The Fetishization of Lupita Nyong’o

Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress last night, for her powerful role in 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen! Go Lupita! 

But lately, I feel a little fatigued by the “Oh-my-god-Lupita-Nyong’o-is-so-beautiful-I-can’t-DEAL-WITH-IT!” The current fad-like coverage of the Kenyan actress, overshadows the more interesting things about her background, the stuff that doesn’t get reported with the same voracity. True, I assumed she was a nobody until this slave narrative film, but with a simple skim of Wikipedia, I learned much more about Nyong’o.

Black and white fans, alike, are enamored with Nyong’o for what I believe, are different reasons. Blacks are proud that Nyong’o crushed it in her portrayal of Patsey in the powerful 12 Years a Slave (and I’m personally excited that we’ve got another black woman winning major acting awards). Whites seems to be most preoccupied with Nyong’o’s exotic look and I think that’s something we, as a society, probably need to address.


 For those who don’t know it, Lupita Nyong’o was born in Mexico City and hails from an affluent family of artists, doctors and scholars. She attended Hampshire College, here in the states, and graduated with a degree in Film and Theater Studies. She’s also a Yale graduate and a polyglot, fluent in several languages.

I was pretty excited to know that Nyong’o actually wrote, directed and produced a documentary, in 2009, called In My Genes, where she investigates the how Africans with albinism experience life in a predominately black Kenya. I was stoked to know this because all I’ve seen of Lupita Nyong’o, is how beautiful she is on every red carpet she walks. Which is wonderful, because Nyong’o is indeed quite beautiful! But she’s also extremely talented in other, more important ways.

I’m also weirded out by the onslaught of white people who are just plain gob-smacked by her exquisiteness. I’ve received an enormous amount of trending Facebook articles from various fashion sources that seem almost amazed by how beautiful Lupita is. It irks me that people don’t find it ironic how Nyong’o has preformed one of the most gut-wrenching representations of an enslaved black woman, while her appearance has been so closely scrutinized. Her character, Patsey, shows the reality of an enslaved body, a body that is allowed to be ogled, worked to death, beaten, and raped. This body does not belong to Patsey and for some reason, it seems as though Nyong’o’s body doesn’t belong to her either.


Not too much has changed in regards to the black female body. Society still turns a blind eye to the raped black female body, but leers at the black female body on display. Whether it be in a Miley Cyrus music video, on the cover of King Magazine, or on a red carpet, black female bodies are still objects to be commodified. Designers have fallen all over themselves to drape their designs on Nyong’o’s black body. When commentators talk about her many red carpet looks, I find myself wondering: “Are they talking about how lovely the dress is, being held up by a black mannequin? Or are they talking about Lupita’s fascinating dark body and face?”

Admittedly, my cynicism can be dangerous. Instead of taking white people at their word, I’m  suspicious of their motives. Whites could genuinely find Nyong’o so gorgeous that they don’t know what to do with themselves: “I CAN’T!” They might find her beautiful without even consciously understanding their exotic motivations: “She’s just so. . . noble!” For all I know, they might not be trying to be proving anything when they loudly insist how stunning she is. This is 2014, why can’t I just be happy that another black woman has won an Academy Award? Young black girls of all shades are finally able to see themselves on screen! That, in itself, is really exciting!

Ugh, but then there’s that nagging feeling, the one built upon institutionalized racism and colonialism. The feeling that tells me that Lupita Nyong’o will end up just like the rest of them:

  • Viola Davis, who white people thought was a national treasure because she played the help with such a noble, quiet strength. 
  • Quvenzhané Wallis, who was actually in 12 Years a Slave, but didn’t receive much press. For her role as Hushpuppy, in Beasts of the Southern Wild, she was nominated for a Best Leading Actress Oscar. The night of the awards, she was called the C-word by The Onion in a jokey tweet.
  • Gabourey Sidibe, who played Precious, another “hard to watch” film. The white criticism was mixed and decidedly trite. But almost all of it had to do with her obesity.
  • Halle Berry, the only black female to win the Best Leading Actress award. Ever. Had to preform the most cringe-worthy, upsetting sex scene with Billy Bob Thornton to be recognized by the Academy. 

