Sunday, March 30, 2008

Beauty and Beast?

A strange and unexpected development means that an addendum to my recent post on Annie Leibovitz over at my personal blog seems due. It appears that Vogue (and therefore indirectly Leibovitz, who shot the offending image) is taking some flak over the cover image of the April 2008 issue which is themed to pitch superstars of sports together with supermodels (a somewhat bizarre choice of theme, but I guess one that plays into twin American obsessions: strength and beauty). Apparently certain viewers of the cover image of James LeBron and Gisele Bündchen think that the representation of LeBron is stereotyping him as a monstrous specimen of black masculinity, or downright denigrating his humanity by portraying him with a facial expression which they read as rage-filled and frustrated and showing him as holding Bündchen in much the same way that King Kong is remembered to have done when "man"handling Fay Wray...

This snippet from FOX Sports is representative of the criticism:

But the image is stirring up controversy, with some commentators decrying the photo as perpetuating racial stereotypes. James strikes what some see as a gorilla-like pose, baring his teeth, with one hand dribbling a ball and the other around Bundchen's tiny waist. It's an image some have likened to "King Kong" and Fay Wray.

"It conjures up this idea of a dangerous black man," said Tamara Walker, 29, of Philadelphia.Magazine analyst Samir Husni believes the photo was deliberately provocative, adding that it "screams King Kong." Considering Vogue's influential history, he said, covers are not something that the magazine does in a rush. "So when you have a cover that reminds people of King Kong and brings those stereotypes to the front, black man wanting white woman, it's not innocent," he said.

If nothing else, Walker said the cover underscores the need for a more diverse workplace. "If more people of color worked for Vogue in positions of editorial authority, perhaps someone in the room might have been able to read the image the way so many of us are reading it now, and had the power to do something about it," she said.

Walker and Husni to me seem to be typical of ethnic minority representatives who are prone to read specific ethnic narratives into mainstream material. One sees similar tendencies in other academic disciplines where queer academics often live to read queer narratives into canonical literature such as Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw". Such interventions are often extremely enlightening, but one should always be alert to the difference discourse hierarchies that are produced by such interventions.

To illustrate, I would propose that an equally important narrative regarding gender ideology could be read into the cover image. Why is Gisele reduced to an object for handling by the active male subject, barely more important than the basketball he is dribbling with his right hand? Are we to take it that LeBron's right hand partner is the ball - the handling of which is the key to his multimillion dollar earnings, whereas Gisele is his left-hand squeeze, the morganatic wife that all kings (also those of the NBA, where LeBron goes by the moniker King James) can afford to keep along with their other trophies (A morganatic wife. Defined by Captain Francis Grose in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) as: ' A concubine; an allusion to an ancient German custom, according to which, when a man married his concubine, or a woman greatly his inferior, he gave her his left hand.' )

The other images in the Vogue spread can also be experienced online. They feature speed skater Apolo Ohno and supermodel Doutzen Kroes, snowboarder Shaun White and model Daria Werbowy, as well as swimmer Michael Phelps and model Carole Trentini. Of these pairings Ohno is of course an Asian-American, but he is diminutive of stature and does not pose in anything approaching a threatening manner. Phelps, while big, is portrayed as an elegant aquaman throughout, and Shaun White gives new meaning to the idea of the petite male... The final pairing is more parallel to LeBron/Bündchen, pitching discus thrower Jared Rome with Raquel Zimmerman. One image - titled 'Crouching Tiger' has Rome 'bench-pressing' Zimmerman over his shoulders, another has him getting ready to fling her as he would a discus. These images tell the same gender specific story as the controversial one, but because there is no inter-racial dynamics in it, there have been no comments regarding this shot.

One can perhaps see more about Leibovitz's intentions behind the cover tableau by watching the so-called behind-the-scenes Diary at Vogue's web-site... Certainly the interview with Bündchen and James depicts them as equals - and they make it very clear that only one person was the boss at the shoot: Leibovitz, who literally made them jump through hoops for her...

One can also read the cover story on-line here...