Vogue’s April 2008 cover with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James and Gisèle Bündchen has been branded by some as being racist. As noted by the Plain Dealer over in Cleveland, Ohio:
LeBron shares the April cover of Vogue magazine with supermodel Gisele Bundchen. It’s been noted by some that his open-mouthed screaming face and the way he is cradling a blond woman in his left hand has racial overtones in its resemblance to an old movie poster of King Kong and captive Fay Wray. Vogue says it chose the photo because it’s “expressive, fun and upbeat.”
Once I got over the bad typography, I had to wonder if this cover furthers stereotypes. Being a minority, I personally didn’t make the connection that Margaret Bernstein and Sarah Crump reported on above. If I imagined the races switched, I also didn’t get much of a reaction—except to note that it would have been unusual for Vogue to feature a woman of colour on its cover, let alone a man of any colour.
However, I wondered: would a black man who isn’t a basketball player have made it? Or one who isn’t dressed as such?
I don’t think it’s necessarily the pose, but whether there is a stereotype at play here. While Mr James has his own line of clothes—which he is modelling in the cover photograph—would a cover showing him in more conservative attire have been chosen?
One blogger gave other examples, and reacted to the photograph:
A tuxedoed LeBron James out on the town with a stylish Gisele photo shoot would do. A Lebron on a couch with a magazine full of him and Gisele on the same couch with a magazine full of her; signiﬁers that they are man and woman at the top of their professions photo shoot would do. Or, the two in full nightclub gear with him watching her trying to dribble in the low light of an empty Quicken Arena. The possibilities are endless.
And yet LeBron James allowed himself to be captured interminably not as the King James of his profession and rising player in the business world, but as a human King Kong, The Great Nigger whose fame is inextricably tied to how pro?ciently he puts a leather ball through an iron hoop.
Calling it a modern-day interpretation of King Kong and Fay Wray, Feministe website writer Ali Eteraz referred to the image by Annie Leibovitz as “King James Turned Into King Kong.” She also said the cover “fulﬁlls every racist stereotype in the world: primal screaming, white-girl carrying, black beast.”
Are they seeing something that has escaped the rest of us? It’s the “Shape Issue,” remember? The contrast of the 6-foot-9 James and 5-foot-11 Bundchen seems like nothing more than an innocent pop culture poke at celebrity. Do we really need to read more into it?
As for the comparison to poor Fay Wray, does anyone see Bundchen looking remotely stressed in this shot?
James is the third man to appear on a cover of Vogue (after Richard Gere and George Clooney), and the publisher has defended its choice because it is an issue devoted to size and shape. From the Associated Press:
“Nobody says more about fashion size and shape than Gisele and LeBron,” Vogue spokesman Patrick O’Connell said. “LeBron is an amazing star and athlete that has crossed over into a cultural phenomena.”
To me (being neither black nor white), the King Kong connection, isn’t obvious—but the idea of “the black American good only on the basketball court” seems to be cemented here. Sad, in a year where Americans could be voting in their ﬁrst black president.
Whatever the case, Vogue seems to have beneﬁted hugely from the publicity, from the blogosphere and sports’ fans who might never have commented on the magazine.