 All of this is to say, Hopefully, one day, a black actress will win an Academy Award based on a performance that’s not based on the oppression of black women. Cate Blanchett won the award for Best Leading Actress last night. In the Woody Allen film, Blue Jasmine, she plays a New York socialite, whose life falls apart, forcing her to live with her sister in San Francisco. I’m sure she did an excellent job because she’s a great actress! But did she have to prove anything or teach black people a valuable lesson in history or humanity to get her award? Was she involved in a “teachable moment?”

Just as Blanchett is classically beautiful in, I don’t know. . . a kind of timeless way, I’m still hoping for the next great black actress to be beautiful in the same way. Not in an exotic, noble, new-car smelling way.

82 thoughts on “The Fetishization of Lupita Nyong’o

  1. I'm just so sick of the subtle, but constant tone of surprise you hear when white people talk about Black and/or African excellence. Like they're surprised that Africans aren't still spear waving savages. Lupita Nyong'o IS exceptional and an utterly remarkable talent. That shouldn't be a surprise just because she's from Kenya.


  2. D Moe! You just summed up what I was literally about to type so succinctly.

    Anyone who reads Lupita's Essence Speech would probably understand that Lupita, whilst recognising Hollywood's adoration of her is nobody's object, and owns her beauty. The platform that Lupita's exoticness provides may irk the author, but we can't forget that this spotlight is providing a much needed boost for many of our darker-skinned sisters who have grown up unfortunately thinking that they are not as pretty as their lighter skinned, black counterparts. For more of my thoughts on this matter, check out my post below and tell me if you agree! ;)


  3. I concur with Naija princess and unknown, though i thought i'd just add that white women can indeed play roles that aren't historically or physically accurate, take Elizabeth Taylor, Vivian Lee and Sophia Loren (to name a few!) in their depictions of Cleopatra- an Egyptian Queen. And more recently, Angelina Jolie in 'A Mighty Heart' depicting a mixed heritage, Mariane Pearl. Lets get real on this issue. We are happy for any achievements of our people but we can't deny the underlying problems we continue to face. Fantastic article by the way my sentiments exactly!


  4. I Really appreciated this article. As a Black woman I resonated with many of the comments and most of the article as well. There were a couple things I agreed with: the fetishization of Ms. Nyong’os’ body as a Black Kenyan woman, for the most part was true for me. What was not however, was the incessant need to validate her “brains” over her “beauty”.

    More than ever I see how feminist perspective’s can be restrictive in their attempt to uplift women from their objectification. But here, by dismissing her beauty as being “less important” is not progressive enough, in my humble opinion. (Let’s not forget she was looking jacked-up in the film), so maybe people were really amazed by how beautiful she was…in the introduction to whom she was. Let’s play imaginary for a second. What if the first time you saw Mariah Carey was as the social worker in “Precious”, I was surprised home-girl could look that worn down, so maybe it’s not too bad for people to be praising her beauty.

    But…the almost amazement resonated for me, though I have various theories. I mean, there is an incessant need in American news and media culture to sensationalize things. Perhaps her fetishization was a residual of our ability to make hypervisible bodies and people in general. (I’m thinking like TMZ and Fox News). But in my mind her fetishization still has all to do with her being a female, Black, Kenyan, multi-faceted actress, because that’s who she is.

    Which brings me to my third and final point; Why isn’t anybody using her last name? I recognize that some actresses and entertainers are mononymous: (Beyonce, Ashanti, Madonna.) But as far as I know Lupita Nyong’o isn’t…so can’t we just google it if we’re unsure how to pronounce or say it…It’s not that hard. Like they say familiarity breeds contempt.

    Ok last, last point. Aspiring to the “anonymity” of a white female “classical” look is just as problematic. We as a society don’t need the anonymity of any trope, including one of white womanhood, because in reality there are systems working at hand in that as well. The fetishization of the elite and “upper class” beauty is equally as dangerous in its oppression and commodification of the female body.



  5. I do think it's possible for one person, regardless of race, to see another person, regardless of their race, and admire their beauty, intelligence, or any other qualities they possesses. I don't think its fair to assume that one group would admire a person for different reasons than another group would. When I see Lupita Nyong'o I don't see a beautiful, talented, intelligent, african, female; I see a beautiful, talented, intelligent Human Being. Just my 5 cents.


