Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Monkey Business

So is that Vogue cover racist or not?

No matter how many "courageous" speeches Barack Obama gives, America will never be a "Let's talk about race" kind of place. It'll always be a "Let's talk about how we can't talk about race" kind of place. I'm all for doing my part. I'd like to start a talk show called This Week in Racism. Eventually, in the broadcast, we'd get around to the cover of Vogue's current "shape" issue.

At the end of last week, a lot of people, smart and dumb, were losing their minds over it. The cover captures LeBron James dribbling a basketball while holding onto Gisele Bündchen. James, of course, is the NBA sensation, and Bündchen is the sensational Brazilian supermodel. His face is in mid-roar. His arm is around her waist. He appears to be 10 times her width. She looks underfed but appears to be having a very good time.

And yet: "It's racist," people cried. "Racist how, you oversensitive weirdos?" people cried back. James and Bündchen were playing themselves—unless the image happened to remind you of a certain cinematic classic from 1933, in which a giant gorilla scoops up a pretty white lady and proceeds to mount the Empire State Building. This is where the trouble begins. According to this scenario, James is King Kong and Bündchen his Fay Wray. It's an easy conclusion to draw. James isn't wearing his Cavaliers uniform—he's wearing anonymous black shorts and an anonymous black tank top. She's wearing a silky bias-cut gown, not unlike the one Wray wore. The photo, shot by Annie Leibovitz and surely signed off by Vogue Editor Anna Wintour, appeared, to some, to evoke one of the ugliest racist tropes: black male as ape.


Kate said...

this is a GREAT post. love it.

it is also interesting how people consider it is racist, but neglect to think of it as being extremely sexist as well.

sara said...

I love this. I think this topic is fascinating, and very problematic. It's hard to deny the racist imagery in the Vogue cover when you see the two pictures side by side. I think a huge part of this problem the fact that many people don't even realize they hold certain stereotypes or racist notions; I doubt Annie Leibovitz intended this to be racist or controversial. I believe pictures like this demonstrate how unconsciously ingrained racialized notions are in our thinking; we should be made more aware of them.

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