Sunday, March 30, 2008

Is the Vogue cover racist?

If you haven't already heard, there's a bit of a controversy brewing over the latest cover of Vogue with LeBron James and Giselle Bundchen on it. Take a look for yourself.

The speculation is that the cover is invoking King Kong and therefore suggesting that LeBron James--and hence the black man--is a big brutish gorilla.

Clearly the resemblance is haunting. Almost too much to be explained away by mere coincidence. However, King Kong isn't the only cultural icon to employ the Gorilla kidnapping helpless beauty meme. For example, this Emmanuel Frémiet sculpture is obviously not King Kong.

So there are two other possibilities for the cover (I will go ahead and dismiss the explanation that the concept was completely original and the gorilla reference is just imagined by us). One is that the Vogue cover didn't copy the King Kong poster but was invoking the gorilla reference, and the the other is that the cover copied some other gorilla artwork. Given the fact that the Vogue photographer Annie Leibovitz has a history of 'artful borrowing', I think it's safe to say that the cover was in fact a copy of either the King Kong poster or something else.

For years a certain photographer has been calling us up to complain about Annie Leibovitz' penchant for recreating famous photographs and passing them off as original compositions. We usually chalked up the accusations to jealousy, and thought nothing more.

Now comes new evidence that our original source was right. Women's Wear Daily reported last week on the Vanity Fair photographer's "artful borrowing." WWD reporter Jeff Bercovici wrote that "a spokeswoman for the magazine acknowledged Wednesday that the cover photo of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Al Gore, shot by Annie Leibovitz, was 'inspired' by 'Ballet Society,' a 1948 portrait by Irving Penn of George Balanchine and three collaborators."

This seems to confirm that the Vogue cover is a copy. The question now becomes "Is it a copy of the King Kong poster?" While the resemblance is eerie, there seem to be too many inconsistencies for someone of Leibovitz' talent. So it shouldn't have been a big surprise when an old WWI recruiting poster surfaced.

If you compare that poster to the Vogue cover, it should be patently obvious where the inspiration came from. This leaves us with several questions.

Is the cover a copy of the "Mad Brute" WWI poster?
I think that clearly it is.

Is it racist?
Here I'm not too sure. In the original poster, the gorilla represents Germany in general, and Kaiser Wilhelm in particular (and you can't get much whiter than that). But that only raises the question of why compare LeBron James to the German war machine? It could just be that the mad brutes represent professional jocks. But would Leibovitz and Vogue have made a similar cover with a white athlete like Tom Brady? I'm guessing probably not, but I can see such a layout actually working (and without the surrounding controversy). Of course it doesn't help that the gorilla imagery always seems to involve a white girl. Perhaps a print of a gorilla kidnapping a young black beauty would remove the racial connotation. But a photographer who likes to copy classic artwork is an unlikely candidate to set that precedent.

But what really jumped out at me about this whole affair was that the old WWI poster (as well as the Frémiet sculpture) depicted a bare breasted woman. Such an image would be considered indecent today. As I've talked about before, one of the great sins of the religification of American society has been the demonization of the human body. News Flash: Female breasts aren't evil and seeing them won't psychologically mar children!


Anonymous said...

Check the following book on "stereotypes & society." Does the cover look familar?

Maybe Liebovitz was trying to inspire awareness of the topics covered in the book, which was coincidentally released in paperback on March 15th... just around the same time the Vogue issue came out.

The Science Pundit said...

Thanks ploogr, that's very interesting.

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Anonymous said...

The difference between this photo and the prototypes is that Gisele looks delighted, not frightened, and she appears to be pulling LeBron with her right arm, and he has a look on his face that could easily be interpreted as "Damn, I can't believe another white bitch is after me when I'm still sore from the last one!"

So maybe it is racist, insofar as it appears to celebrate a white she-devil's (with a Medusa-inspired hairdo, no less) seduction of a sister's man.