Thursday, April 17, 2008

Oops, Vogue is racist

God forbid a strong, successful, handsome black man and a strong, successful, beautiful Brazilian woman are snapped together on the cover of a magazine.
The release of this month's issue of Vogue has produced much controversy, specifically surrounding the cover on which basketball phenom Lebron James is pictured with supermodel Gisele Bundchen. Following in the footsteps of Richard Gere and George Clooney, James was selected by Vogue to be the third man ever to grace the cover, arguably the most influential fashion publication in the world. Rather than celebrating this rare honor, critics and readers have uproariously condemned the selection of the photograph, asserting that it is blatantly racist and offensive. They have argued that the cover depicts the Cleveland Cavaliers forward as a "wild and savage white-woman obsessed beast" and Bundchen as a "damsel in distress", an image which they say is too reminiscent of King Kong. On the blog Feministe, Jill Filipovic wrote "I see a scary animalistic black man, a primal scream, and a beautiful white woman. Google image King Kong for a comparison." Over on the website Concrete Loop, commenter's have stated "Lebron is straight up perpetuating a stereotype (that of the brutal, wild savage) that helped enslave, lynch, and murder hundreds of THOUSANDS of our black men for centuries... and I'm just supposed to be content because he made it onto "massa's" magazine?!" Another commenter wrote "...Not only does this man look like an ape, but he's got this good ole prize, a white woman on his arm. There are a number of black high fashion models they could've paired him with and other shots they could've used of him. At least put him in a suit. He carries a suit VERY well."

True, Vogue doesn't have the best history of embracing African-Americans on its covers. As of last November, 4 out of 12 covers of Men's Vogue featured black men while only 3 African American women models and celebrities have received such honors since the magazine was founded in 1914. Despite this, it seems a little brash to brand the magazine as "racist" because of these statistics. As an African-American woman, I would love to see more ethnic and multi-ethnic models on the cover of women's Vogue, however, I am able to understand that the rate of occurrence at which "White" models appear on the cover is partially reflective of the number of "White" supermodels in the high-fashion industry (Keep in mind high fashion models are different than mainstream commercial models). In fact, to call Bundchen "White" is completely incorrect, as she is Brazilian, and therefore does not belong in that demographic. In addition to this Vogue's lack of ethnic models does not simply apply to African-Americans, as they have rarely (if ever) featured an Oriental or Indian woman on their cover.
While I do recognize that almost all men look better dressed up in a suit, dressing LeBron in a suit for the cover would have made no sense given the theme of this issue. For anyone who has yet to pick up their copy, the theme was "Celebrating Different Shapes." Inside, the magazine documented and chronicled a wide variety of Olympic athletes (Appolo Anton Ohno-Speed Skater, Michael Phelps-Swimmer, Chelsie Memmel-Gymanst, Lindsay Felix-Track Star) all of who were photographed in their sport's appropriate gear (leotard, speedo, skates, running shorts etc.) In addition to this some (not all) of the highlighted athletes were pictured next to models who were wearing high fashion pieces. With this said, placing a basketball jersey and shorts clad James next to a Calvin Klein gown wearing Bundchen was not done just for the cover, but continued throughout the issue, further evidencing that the contrasting wardrobe selection was deliberately done to single out James as being stylistically inferior.

As for the "other shots" that could have been used in place such as this one (which was featured inside the magazine alongside the article about James and Bundchen):

I think it's safe to say that this image doesn't grab my attention nearly as much as the one selected.

I don't believe that the problem concerning the interpretation of the cover stems from the racist inclinations of the Vogue publishers, but from the very people who assert it is racist in the first place. I know that when I first looked at the cover, King Kong was NOT the first thing that came to mind, much less the second or third thing (And I recently saw King Kong, too.) In fact, I didn't even think about the cover as being racist until I heard about the buzz being stirred up by critics. I believe that in labeling the image as racist, critics are making race more of an issue than it is or needed to be. In doing so, they essentially make it harder to move forward towards a more "equal" society, as for many like me, race isn't on forefront of my mind until it is brought up.

It's clear that Vogue definitely set out to illicit a response from it's readers with the release of April's issue, however I highly doubt it wanted THIS kind of response...but then again, all publicity is good publicity, especially in media and entertainment.


The Figueroa Post said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Figueroa Post said...

In this case, I think the bad publicity served as bad publicity! Unfortunately. I think it reflected back on the magazine and Lebron, sparing Gisele a bit. It's too bad--I think the juxtaposition of such a strong basketball player and a lithe model was brilliant. On the cover she holds her ground and he looks fierce, but not gorilla-like or white-female obsessed. They compliment each other! People just like to talk to0 much sometimes.

Rex345 said...

This was a great post and I completely agree! The recent Vogue cover caught my attention as well, but definitely not in the animalistic, King Kong kind of way. As for the commenter who suggested pairing Lebron with a black model...isn't that an even more racist comment? Too me that is insinuating that a black man and white woman are an inappropriate pair. I think the cover was great and it's a shame that people have stirred up unnecessary controversy surrounding it. This is the first I've heard of it, but I hope the backlash that Vogue and Lebron experience is not too harsh.

-L said...

Glad to hear that some agree with me! What's funny is I was talking to a friend of mine at lunch who interns at Vogue last week after writing the article and she informed me that Vogue was the one who planted the seed of controversy surrounding their own cover! That is, Vogue is the one who insinuated that their OWN cover was similar to King Kong just to get press....

I don't know how accurate she or her Vogue colleagues who told her this, but if that's true that would just be...well, retarded.

The Brand said...

I loved this post! I do sort of understand Vogue planting a controversial seed going along with the no press is bad press (which is really true), but I can't believe people would find a reason to complain about this cover. People don't want Bron to look like a basketball player? Ummm guess what - he is a basketball player! That's what we pay him gajillions of dollars to do!
I also thought the cover was brilliant and totally appropriate, go Bron and Giselle (and they both look hot)

Global Citizen said...

How funny people still look for stupid controversies in magazine articles or pictures, and to top it off the magazine did all that just to sell more simple as that.

The Chipped Stele said...

This is a perfect example of the media generating controversy simply for the sake of generating controversy. Like others who have posted comments, some offensive "King Kong" stereotype did not come to my mind when I saw the photos. With so many serious issues facing the country, it is unfortunate news outlets choose to waste time on such silly, artificial stories.