Media must embrace more diverse role models

I’ll be the first to admit that the past few months have been busy, leaving me with little time for basic needs such as doing laundry. So it comes as no surprise that I didn’t have a chance to sit down and catch the Academy Awards live.

I did, however, manage to sneak a peek at the winners. Of all the smiling faces I saw clutching that shiny golden statue, there was one particular face that stood out to me.

Splashed across entertainment channels and news clippings was a woman donning a flowing baby blue dress and a beautiful smile: actress Lupita Nyong’o. Nyong’o, who stepped on stage to accept her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 12 Years a Slave on March 2, became an overnight sensation.

I started to wonder what it was that had the world buzzing about Nyong’o. She’s certainly stunning, but why the sudden fixation?

Upon closer look, I realized that the United States’ latest obsession with Nyong’o reveals an interesting thing about our perception of beauty; with so few women of color in the entertainment industry to begin with, it’s no wonder we’re stunned by Nyong’o.

As Forbes contributor Anushay Hossain wrote, “All the Hollywood fawning and ogling over her is making me more uncomfortable than proud, mainly because it serves as a reminder that moments like this for women of color do not occur nearly as often as they should.”

The Representation Project, an international campaign that hopes to transform the portrayal of women in the media, echoed this sentiment in a recent graphic published on their Facebook page. Their infographic describes how “just 6 of the top 500 box office films of all time feature a protagonist who is a woman of color.”

An Oct. 2013 study conducted by the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism revealed “films still under-represented minority characters and directors, and reflect certain biases in their portrayal.”

The importance of featuring women of color in film and television is often understated. The inclusion of women of color broadens society’s ideas of beauty. Women are typically portrayed as sexualized creatures and these tall and busty Caucasian characters do not properly reflect the current makeup of the U.S. population. Such an idealization leads minority women to feel that they are inadequate.

Growing up, I never saw women of color portrayed in film or television as the protagonist. I can only hope that in the future, young girls will have the opportunity to identify with women such as Lupita Nyong’o — women who resemble the skin color of the viewer.

Nyong’o is using her newfound fame as a platform to discuss society’s idea of beauty when she recently delivered a speech at the 7th annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon on Feb. 27.

She opened her speech by reading a letter she had received from a fan: “Dear Lupita … I think you’re really lucky to be this black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.”

It’s unfortunate that Nyong’o’s darker complexion would not be admired in some parts of the world. According to the Wall Street Journal, skin-lightening is a $400 million business in India. This business is one that I have the opportunity to see in full effect when I travel to India every few years.

Indian shelves are generally stocked with skin lightening brands such as Fair and Lovely, which constantly promote the notion that beauty comes in the form of fair-skinned women with European features.

For women of color to accept that beauty comes in all forms, the inclusion of women of color in film and television is extremely important.

As Nyong’o said in the final moments of her acceptance speech, “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 but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade to that beauty.”

Rini Sampath is a sophomore majoring in international relations. Her column, “Leaning In,” runs Mondays.