Right before the Academy Awards, Camaroonian-born pop star and skin-lightener shill Dencia began tweeting a series of attack-mode responses to a supposed slight by Lupita Nyong’o.
What happened? Before the Oscars, Nyong’o was awarded the Best Breakthrough Performance Award at Essence magazine’s annual Black Women in Hollywood luncheon. In her acceptance speech, she talks about how she’s dealing with the cultural impact of her “first job out of school”. She also speaks about becoming aware of the weight of the responsibility that she carries as a public figure: a young girl had recently written Nyong’o a note saying that she had hated her own appearance and skin, and that she had even contemplated using Whitenicious by Dencia (a skin-bleaching line that masquerades as a “spot” remover–we wrote about it here) until she saw media images of Lupita doing post-film publicity rounds. Nyong’o’s powerful ability to speak frankly, yet gently, about one of the most insidious problems black public figures have to deal with–in a room in which there was probably more than one person who had used such products–resonated enough to upset Dencia, one of the most visible spokespersons in the skin-bleaching industry.
Dencia’s response to Nyong’o’s widely publicized speech? A series of tweets worthy of #RatchetpieceTheatre:
A girl wrote u a letter?lol thru which email when I just checked ur twitter n can’t see an email address!!Ir pr tried n thanks 4 the Pub. Dencia (@IamDencia) February 28, 2014
Again I don’t watch movies unless it’s Comedy or Romance I won’t even watch anything w title “Slaves” I studied enuff in my history class. Dencia (@IamDencia) February 28, 2014
And she forgot to tell the non existent black girl that ur skin color doesn’t take u to hollywood hard work does,then again her color did. Dencia (@IamDencia) February 28, 2014
Dencia also claimed that she doesn’t even know who Nyong’o is. That’s hard to believe, considering the level of venom that these tweets contain—clearly intended to protect her brand. Next to Nyong’o’s grace, Dencia’s responses on Twitter sound trashy and desperate. So why the shrill response? Obviously, Dencia’s trying to protect her brand. But on another level, I think it’s because she’s worried about maintaining the levels of insecurity, self-rejection, and inadequacy that make people with dark skin bleach their skins. Without that uncritical global cohort—driven to a level of self-critique so extreme that damage becomes an acceptable solution—how can Dencia, herself bleached to a skin shade close to albinism, stand on her feet and attempt to pass off her wounded person as a powerful, impossible beauty?
Yes, movie stars and pop stars do affect how young people imagine themselves; and this time, a movie star is actually having a positive impact on young women’s self-image. But it isn’t Nyong’o’s performance in Twelve Years a Slave that’s doing this remarkable labour; there’s no glamour attached to her film’s character—so despite the character’s strength, young women are not going to want to model their current selves on that historical character. This is about Lupita herself—or her public persona—on the red carpets. Nyong’o’s beauty and poise resonated with millions across the world—some of who are truly inspired by her, and others who inevitably exoticise and fetishise her (in a hilarious recent tweet, Frances Bodomo (@tobogganeer) noted: “#DearWhitePeople, don’t think I haven’t noticed the rise in your hitting on me since Lupita came along smh”).
Once she was done filming Twelve Years a Slave, and awards season came along, Nyong’o didn’t get on the red carpet scene with a weave. Most other actors in films that are deemed “gritty” do; they get dolled up, and try to look as far from their persona and look on film as possible. Remember Hillary Swank after Boys Don’t Cry, and the ball gown she wore to accept her award? Again and again, Nyong’o’s look emphasises the kind of blackness that Americans usually attempt to mask: if a woman is darker-skinned, she definitely gets the weave or the ultra-straightened hair if she is in a public position (think Michelle Obama); if she were lighter-skinned, she might “get away” with an Afro, unless she were an artist or an academic in the Humanities. But Nyong’o didn’t resort to the use of products that erase or somehow mediate her blackness for audiences accustomed to black women who do.
Of course, she got dolled up in great frocks. Nyong’o looks grand in every outfit I’ve seen her in—from the bubbly, prosecco-inspired baby-blue Miuccia Prada dress she wore to the Oscars to the glittery metallic playsuit she wore to the Independent Spirit Awards. Whoever’s her stylist is a genius, too, coupled with Nyong’o’s own instincts: she wears very little jewellery, and plays with an innovative range of makeup that experiments between the “natural” and the runway/theatrical (an example of which you can see in her own YouTube video teaching people how to say her name)—rather than stick to the safety of a slash of scarlet or brownish lipstick that most makeup artists slap on black women. Her clothes for award-show runways have also been in daring colours and cuts—in fact, serious fashion writers were a little disappointed by the “safe” Prada dress and headband at the Oscars.
Part of why we adore and respect Nyong’o is because we can see that she has the grace to hold up the responsibility that is on her shoulders—one far greater than that of the average actor. If someone like Nyong’o speaks about having faced the enormity of the pressures that dark skinned people—women in particular—must face, without succumbing to skin bleaching, nose-surgery, or whatever else, it tells a slew of young women that they needn’t resort to the “solutions” offered by the beauty industry. Nyong’o’s words alone may not threaten the bottom line of powerful cosmetic companies, and the magazines (like Essence) that advertise the products; they’ll keep making boatloads of cash based on the insecurities they help produce. But she does create problems for the prominent spokespersons for these damaging products: by her very physical presence, Nyong’o destabilises their positions as desirable objects. In her acceptance speech for the Essence magazine award, she remembers her own discomfort about her skin tone as she grew up in countries where her look wasn’t the accepted norm; she is fully cognisant of the significance of her difference in the public sphere created by the west, and what it means to others who feel similarly out of place. That may be partly because Nyong’o comes from a family of prominent Kenyans who are self-aware of their position as artists, doctors, lawyers and global public figures; plus, she already built her credentials as an artist and an intellectual: before her Twelve Years a Slave fame, she wrote, directed and produced a documentary, In My Genes (2009, trailer here), following the life experiences of Kenyans with albinism. She is fully aware of the politics of skin.
But really, people. No need to fetishise Nyong’o as a “different,” or a Very Special Noble Savage. Her glowing skin, shiny hair, the incredible symmetry of her features, and the flower-petal shape of her lips forming her happy smile speak volumes about her physical and psychological health, and constitutes—at the risk of universalising in the same way that people elevated white beauty via the likes of Catherine Deneuve and Cate Blanchette—a “classical” sort of beauty to which most who live in the west have never had access before, and from which those in Africa have been alienated. But Nyong’o must do the labour of translating that classic for the west (and for other Africans)—much like an artist, a writer, or a cultural critic might for those who refuse to acknowledge the conventions of their art as something of value. Like any labour, it must deplete her of energy. I hope that she is able to find ways to replenish herself, and maintain her dignity.