Stop calling Lupita Nyong'o "exotic"

The actress may be beautiful and polished and talented, but she's about as "exotic" as Meryl Streep

Published April 29, 2014 5:30PM (EDT)

Lupita Nyong'o           (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)
Lupita Nyong'o (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

Lupita Nyong'o's anointment as People magazine's “most beautiful," mere days after she was revealed as the first black woman to become the face of Lancôme cosmetics, is clearly good news. These achievements have the potential to shift the rhetoric surrounding the actress from a lucky "Cinderella story" to that of a formidable African woman and power broker. But there's also a deeper question to be asked about what people really mean when they comment on Nyong’o’s looks.

Media outlets from the Daily Mail to Forbes to the Hollywood Reporter  have described Nyong'o with one particular word: "exotic." This is basically a coded way of saying she is beautiful despite being black and dark-skinned. (Needless to say, they never mention other actresses' whiteness or the socially constructed beauty ideals for all women in Hollywood.) The Hollywood Reporter piece expresses marked doubt as to how she will fit into the existing cultural paradigm.  A piece by Demetria L. Lucas for the Root takes the discussion a step further, bemoaning the sheer lack of roles for black women. Nyong'o's ascent in Hollywood is often compared to that of other big-screen black stars like Whoopi Goldberg, Halle Berry or Thandie Newton. But the truth is that Nyong'o has far less in common with any of those actresses than she does with the most entrenched symbol of the Hollywood establishment -- Meryl Streep.

At this point, Streep is the last person anyone would call "exotic." She is the most thanked person in Academy Awards acceptance speeches ahead of God, Sidney Poitier and Oprah. She is such a fixture of awards ceremonies that her endless stream of nominations has become something of a joke. But this wasn't always the case. In fact, her back story has some surprising parallels to Nyong'o's. Streep broke away from a middle-class upbringing to attain Ivy League training at Vassar College in the late 1960s, where she initially felt out of place among some very affluent peers. In a 2012 interview on NPR’s "Fresh Air," she recounted an audition in her 20s with late film producer and mogul Dino De Laurentiis and his son during which the producer admonished his son for recruiting Streep, saying, "che brutta!"-- roughly, "what an ugly girl," in Italian. To De Laurentiis’ surprise, Streep offered a witty retort in fluent Italian before gracefully exiting stage left. Back then, she was widely deemed an imperfect fit for Hollywood's archetype of what a female celebrity should look like. In this way, she carved her own path.

Like Streep, Nyong’o is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, regarded as a stellar student, who had a comfortable upbringing and experienced early success. She entered a culturally foreign world while an undergrad at Massachusetts’ Hampshire College. As a student she wrote and directed a feature documentary on albinism in her native Kenya called "In My Genes." She also served as production assistant for "The Constant Gardener" and "The Namesake." Although much can and should be said about the obstacles faced by dark-skinned actresses and acclimating to a foreign culture, Nyong’o has traversed these minefields with notable ease.

Yet still for some strange reason, we continue to think of Nyong'o's achievements as an exception to the rule. It speaks to Hollywood's obsession with foisting a certain kind of success narrative on people it perceives as "Other," insisting on their outsider status even as they achieve mainstream success. In many ways, Nyong'o speaks to an increasingly diverse America and a growing spectrum of representations in Hollywood. Rumors that she will star in a reboot of "Star Wars" have audiences excited about the possibility of a black, female Skywalker. Such a vehicle would certainly support her symbolism in making dark skin and black women “feel a little more seen,” as she puts it. But we should resist the urge to characterize her as a woman who surmounted enormous odds to "make it," because this does not empower us to work on the systemic barriers that keep so many others out of the spotlight. Nyong'o is poised and polished and Ivy League-trained -- about as traditional a stamp of talent as you can get. It doesn't diminish her impressiveness to acknowledge those things about her. She is one of Hollywood's most beautiful people, but "exotic" she is not.

By Agunda Okeyo

Agunda Okeyo is a writer, filmmaker and activist born in Nairobi; raised between New York City and the Kenyan capital. In 2014, she plans to publish her first book on the nature of systemic inequality in the United States, primarily critical of formal education. Follow @AgundaOkeyo. 

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