One of the biggest stories to captivate entertainment headlines this year has been the emergence of Lupita Nyong’o. Her Oscar winning performance as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave catapulted her to the forefront of the public eye. Once there, she has developed almost a second career as the Queen of the Red Carpet, appearing at film festivals looking flawless in stunning gowns that designers are falling over themselves to dress her in. This summer she landed the cover of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful issue. Her Oscar acceptance speech about what defines beauty sparked a wave of affirmation from women around the world who fight daily to be seen as attractive and desirable within themselves when bombarded constantly with a narrow standard of beauty. Lupita is the most recent black female star to explode into pop culture but obviously she isn’t the only one. From Michele Obama to Olivia Pope, from top grossing movies like The Best Man franchise to About Last Night, Black women are everywhere, looking beautiful. Why then, with all the highly visible women of color in mainstream media, are so many people who work in the media so blind and tone-deaf when it comes to their beauty?
The past few months have been rife with cringe-inducing gaffes from writers who should know better. Patricia Garcia wrote an article for Vogue that attributed the acceptance of the big rear end to Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea. According to the article, a big butt was something to be ashamed of until these ladies made having one acceptable. The writer lives in Miami so I don’t know how she missed seeing all the confident, curvy Latin American and Caribbean women walking around. It was a fairly clueless premise but it did give the world the sadly hilarious twitter hash tag #voguearticles
On the heels of that faux pas, Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times managed to stumble not once, but twice in an article about the huge success of Shonda Rhimes by suggesting that the title of any future autobiography Miss Rhimes chooses to write should be “How To Get Away With Being An Angry Black Woman”, and referred to the star of Shonda’s new show How To Get Away With Murder, Viola Davis, as “less classically beautiful.” Never mind that the article itself is full of praise for what Shonda Rhimes has accomplished, those phrases derail the article like a turntable needle scraping across a record.
Whether by design or carelessness, There is a definite lack of awareness of the origin of many cultural trends that become commodified by other cultures. Until very recently, when it comes to African Americans and the cultural and artistic statements they create America has always followed a definite pattern: Love the creation, ignore the creator. It’s a pattern Black people know all too well. Back in the 1950’s, as R&B evolved into Rock and Roll, Pat Boone became famous by releasing milquetoast covers of the raucous, powerhouse songs of Little Richard, Fats Domino and Ivory Joe Hunter. When Bo Derek made her bikini-clad run down the beach with her hair in microbraids in Blake Edwards’ “10”, Middle America magically became aware of and copied a hairstyle that Black women had been wearing in great numbers for decades. Whenever shows like Friends, Sex and the City and most recently Girls are heralded as true depictions of young people navigating city life they are always set in a New York City where people of color don’t exist except as a sassy sidekick of the type that Wanda Sykes has cornered the market on. People of color have been the ghost in the machine of American social and cultural life; a rich reservoir of creativity that could be sampled by mainstream media, as long as the source was kept out of sight.
What defines beauty? What’s interesting about this is that while the last two decades have seen women of color featured more prominently than ever in mainstream media,it’s no secret that the gatekeepers of American fashion and media are overwhelmingly white. When you are not used to seeing people from different cultural places and getting different ideas about what is beautiful, you end up recycling the same images of beauty to a market that is no longer satisfied with them. Part of what makes Shonda Rhimes’ characters so compelling is that she writes black women with all the flaws, depth of character, inner turmoil and sexuality as their white counterparts. The instances of black characters being written so well are rare and maybe that’s why there has been so much cultural cluenessness in mainstream media’s handling of their presence. It’s as if the idea that black women are physically beautiful, multifaceted real women never occurred to them.
Viola Davis responded to being called “less classically beautiful” by refrencing the comment during her People’s Choice Award win. The concept of what is beautiful is expanding. It would be in the best interests of the people who consider themselves the gatekeepers of beauty to catch up.