  6. I think ALL female bodies are commodified in this kind of industry, regardless of race. And the author of this article is herself viewing people differently based on their skin colour – assuming black people are thinking one thing and white people are thinking another thing?


  7. Excuse me? You say that CB is beautiful in a classic, timeless way. Well, that's how many ;people feel about Lupita Nyong'o. Shame on you for assuming why people find her beautiful. She is beautiful, period. If YOU think she's exotic, then that's on YOU. If you think CB isn't exotic, then that's also on you. There's NOTHING wrong with us saying that this woman is gorgeous. It's subjective, sure, but not wrong. If anything, we should be disturbed that ALL woman, of ALL races and colors, are valued by physical beauty in many cases. With this note, I agree, of course. And of course I agree that black women deserve more roles, more time on screen, more Oscar nods, and more respect for their INNER talents. But again, YOU are the one calling her “exotic” — which is the most troubling thing of all.


  8. It's not surprise that a black person is talented. It's AMAZEMENT at the talent itself. When I say, “Wow, Maurice Ashley is a great chess player!,” I am not surprised that he is. Rather, I am saying how MUCH respect I have for him as a chess player. I also say, “Wow, Kasparov was a great chess player” in the SAME EXACT TONE.


  9. Thank you for this comment! As a straight man, I often notice and even say how beautiful various women are. And if I say a black woman is beautiful, it's NOT because of exoticism; it's merely because of my (subjective) take on beauty. / As I'm sure you agree, beauty is sometimes too much covered in the media, but that's for all women of all races and all colors, the same way masculinity is obsessed over when it comes to straight male actors. And, as you noted, fashion writers are SUPPOSED to focus on fashion! / Again, good comment, and as a straight man, I cannot stand when commenters assume that we're all bad guys and think a certain way for a certain reason. It's assumptive, presumptuous, unfair, and actually damaging of otherwise good causes (such as focusing more on brains than beauty, giving black actresses more screen time, etc.).


  10. The author hurled MULTIPLE insults to white men and women, so that's just millions of people insulted in this country alone… The author said — implicitly and/or explicitly — the following: Calling a woman beautiful is a fetish; calling a black woman beautiful is the same as calling her exotic; it's somehow wrong for fashion writers to write about fashion; and white people are bad for complimenting non-whites. Those are insults. They are counter-productive. They are bizarre, anti-liberal, and the opposite of progressive.


  11. I absolutely agree. My mouth was agape reading this article, all I could think was “Who is thinking these gross things about Lupita??” I'm not being naive, I know we have a long way to go and we still need to deal with prejudice in the media. But the only person thinking this way about Lupita is the author, not Lupita's newfound wave of fans.


  12. I'm a white woman and Lupita fangirl. It really isn't anymore complicated than I think she's amazingly talented, admire her princess dresses, note she seems like a lovely person, and wish her well. It's the same fondness I have for Jennifer Lawrence or Emma Stone.

    I'm not attempting to speak for all or even most white people, but some of us just really like princess dresses and/or nice people. ;)


  13. As a white women who finds Lupita Nyong'o gorgeous I definitely need to comment on this. I find Lupita equally as stunning as Jennifer Lawrence. If you look around, fashion designers all want Jennifer Lawrence to wear their designs as well. Why? Because she is a famous, gorgeous, classy celebrity. Those are the very same reasons they all want Lupita. Not to “use” her for her dark skin. Why can't everyone just be happy that Lupita got a well deserved award for her amazing talent. Sometimes people make racism out of nothing and when that happens they are merely contributing to racism itself.


  14. you ended with the statement that Cate Blanchett is classically beautiful and Lupita is exotically beautiful. I think an important issue is that black beauty is not classic, timeless beauty. That is a white normative view of beauty.Perhaps we need to change the way beauty is described to include variety within the norm, not just different kinds of “classic” white beauty and then everyone else's “exotic.” Even white women with darker skin tones, olive skin tones, that straddle a line of ambiguity get labeled “exotic.” Calling someone's appearance exotic is white normative, as it implies that the “exotic” person is an anomaly, regardless of how diverse and populous this world truly is. It makes that someone into an other. Just because I do not look like you does not mean I am exotically beautiful. There are millions of women that look like me, they just don't live here, they don't get media exposure, and they are not exotic. Lupita Nyong'o may not be beautiful in the same way as Cate Blanchett, but neither is she “new car smell” beautiful. She just is beautiful and I think it's important that we change our vocabulary to be inclusive if dialogues like this are going to take place. At least we should be conscious of what our words imply and the thinking that lies behind them.


