the American entertainment industry is, for all intents and purposes, the entertainment industry of the English-speaking world. In other words, American culture is The Mainstream. And American history and social/racial constructs being what they are, people of color have a lot to contend with before they can be accepted into that mainstream as something other than a sales gimmick. I have a private joke about the movie awards season being a blizzard because the whiteness is unreal. And then when you do see black people, they're usually light-skinned. And if they're dark-skinned, they're usually male. And if they're female, they're usually not a big deal. 

But every once in a (long!) while, someone will come along who bucks the trend. It was Cecily Tyson once, then Whoopi Goldberg, then Gabourey Sidibe, then Viola Davis... They are few and far between because that's how the system works. But never have I seen a dark black woman capture the hearts and imaginations of Hollywood and the world in the way that Lupita did. Her face was everywhere. Her voice was everywhere. People put her sound bites up on their social media. They made memes out of her fashion choices. Lupita is a star - a real one.

As you might have guessed, I'm a fan. It made my heart sing to see someone who looks like me walk the red carpet looking flawless every time, receiving recognition for her work and talents. This is not to say that I don't have my reservations about the image that the media machine seems to have created for her; I do. I worry about the possibility that she's been fetishized as an exceptional creature, because that just reinforces the stereotype that dark black women can not ordinarily be beautiful. It upsets me that because she is female, so much of the discourse was about her attractiveness or otherwise, and her body was constantly scrutinized and judged, instead of the focus being on her accomplishments and personality. And it has occurred to me that she might have been a token; a pawn in the mess that is American (media's) race and gender relations.

But I think it does her, and all the people inspired by her, a disservice to focus on these things because of all the good that can come out of her stardom. Lupita herself has spoken about how seeing Alek Wek become a supermodel enabled her to stop wishing to become something other than what she was, because for the first time someone who looked like her was celebrated as beautiful. And now, she is doing that same thing for black girls everywhere. Her image is powerful. Her voice is powerful. So though it might be unrealistic to hope that the adulation never ends, I am glad the world talked about Lupita because no matter what, she will always be one more woman who proved that catching the eye and ear of the world is not reserved for blonde, blue-eyed beauties and those who look like them. Up there with Alek, Grace Jones, Iman and Nina Simone, Lupita is one more star who shines, dark as night.

There may never be a consensus on whether she deserved all the buzz, but who cares? People can question the validity of her celebrity and her beauty all they want, but it doesn't matter because now and forever, Lupita and her image are a powerful beacon of hope - a confirmation that, 'no matter where you are from, your dreams are valid.' 

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