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Is Vogue’s April 2008 cover racist?


March 21, 2008/1.02

Vogue April 2008 cover

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.

   Others rebutted:

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.

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15 thoughts on ‘Is Vogue’s April 2008 cover racist?

  1. Get over it. We’re all minorities in one way or another. Were they forced to do this cover? I don’t think so. Who cares.

  2. Why does EVERYTHING always turn into something with racism? GET OVER IT PEOPLE! Lebron James is the Man, I’ll bet he dosen’t think the cover is racist. People like you who cry racist over everything are just as ignorant as racist people themselves.

  3. I think everyone’s made a good argument about the cover. But why are we arguing about a magazine cover? Everybody is focusing on issues that don’t even matter. I hope that things wiil change in november…and that’s all that matters to me.

  4. Becky, there’s a good bunch of arguments at the cross-posting of this same piece at Vox, which covers some good ground—some people do care. Chris: you’re generalizing, if I may say so. Carmen, very good call.
    Here’s that Vox link, though bear in mind only Vox members can comment:

    The two “sides” get into some good depth there and this addresses Chris’s ‘ignorant’ charge without my needing to repeat the arguments here.

  5. this is ridiculous!!! I am so sick of everything having to come down to race! NO matter what the picture looked like, there would have been something to complain about it. Its just a picture that obviously he was not forced to do–he is a basketball player, he is supposed to look tough!

  6. You have hit upon one thing, Krystal, that I think has a lot of merit: the fact that a basketball player is dressed as a basketball player does weaken the charges, and as I said I could not see the King Kong connection till it was pointed out. Perhaps what it comes down to is that Vogue has had a history of more white covers than is proportionally representative, though that is not always the fault of the magazine. (Its staff is also less ethnically diverse than a random sample of Americans.) When a black American finally makes it to the cover, it was bound to be scrutinized far more heavily than, say, a general-interest title.

  7. Whoever thought this picture somehow has some heading racial undertone needs to get laid really bad.

  8. Why don’t we just ask the photographer and the subjects? Does LJ think it is racist? Was he forced to pose? This is a faulty argument anyway.

  9. Paul, short story is that Mr James does not think the cover is racist and of course he was not forced to pose. I don’t think the overall argument is faulty but I do think this cover can be defended.

  10. the fact that 99% of you are dismissing the claims without even analysing them….proves one thing…you’re all racist! yes I’m afraid so. The king kong and white woman link is irrelevant (gisele is brazillian not white) however The vogue cover is a total stereotype, stereotypes of both blacks and women. Woman is portrayed as a stereotypical ideal…must be slim, elegant, long hair, long legs, over a certain height, tight skimpy clothing, big breasts…cant get much more stereotypical than that. And the black guy…well all black guys are good basketball players, muscular, aggressive etc. And why are you guys racist? because youre dismissing it without even giving it any thought, that shows either 1) you dont want to hear or even acknowledge the existence of racism or race issues…which makes you either ignorantly racist or “colour blind.” colour blindess is part of the conspiracy to deny the existence of racism, as if to say we’re all equal now. very similar to saying men and women are all equal, were are all classless now, hence i dont want to hear about it. There thats why youre all racist. your attitudes are absolutely no different to someone who says …”i cant be racist because my have in-laws who are indian.” “I’m not racist but…” “im not racist, i have friends who are black” etc etc. “im not racist, my workmate is korean” etc etc etc

  11. @simpleton (Like my creative edit?) You don’t have a coherent argument. “all black guys are good basketball players, muscular, aggressive etc.”? No, but LeBron James is all of those things. He’s on a fashion magazine, modeling HIS CLOTHING LINE, which happens to be basketball apparel, because HE’S A BASKETBALL PLAYER. It’s not “random black dude #38” on the cover, it’s LeBron James, professional basketball player.

    “Woman is portrayed as a stereotypical ideal…elegant, skimpy clothing…” She’s a model. In my opinion, she doesn’t even look elegant in that photo. If anything she looks like she’s trying to escape, which may be the only racist thing in the photo, if you’re an oversensitive prat.

    Anything can be interpreted as racist, just like you can re-interpret things to suit your needs. You know what I think about that picture? It’s by a bunch of neo-nazi feminist man-haters. Clearly LeBron is acting too manly, with his sleeveless shirt, primal scream and unbridled athleticism. Gisele, wanting a more sophisticated metrosexual man, is leaning away from him; her hips and toes pointing in a different direction, showing an unconscious repulsion to his masculinity. SIMILAR TO HOW VOGUE HATES MEN! IT’S A CONSPIRACY!

  12. I think people jump into conclusions too quickly. It never crossed my mind this photo showed any kind of racism. He is a basketball player being strong and loud and she is a model being sweet and delicate. Those are the only stereotypes there is. Plus when you read the head lines, they are talking about fitness. If there is something they are saying with this photo is that: EVERYONE IN WHATEVER INDUSTRY, NEEDS TO GET IN SHAPE TO STAY ON TOP. Plus it show equality between woman and man in a physical content. Woman being “delicate” have the same capacity to be as strong as a big man. Color of skin doesn’t have to do with any of it. Gisele is a inspiration to all women as James is to all men. AND THAT’S IT!!!

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