Lupita Nyong’o and the Evolving Paradox of Black Femininity

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Image via DuJour Magazine

Image by Steven Pan for DuJour Magazine

By Hannah Giorgis

This piece was originally published at Youngist.org and can be read in its original context here.

It’s no secret that I am a Lupita Nyong’o fan girl. She is gorgeous, graceful, and certifiably ***flawless.

The actress gained worldwide attention for her heart-wrenching portrayal of the enslaved Patsey in Steve McQueen’s much-praised 12 Years A Slave. Having been thrust into the Hollywood spotlight only months ago, Lupita is notably reserved in the public eye—but her powerful presence speaks volumes about the ever-expanding ways in which Black women are complicating archaic notions about our femininity.

Lupita’s Patsey is markedly different from both Mistress Epps, her master’s wife, and from Kerry Washington’s delicate Broomhilda in Django Unchained. Dark-skinned and long-suffering, Patsey is not afforded the benefit of Broomhilda’s damsel in distress rescue. It is, however, worth noting that both women were targets of sexual violence from the white men with power over them, neither of them immune to the Jezebel stereotype that deemed their black female bodies “unrapeable.”

In many ways, the logic we ascribed to black female bodies in the antebellum South still applies today. It has certainly changed to complement modernity, and yet myths that posit black women as simultaneously undesirable and hypersexual continue to pervade common narratives. We are either asexual, unfeminine mammy or brazen whore—often forced into the latter category even as children.

Within these rigid confines, there has been little room to craft new models of Black femininity that do not get immediately recast into the old paradigms—expressions of androgyny signifying asexuality and hints of hyperfemininity becoming another visible sign of supposedly latent hypersexuality. Even progressive, beauty standard-challenging feminist blogs call pink-lipstick wearing, purple-haired black women “hard femme” based solely on our phenotypes.

And yet Lupita Nyong’o embraces hyperfemininity so boldly that audiences, critics, and magazine editors alike all recognize she is a force to be reckoned with. With bright colors, sleek silhouettes, and bold necklines, she is taking the fashion world by storm. And people are noticing.

Lupita is a beacon of hope for every dark-skinned, natural-haired girl who grows up being told she looks like a boy, a challenge to the racist, cissexist claims that Black women’s short hair or musculature are inherently masculine. She is an inheritor of the modern legacy that First Lady Michelle Obama also occupies, an Afro-descendant fashion story woven together with palpable white envy.

Her adamantly delicate disposition flies directly in the face of both historic and contemporary falsehoods about Black women as inherently masculine, a quiet rebellion against the standards that pit white femininity as the unreachable standard against which all women must be measured. Her confidence is a powerful message that we need not reach toward the vanishing horizon of white femininity to be considered beautiful; Black women are ethereal on our own shores.

We have always been enough—and sometimes it’s nice to be reminded.

But what’s important isn’t just that Lupita is bursting onto the scene and expanding norms with visible markers of bold femininity. She may be one of few dark-skinned, short-haired women to occupy the national spotlight with feminine poise—but she is also the beneficiary of privileges that many other feminine-presenting dark-skinned women do not enjoy.

A graduate of Yale University School of Drama and daughter of middle-class Kenyan dignitaries, Lupita represents a “respectable” femininity that many low-income black women without her credentials cannot access. Though her demeanor does not make her wholly immune to racist assertions that she is uncouth or undeserving, she is largely shielded from this particular kind of classist misogynoir.

That does not mean her influence is wholly inaccessible to all feminine-presenting Black women—or that the effects of her trailblazing femininity hold no meaning for low-income Black women. Rather, it is simply important to consider many aspects of how femininity are constructed and not pat ourselves on the back for addressing colorism in our analysis.

What does it mean that low-income Black women’s bodies are the first to be ridiculed, to be surveilled, to be sterilized? Meme after meme has come to popularity at the expense of Black women who stand outside the margins of acceptable femininity: who do not speak “standard” English, who do not work in “professional” environments, who do not have access to academia and certainly not the Academy.

Consider Rachel Jeantel, the key prosecutorial witness in the Trayvon Martin case. Both the hatred she received during the trial and the makeover she received after it suggested that her femininity as it stood was too much body and too little weave, too much immigrant and too little English.

Lupita’s dark skin and short hair make her an anomaly in Hollywood’s feminine sphere, but not in the realm of Black femininity. If we are to celebrate the complex layers of Black femininity, we must not simply praise those exceptions whose femininity is highlighted in magazines for the world to see. We must re-envision beauty outside the context of white supremacist standards altogether.

What would it mean for young Black girls to grow up in a world where they didn’t need to speak the Queen’s English or afford designer clothes to be considered ladylike? What if we met young Black girls’ trends with adoration instead of labeling their aesthetic exploration ratchet (until it’s appropriated by more palatable white bodies)? What if we centered Black trans girls and affirmed their femininity from the moment they first express it? What if Black femininity could also validate Black bodies whose femininity is more complicated than our binaries recognize?

Black femininity has always disregarded others’ boundaries—imagine what’s possible if we also dreamt beyond our own.

Hannah Giorgis is a black feminist writer, organizer, artist, editor, and curator of the blog Ethiopienne. The piece above originally appeared on Youngist, a young people-powered site devoted to storytelling, creative intervention, and news analysis with all staff and contributors under the age of 26. You can follow Youngist on Facebook and Twitter.

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