  15. I didn't see the author of this piece as “a little hating on Lupita” & her words & feeling is just that:HERwords & feelings of which she's entitled.

    I suspect you'll lose that bet :-)

    Ms Lupita's performance was stellar, her intellect & humility on target. I appreciate her youthful, unabashed exuberance.

    As far as her kissing the Oscar, it won't be the 1st nor the last time an actor in the moment to do that.

    Let her have a moment.


  16. We from Kenya are glad that the movie has given her the opportunity to be recognized. We fell in love with her acting long ago and especially when she appeared in the 'Shuga' series and we knew she would go places. As for her beauty, of course she's beautiful, as beautiful as a black woman can be. The advantage of living in Afrika is that you are always surrounded by beauty. Our mothers, our sisters, our daughters; they are all beautiful! Afrika is beauty! It is this fact that makes whites try to make it look like they bestow the beauty on her by their designer dresses but fact is Lupita is not beautiful because she wears Prada, she is beautiful because she is Afrikan!


  17. I agree with your blog post. I find it interesting to hear people in general but specifically black people comment that “she speaks so eloquently” and its great to have examples of women with “dark complexions”. Why is the commentary about her speaking abilities? I am aware that in general there is a shortage of women of color in Hollywood however….Why is the commentary about her complexion or hue as opposed to just being glad to have women of color represented, in general?

    Great observation and our commentary needs to be re framed because it comes across as a “back handed” compliment.


  18. You're absolutely right Patrick, only after the white media began to fawn over Lupita did the black press also begin to praise her. This says more about the long-standing issues of colorism in the black community than the questionable appreciation of white people for her beauty and talent.


  19. Thank YOU! I am a black woman who was birthed, raised and surrounded daily by black women just as, if not more, beautiful than Lupita. Our beauty is effortless and plentiful. That she is singled out, “look, a pretty black girl”, is insulting.

    I think Lupita is gorgeeous and deserving of all the praise she is receiving, not merely for her undeniable beauty but also for her considerable talent. It was her portrayal of Patsy that haunted me days after I viewed the film. As a black woman I identified that Lupita was voicing for my ancestors. Lupita disappeared and Patsy emerged. Perhaps, for the glitterati and the fashionistas, that is what the 'fuss' is about. They felt bad/guilty about Patsy being tortured and left in her misery, but now, voila! She emerges as LUPITA! Beautiful and unscathed. *insert big sigh of relief*. I do believe this is mostly unconscious behavior, but it is no less damaging. She too will be discarded like the aforementioned actresses because, after all there can only be one at the top at a time.

    Thank you for this piece. It's a breathing of fresh air. Will be sharing.


  20. Why is it that our views are not respected as valid unless agreed to by whites? Why is that when a black person, for example, says, “I've been stabbed and the knife is still there, whites, for example, insist that they are imagining it? We are not 'making racism' out of nothing. Racism exists and is a part of our everyday existence; it's not an event.


  21. For years and still the beauty fetish has been a eurocentric aesthetic. I am happy that Lupita's black (skin, confidence, intelligence, brilliant talent) is and has become an object of fetishization in what is otherwise a very rigid beauty aesthetic. I am happy that fetishizing her has broken the monotony of the white (female) actor fantasy and standard of beauty. Let us fetishize her some more


  22. There is WAY too much derailing, tone policing and privileged malarkey going on here and I'm not cool with that at all.

    I understand where Charish is coming from. The cynicism is a result of a life lived as a dual minority in a society that devalues blackness and womanhood. That cynicism is a protective mechanism, a way to shield our psyches from yet more disappointment that not a damn thing has changed. It's not personally directed at WHITE PEEPUL (spelling intentional) but at the system of oppression which the marginalized operate under every day. Acting like you're a 'speschul snowflake' means nothing if you're still blind to the pain such cynicism masks.

