The controversy surrounding the “Us” actress is a byproduct of our current outrage culture.
Actress Lupita Nyong’o took some heat this past week as some accused the Kenyan-Mexican actress of insensitively portraying a character with spasmodic dysphonia in Jordan Peele’s newest film “Us.” Nyong’o played two characters in the film: mother and protagonist Adelaide as well as Red, her demonic doppelgänger. Red is the character up for debate, but the critique that Nyong’o is at fault for any offense taken by the portrayal of Red is outrage culture at its worst.
Spasmodic dysphonia is “a neurological disorder affecting the voice muscles in the larynx,” according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Disorders. Though a definite cause of the disorder is hard to place, it has been identified to sometimes follow “injury to the larynx” and in most cases it “causes voice breaks and can give the voice a tight, strained quality.”
Without spoiling the movie, that description fits the context of Red’s story. She experiences trauma at a young age involving a choking, and Nyong’o’s speech in the film is slow, hard to understand and unnerving in how difficult it sounds for her to get any sound out at all. What really got the outrage mob going was an interview Nyong’o did with The New York Times that delved into the sources that the actress studied to portray Red.
In the same interview, Jordan Peele said that he gave little direction concerning Red’s voice, but he did say that he “described it as a voice that hadn’t been used in years.” Going off that information and after hearing what Peele revealed of Red’s backstory, Nyong’o said, “I was fascinated, and I started doing research.” She also said she “met with people who have the condition and built it from there.” All of this describes the actions of someone dedicated to their craft, who did their utmost to flesh out an at-some points intentionally vague character, but who unjustly ended up on the other end of the outrage mob that now dominates public discourse.
Lupita Nyong’o was the subject of multiple opinion pieces that lambasted her use of a neurological disorder as the basis for a horror villain. The people making those claims, including multiple who live with the disorder, saw Red as a villainization of a disorder that affects about one in every 10,000 people. It is important to note that those with spasmodic dysphonia have a right to be offended about something like this. Horror as a genre has not been kind to people with disabilities in the past and has consistently demonized people with conditions that may seem creepy and eerie to some. However, the media that lauded the movie on Wednesday do not get to tear down its lead actress on Monday.
When disability rights groups began making their claims at the start of the week, it became clear that there would be a space to provoke outrage. That outrage followed in the form of articles aiming to get the most clicks, and they likely accomplished that. The outrage machine, which consists of journalists and Twitter personalities and is always changing depending on the thing being outraged over, stirred up enough negative energy that Nyong’o apologized to anyone offended by her performance.
The troubling side to the whole affair is that, even though Nyong’o looks to have done nothing wrong and apologized in case she accidentally offended anyone, it hasn’t stopped publications like Forbes from putting out a piece titled “Lupita Nyong’o Apologizes For Demonization Of Disability In ‘Us’ But Is That Enough?”
We are approaching the 2020 election, and if we go into it powered by a culture more interested in condemning good intentioned people for unintentional mistakes rather than laying blame on those who refuse to apologize for wrong after wrong, then we had better get ready. A Democratic primary will no doubt bring out candid debates, but many of the candidates will likely slip up and say something dumb. Only the context of those comments will decide whether they were accidental or intentional, but that won’t matter if the people who piled on to Nyong’o’s voices are louder than those remembering what the 2020 Democratic nominee will be up against.