Monday, March 31, 2008

A test of your cultural IQ

Here is a question to test your cultural IQ. Is this "Vogue" magazine cover image racist?

I see it as possibly racist, in a low-key way, as an assemblage of stereotypes: it's a picture of an African-American man with a basketball in one hand, a white woman in the other hand, and a vulgar display of emotion on his face. "Slate", on the other hand, reads a bit more into it than that:
At the end of last week, a lot of people, smart and dumb, were losing their minds over it. The cover captures LeBron James dribbling a basketball while holding onto Gisele Bündchen. James, of course, is the NBA sensation, and Bündchen is the sensational Brazilian supermodel. His face is in mid-roar. His arm is around her waist. He appears to be 10 times her width. She looks underfed but appears to be having a very good time.

And yet: "It's racist," people cried. "Racist how, you oversensitive weirdos?" people cried back. James and Bündchen were playing themselves—unless the image happened to remind you of a certain cinematic classic from 1933, in which a giant gorilla scoops up a pretty white lady and proceeds to mount the Empire State Building. This is where the trouble begins. According to this scenario, James is King Kong and Bündchen his Fay Wray. It's an easy conclusion to draw. James isn't wearing his Cavaliers uniform—he's wearing anonymous black shorts and an anonymous black tank top. She's wearing a silky bias-cut gown, not unlike the one Wray wore. The photo, shot by Annie Leibovitz and surely signed off by Vogue Editor Anna Wintour, appeared, to some, to evoke one of the ugliest racist tropes: black male as ape.
It's easy to see that the "Slate" analysis is, to put it simply, highly flawed. One way that you can tell is by looking at the eyes of the comparison image designed by "Slate" to convey the point. On the magazine cover, Lebron James is looking into the camera, which is to say that, despite having his arm around a beautiful white woman, he is not expressing any particular sexual interest in her. The movie poster, on the other hand, displays film's stereotypical "male gaze" (embedded hyperlinks and footnotes removed):
Laura Mulvey, in her essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", introduced the concept of the gaze as a symptom of power asymmetry, hypothesizing about what she called the "male gaze." The theory of the male gaze has been hugely influential in feminist film theory and in media studies.

The defining characteristic of the male gaze is that the audience is forced to regard the action and characters of a text through the perspective of a heterosexual man; the camera lingers on the curves of the female body, and events which occur1 to women are presented largely in the context of a man's reaction to these events. The male gaze denies women agency, relegating them to the status of objects. The female reader or viewer must experience the narrative secondarily, by identification with the male.

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