    Yes, I'm loving Lupita. The same way I love Nina, Cicely, Miriam, Nichelle, Grace, Octavia (Butler), Alek and Janelle. The same way I love Josephine, Eartha, Aretha and Esperanza. I love black beauty in all her glorious permutations. What saddens me is that many in my community, because of colorism, do not. We know the genesis of colorism yet are still shackled to it. Not that I'm willing to let Eurocentric colonialist thinking off the hook, but there needs to be a point where we as black folks say ENOUGH! When media created by us for US upholds one look/skin tone/hair texture over our diversity, we need to stop funding their foolishness. Many of us know of or have heard dark-skinned women told (as a compliment) that they were 'pretty for a dark-skinned girl'. We need to stop that.

    By the way, Charish, this was an awesome article, but I totally disagree with you about Monster's Ball. To this day, I do not understand why that less than 30 second scene overshadows the brilliant and gut-wrenching performance. The studio didn't even want Halle Berry for the part because she was thought of as a 'glamour girl'. She had to fight for it, to be taken seriously. And so what, she had CONSENSUAL sex with a white man. So do countless black women every day. Leave the slut-shaming to the misogynists.


  23. Thank you for this article. I am a white man, I find Nyong'o to be absolutely lovely and undeniably talented, but I have the same gut feeling that something is not… right… about the obsession with her. It's almost as if white America is shocked that they find a dark-skinned black woman so attractive. Even more disturbing is the “she's so eloquent” line, as if it should be a surprise that a black woman who doesn't look like Halle Berry or Zoe Saldana would have ideas in her head or powerful words to speak. I tried to write it off as due to her “foreignness,” a less insidious form of ignorance, but I am afraid it is more than that.

    In any case, none of this is meant to take away from her fame, her talent, or her Oscar win; similarly, I can't say that broadening white America's perception of beauty is a bad thing, if indeed that is what this is doing.

    Just a bit from my own perspective. Will be sharing your writing with friends. Cheers.


  24. For me its not that she is being objectified, that is something women have been dealing with for centuries not just black women (though our commodification is differs greatly in the context of slavery). For me its just how surprised and fascinated they are that a black women could even posses such beauty. There lies the underlying assumption that black women aren't beautiful, intelligent, or talented, making Lupita even more special. That is what rubs me the wrong way.


  25. Sorry to disappoint the person who thinks Cleopatra was White/Greek, but DNA uncovered by archaeologists has already proven that she had an AFRICAN mother. Her father was indeed Greek. But are people with Greek fathers and African mothers considered White by anyone? The answer, of course, is NO! Btw, I am an African American woman who was born with strawberry blonde hair. That doesn't make me White and I do not consider myself “bi-racial” either. Both of my parents consider themselves to be Black.


  26. I agree with a lot of this, and then I also disagree with a lot of this. Lupita is undobutedly “fetishized” but the reasons are far less grim than I think you may perceive them to be. Am I saying America is completely non-racist? god no. But in this case, her praise for being “so beautiful I just can't” is merely white people jumping at the opportunity to praise a black woman, and so exaggerate. Its almsot as if they're trying to say “hey look we're not racist, Lupita is gorgeous!” its silly. its trendy, and more people should be paying attention to her acting ability and accomplishments, but it isn't so scary. And on your comment that so few black women get academy awards, theres a problem there but its not that they aren't given awards- its that they never get cast in the meaty roles such as Cate Blanchett's, and that's the real crime. Being a minority and a female in hollywood, or even the theater world, makes it nightmarishly hard to find a job, just because not enough roles are created for them. My own serious problem with this article is in comparing her being upheld for her beauty to the ogling of slave-masters who rape and beat her. there are two kinds of ogling- the disgusting rapey-slave master kind, and the kind where you are in awe. They're incomparable, and to say it means she doesn't own her body for that is silly. Furthermore, she's being beautified, not objectified, though that is absolutely a problem in the case of many other actresses.And as far as the young girl who was nominated for “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, (I'm not going to even try to spell her name, sorry haha), it is useful to know that The Onion is a purely satirical newspaper. Nothing they say is something that they want top be taken seriously, its meant to point out the more ludicrous aspects of our society. Overall though, regardless of Lupita's situation there is undoubtedly a double standard towards black women that needs to be removed. I don't agree with all of your details but your main message in its most general broad form I definitely agree with.


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