Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Beauty and Beast? No, it's worse

This article is partially a response to Bent’s last post, Beauty and the Beast? I had originally intended on posting the Lebron Vouge Magazine photo which Bent analyzes below. I then thought I would post a reply in his thread but upon further reflection, I think an independent post is in order. I typically wouldn’t do that but I wanted to display a fair amount of images and just couldn't do that in the comments.

Bent makes an interesting point about how the LeBron photo has been deconstructed, noting that it just as easily could be interpreted through a critical feminist lens. Sure, I suppose. But that fashion models play into gendered roles is nothing new or even much debated. In the context of race in this instance, a feminist reading just feels disingenuous.

It was this statement that really jumped out at me;

“Walker and Husni to me seem to be typical of ethnic minority representatives who are prone to read specific ethnic narratives into mainstream material.”

If that is what’s happening, then we have to ask ourselves why that is. In an earlier post, Disney isn’t Racist, I pointed to an online discussion in which mainly Whites (one would assume) were incapable of seeing inherent racial stereotypes embedded in children's popular culture. One gets that same sense about this photo. I think to dismiss Walker and Husni out of hand is to dismiss centuries long and deeply embedded racial caricatures.

Men’s Fitness editor Roy Johnson took a more nuanced view of the situation;
“It’s a reminder that as African-Americans, we have come very far to have an African-American male featured on the cover of Vogue, but we have very far to go to continue to educate people within our industry regarding the power of images and the potential impact they can have on their readers.”

I’m sympathetic that Bent in this instance may want to defend the photographer Leibovitz. However, Michael Shaw at the Bag thinks otherwise;

... I think the image is worth our deconstruction, but I don't believe for a second Vogue/Leibovitz didn't know exactly what they were doing. In spite of his approval (before, and up to this moment), did LeBron get the shape of it?

I don’t know if Leibovitz “knew exactly what she was doing” but it’s difficult for me to not see the photo within a racialized context. Is it however possible that such an image was chosen on a subconscious level?

But what if Vogue magazine is completely innocent. Do unintended consequences have any bearing on the discussion? What's more, in response to Bent, is white America also not prone to read certain narratives into mainstream material? When a white American claims that an image like this isn't racist, is it because of a deep denial or cultural blindness? Perhaps it's difficult to sympathize with oppression if one's never been oppressed. I contend that there are several narratives which can be read into the image and that all of them are valid. I accept the idea that Leibovitz as photographer and artist was sincerely intent on simply creating images to match the magazine's stated mission for that publication.

Sure, like Bent points out, we can deconstruct this image or any image into multiple layered meanings, creating our own narrow constructions out of the pieces. But to deny that this image or anything else racial in the US "has absolutely nothing to do with the legacy of race in these United States" as one commenter stated, is at the very least, dishonest. Something is there or we wouldn't be talking about it to the extent that we are. 400 years of cultural constructions of the "savage other" can not simply be dismissed, especially in a society were ethnic minorities continue to suffer from both institutionalized and socio-cultural racism.

My point is that the LeBron image, whether intended or not, should be seen within the ugly tradition of grotesquely negative stereotypes of Black men, and as Bent points out, equally disturbing portrayals of women as week sexual objects. Maybe the editor did know what was going on, maybe it was a marketing ploy? Who knows for sure? But old memes die hard.

The University of Wisconsin's Center for Whiteness Studies has some interesting sources on White constructions of Black on White sexual assault here.

The film King Kong thus belongs to the tradition of Birth of a Nation, which first put on the silver screen blackface images of African American men attacking virginal blondes in traumatic violation of imaginary national and race identities. When the airplanes arrive to shoot down Kong and save the white goddess, we can hardly forget the ride of the Klansmen who come to the rescue of the white South in Griffith's film.

The image of a Black man as a gorilla, ape, or sexual monster didn't just disappear. No doubt, some segments of White society are still apt to read the LeBron image as such. While one would hope that this is a very small minority, more troubling are millions of suburban whites who just don't "see" racism anywhere.

Frank Darabont's 1999 film adaptation of Stephen King's, The Green Mile, shows a similar depiction. In this case, John Coffey, an 8 foot Black man is falsely accused and sentenced to death for the murder of two small White girls. Part of the message of the film (I haven't read the book) is that Coffey is accused and murdered by the state because he fits the dominant racial stereotypes of White society. In another scene, Coffey is taken to the warden's house to "cure" his wife's cancer. The wife, wearing a long white satin gown with flowing long blond hair is powerless against "the giant." The four white men are also depicted as utterly powerless (even with firearms) as they look on. Ultimately, the viewers understand that Coffey is there to help the poor sick woman but the scene plays on old narratives of the savage (Black) raping of (White) purity.

The Green Mile could be seen in the tradition of Harper Lee's, To Kill a Mockingbird, which also addresses these same white fears and the injustice that deeply embedded racial stereotypes help perpetuate. Again, despite the good intentions of enlightened Whites, liberal justice can not overcome the "black male predator"/"white woman victim" cultural frame.

Whatever the intentions, the Vogue image appears at a time of extra-heightened racial awareness and even perhaps a growing animosity. Ultimately then, the image is not merely a piece of popular culture but part of the now overtly racialized political climate which was always brewing just below the surface before Barack Obama’s speech on race created the firestorm. Nothing currently in America isn’t about race.

This article is cross-posted at The Agonist