ESPN Journalist Jemele Hill believes that the recent cover of fashion magazine Vogue depicting NBA basketball player LeBron James and model Gislele Bundchen perpetuates racial stereotypes. In part, she blames LeBron James himself for not having more control over his public image and the image that was chosen for the Vogue cover. But is the image really racist? Or does it intentionally draw on racist stereotypes? Or does Hill’s analysis try to read too deep into a simple fashion magazine cover?
The two appear on the “shape” issue of Vogue which celebrates athleticism according to The Body Electric video about the issue, the athletes and the photo shoot.
Jemele Hills Blames LeBron James
“Vogue deserves criticism, but more blame should go to LeBron,” Hill wrote in her column. (ESPN)
First, Jemele Hill obviously does not understand how editorial works. LeBaron James was posing in the role of the model. Models, even NBA stars do not have say in which photo makes the cover.
Hill also continues, “more blame should go to LeBron and other black athletes, who need to exercise stricter control of their images.” (ESPN)
Hill Compares LeBron to King Kong
It is possible to view media images and appreciate them or critique them on many levels. Jemele Hill decided to look at the LeBron Vogue cover through a racism-detecting lens. She compares the image of LeBron and Bundchen to King Kong and Fay Wray.
From a visual aspect, it is possible to draw upon that pop culture image. Does that mean its racist? Does that mean photographer Annie Leibowitz is a racist? I think we all see what we want to see. I also think that referring to LeBron James as a King Kong figure is both racist and sexist. Images alone are not racist, but meanings we attach to them can be.
Hill on Vogue and the “Beast Pose”
Hill also wrote that she did not believe Vogue would have “made Brett Favre, Steve Nash or even David Beckham strike his best beast pose.” (ESPN)
Are we to believe that famed photographer Annie Liebowtiz was there shooting images and made LeBaron James strike a “beast pose”? That strikes me as quite ridiculous.
If Hill does see a beauty and a beast, that fairy tale which dates back to the 18th century, does not come with racial baggage, unless you pack your own.
If Hill is uncomfortable with the images, maybe she is simply uncomfortable with strong portrayals of masculinity and strong athleticism. It seems perfectly natural that any professional athlete would be “flexing his muscles” and be dressed in athletic gear. Hill took issue with both of these facts.
Hill, like others, may simply be uncomfortable with the image of a black man and a white woman. Some of us just see a man and a woman, albeit a physically fit man and a woman, but still, a man a woman. Or an athlete and a model.
Reading Into Images
It is possible to read anything you want into images. You can analyze pop culture images until you find or create meaning. This does not mean it was intentional, or even exists in the image.
When you look at the cover you may not see racism, you may see sexism. In a month when the NCAA women are playing their hearts out, couldn’t Vogue have created a cover with female college basketball stars? After all, Vogue is a women’s fashion magazine.
What I Saw
When I looked at the LeBron James Gislele Bundchen Vogue cover, I saw an athlete and a model. I saw two people showing us the top of their game: LeBron in basketball mode and Bundchen in model mode.
When I looked at the LeBron James Gislele Bundchen Vogue cover I saw a strong man and a lithe woman.
Is Gislele Bundchen a skinny woman in the arms of a strong man? Yes. If she weren’t skinny she wouldn’t even be on the cover of Vogue.
I also saw two people who were enjoying themselves.
What shocked me more was to see a man on the cover of Vogue. It’s only the third time a man has graced the cover of this magazine.
Photographer Annie Leibowitz
Annie Leibowitz is known for her striking photographs. Her famous images include one of Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub filled with milk, naked John Lennon with a dressed Yoko Ono, a pregnant Demi Moore on Vanity Fair.
One Leibowitz photo of Dolly Parton and Arnold Schwarzenegger featured Arnold doing the unthinkable, flexing his muscles.
Perhaps Hill needs to take a look at the history of Annie Leibowitz’s work before pulling out the race card.
The Vogue cover was taken by Annie Leibowitz which may be why this cover is more Vanity Fair than Vogue.
One argument being made is that Vogue could have selected a different image. Of the other images available, only this one could have graced the cover. It was of Lebron sitting down, and Giselle standing.
The photograph was attractive, but it did not have the same visual dynamic as the photo that Vogue used on the cover.
There was another image of the two in movement playing basketball, but they were too far away from each other and seem too disconnected to make the image work on the cover.
The Vogue cover shows life, movement, and fun. From a newsstand point of view, the cover they sleeted is the most marketable.
Racist or Not?
ESPN Journalist Jemele Hill sees the image as being racist. While I can see her point of view, I think the image could also be called sexist. If Jemele Hill or anyone else sees the image as racist and perpetuating racial stereotypes, then that is their prerogative.
Personally, I don’t think Lebron James looks like King Kong. I think he looks like an athlete.
We see what we want to see.
Sometimes racism is in the eye of the beholder.
Annie Liebowtiz Images (some images NSFW), http://www.nytimes.com/library/photos/leibovitz/sponsor.html
Annie Leibowitz at PBS, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/leibovitz_a_gallery15.html
The Body Electric Video, http://www.style.com/vogue/voguediaries/031408/?load=the_body_electric
“LeBron should be more careful with his image,” Jemele Hill, March 21, 2008, ESPN Page 2,http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=hill/080320&sportCat=nba