Somewhere between her performance as a brutalized field hand in 12 Years a Slave and her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, Lupita Nyong'o has turned into a "global fashion icon," in the words of Sheila McClear at the New York Daily News. From the red-caped Ralph Lauren dress she wore at the Golden Globes to the Cinderella blue Prada gown at the Oscars, she has upstaged, basically, everybody. There have been excited rumors about her dating Jared Leto. She was front, center, and alone on the cover of the People pre-Oscar, Awards Season special issue; neither her competitor for Best Supporting Actress, Jennifer Lawrence, nor the eventual Best Actress winner Cate Blanchett, were anywhere in sight.
Many people have been thrilled to see a dark-skinned black woman become a touchstone of glamour in a culture that has traditionally defined beauty as whiteness. "Thank you for showing the world what true talent and beauty look like," Ola Ojewumi wrote, and added, "I watched the 86th Academy Awards in awe of seeing a woman that looked like me and shared my story." But while this was the most common response, some writers have also been unnerved by the extent to which Nyong'o, the beauty, seems to have eclipsed Nyong'o, the actress—surface seems to have covered over substance. In an essay at the Motley News, Charish Halliburton worries that while "Blacks are proud that Nyong'o crushed it in her portrayal of Patsey … Whites seem to be most preoccupied with Nyong'o's exotic look."
Halliburton is probably right: The reaction to Nyong'o is in part an excitement at the exotic. Fashion, after all, appeals in no small part by the packaging individual difference as glamorous and often erotic provocations. To stand on the red carpet is to become a photographed object of the gaze—to have your surface turned into a commodity. And in this case, that surface is the exciting dark skin, valued for its novelty, separate from the person it is connected to.
But it’s worth thinking about who’s in control of that process of fetishization. Nyong’o is not merely an object being acted upon by white viewers—she herself has taken deliberate control over her image.
In her moving speech at the Essence awards, Nyong'o talked about how she had prayed to God to lighten her skin—and about how important it was for her to see model Alek Wek. "A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was," Nyong'o said. "I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful." Nyong'o then went on to say that, "I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty …" For Nyong'o, Wek's surface, her skin, was an important tool. You could say she treated Wek as a fetish or an icon. And she wants, or hopes, for other girls, to use her in the same way—to use her surface to validate their own selves.
Nyong'o adds a complication though; she notes in her speech that "you can't rely on how you look to sustain you," and that instead "What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you." She hopes that her surface will help girls like her "get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside." But if she seems to reject fashion as simply surface, her own performance on the red carpet is, through her speech, figured as both a performance of outer glamour and an act of compassion for her sisters. She invites their gaze to show them they are worthy of love and attention, too.
If Nyong'o is so self-conscious in her presentation of herself to other black women, it seems reasonable to assume that she is in control of her image more broadly as well. Halliburton is "weirded out by the onslaught of white people who are just plain gob-smacked by [Nyong'o's] exquisiteness. I've received an enormous amount of trending Facebook articles from various fashion sources that seem almost amazed by how beautiful Lupita is." White people's inability to believe in the beauty of a dark-skinned black woman doesn't sound all that far from Nyong'o's own disbelief when confronted with Wek's glamour and success—both are the result of ingrained cultural and social racist attitudes and preconceptions. And if Nyong'o is consciously challenging the beliefs of black girls, why shouldn't she be consciously challenging the beliefs of everyone else as well?