Derrick and LeBron vs. The World

If you’re a fashionista then chances are good that Vogue’s recent racial faux pas has not escaped you. For the rest of us, here’s what’s happened: The magazine’s April edition features NBA superstar LeBron James in an aggressive pose holding supermodel Gisele Bundchen’s waist.

(For those asking “What’s the big deal?” about the cover to the right, then you’re with LeBron and me on this one).

What should have been a momentous occasion for the black and fashion communities-James is the first black man and third man to grace a Vogue cover in its 116 year history-has degenerated into public frenzy with racism called at every corner.

But, let’s be honest: How could Vogue be wholly unaware of how this cover would be perceived? Even I must admit that after my initial “cool, nice cover” I thought, uh oh. Many perceive the cover as nothing less than a badly veiled allusion to King Kong kidnapping Fay Wray, a hostile act of caricature and racial insensitivity, which conjures one of the oldest racist comparisons: black men as apes. For Vogue not to realize the repercussions of such an image is sheer naivety on their part.

I did some research and discovered some old movie posters of the original King Kong and the similarities are eerie. The woman is usually clothed in a light or green gown, similar to Bundchen’s, and hoisted by Kong’s left arm. Now, this could all be coincidence and the stars were aligned against Vogue and photographer Annie Leibovitz; still, images like this still strike cords.

The United States has plenty of baggage when it comes to race, but even more contentious is the historical relationship between black men and white women. It was this particular image of the hyper-aggressive black male coveting the helpless white woman in a fit of sexual fury that validated the twisted minds of racists little over a century ago, culminating in the senseless lynching of hundreds of black men.

With the obligatory cultural analysis out of the way, let’s get real. Besides dress colors and posture, there’s very little overt racism. I don’t read: “Save me from the scary black man!” in Bundchen’s face. She’s smiling. In fact, there’s very little sexual chemistry in the cover at all-they’re not even looking at each other. They’re both too busy vamping for the camera, and she looks like she’s about to slip and twist her ankle.

Now look at James. Does he look all that different from images of every other athlete, let alone black athletes? Had this been a white basketball player shouting at the camera nobody would have said a thing. Athletes are supposed to look aggressive and tough. Granted, they could have just as easily put James in a suit and have him pose beside Bundchen, but this is the “Shape Issue.” This edition is devoted to showing off the fit bodies of a star athlete and supermodel. So, you can’t tuck him away in Armani and call it a day. He’s an athlete and athletes are represented a certain way (aggressive, strong, hyper-masculine) and Gisele is a model (passive, beautiful, and hyper-feminine).

Everyone’s willing to grab their pitchforks and flaming torches in a crusade against perceived racial injustice, yet no one’s up in arms over the gender subtext in this photo. After all the hubbub, that’s what really struck me. Why does nobody lament yet another image of beautiful woman as sex-object, held in thrall by her possessor, turned on by being a man’s trophy?

In matters of ascertaining racism and misogyny, I like to take a page from Whoopi Goldberg who’s said: It’s the intent, never the word [or image in this case]. Still, try as I may, I can write as many editorials as I want to, but in the minds of many it’s impossible to separate symbolic implications from an image or word. In an ideal world my opinions may thrive, but this is reality. There’s just too much unresolved history.

So, I end this editorial with an uncharacteristic bit of frank cynicism. Next week this will all be forgotten and the world will carry on until the next Vogue cover. I’m tired of nitpicking over every cover, song lyric, movie casting, and novel title; if things are to be changed, nitpicking will never do. Everyone’s willing to talk around race and misogyny, but no one wants to look the demons in the face because they look a little too much like us.

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