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King James or King Kong

Take an iconic sports star, whose name is large enough to be associated with royalty, and is destined to become the symbol of one of America’s favorite pastimes; add one of the best imports from Brazil, whose habitats include runways and studios, and is one the Forbes list of highest-paid celebrities in the world—and one will surely end up with basketball’s Lebron James and fashion’s Gisele Bundchen. The two household names posed for a once-in-a-lifetime cover for the style bible Vogue magazine, under the direction of famed photographer, Annie Liebovitz.

But what was pictured to be a upbeat and fun cover symbolic of the month’s theme spurned a barrage of comments and reactions from the world over. The 24-year-old Lebron James is playing world-record basketball with the Cleveland Cavaliers of the National Basketball Association (NBA), a feat that has earned him the title “King James”. At 18, he was immediately drafted by his current team where he consequently was made endorser for major sports apparel brand Nike for an incredible $90 million. That paved the way for Lebron to win many more deals and awards, most of them for being the youngest in the league.

$150 million is not a figurative number for Gisele Bundchen, for it literally is the amount of her net worth. A native of Brazil, Bundchen is acknowledged to be the most in demand magazine cover model only second to Princess Diana, and has been declared the world’s richest model and sixteenth wealthiest female entertainment celebrity. Bringing these two stars together must have been a momentous accomplishment for Vogue. They were earmarked to represent the magazine’s “Shape” issue, and the reason for choosing James and Bundchen are quite clear—he, massive and large, and she, willowy and towering.

They were to be artistic and symbolic definitions of shape in the contemporary context. Annie Liebovitz, the photographer who has made a name for herself through her controversial pictures, was assigned the Vogue cover. She counts several much-talked about pieces in her portfolio, such as the 1981 Rolling Stone magazine cover of a naked John Lennon, his arms around his wife Yoko Ono; actress Demi Moore’s naked and pregnant Vanity Fair shoot; as well as a recent session with Queen Elizabeth that the royal head reportedly walked out of.

Liebovitz knew how to use her eye and prowess to compose thought-provoking photographs, and that is exactly what she set out to do with the James and Bundchen project. The result of the collaboration was quite simple, yet striking; it was a play of opposites—size, color, temperament, motivation, and, of course, shape—that aimed to jump out of the page, presumably without being interpreted as more than what it actually is. On the contrary, reactions and opinions sprung immediately after the publication of the cover, headlining Vogue’s April 2008 issue.

Many questioned the disparity in the clothing worn by the subjects (after all, Vogue is a fashion magazine), the choice of cover models, and relevance of the topic vis-a-vis the celebrities. But most of all, pens were wielded and keypads were banged because of the cover’s supposed racist undertones. And the most common reading of the infamous photo had tight connections to one of cinema’s most graphic creations—King Kong. King Kong, shown commercially in 1933, is a movie about a 50-foot ape, and a beautiful blond woman. played spectacularly by actress Fay Wray.

It is a classic beauty-and-beast retelling, based on the themes of survival, unrequited love, violence and sexual desire, carried out by the characters—from the filmmakers in the film, to the beast’s struggle to survive in the urban jungle he had been relegated to, all because of some greedy moneymaking scheme that involved having him on display in New York, to provide a diversion for people during the era’s economic depression. But the film’s most memorable scene is actually its ending, where Kong is putting on a display of his anger and rage at all his detractors, all the while gently carrying in his hand his lady love, Ann.

The play of opposites is purposely depicted here, by showing Kong’s violent tirade against urban technology, against his tender demeanor in the presence of Ann. That he holds Ann in his humongous hand, from which harm may logically ensue, shows the juxtaposition of concepts afforded the beast. While he looks fierce and barbaric, and is expected to behave that way, Kong’s character was also shown to be compassionate and vulnerable (Cooper, 1933).

It is this classic portrayal of beauty and beast that is now being applied as a benchmark to review the James-Bundchen cover. The collective opinion of many who have spoken refer to the overt racism produced by the use of a large black man, face contorted in an effect of anger and primal release; and a frail blond woman, glamorously portrayed, appearing small and submissive. It has, for these people, become yet another echo of the old stereotype of black men’s obsession with white women, a construct that often involves sexual desire and domination.

The strongly opined statement has since brought references to the photo’s recall of the old African-American image of slavery, that of being unlearned and uneducated, of being savage, brutal and primitive (reader Angel, 2008). Other views validate this call, pointing out how the American culture has long portrayed blacks as comparable to monkeys and apes, and is in reality an unjust part of history’s images (Filipovic, 2008). Blacks, particularly those who became slaves during their arrival in the New World, have been wrongly judged by much of American history to be uncivilized and incapable of rational thinking and literate opinions.

But many accounts disprove this general assumption, for there has been a collective literature that documents the black slaves’ experience, as written by themselves. Accounts narrated by then slaves Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince and Frederick Douglass are proof that they possessed the intellect, skills and reason to disclose their lives in the hands of their captors, and are veritable witnesses to the need of African-American slaves to be free and literate. Indeed, they were of the mind to correct the injustice that had prevailed upon their race, and proceeded to do so not through violence, but through the power of the press (Gates 1987).

While there have been accounts of black violence and brutality, these narratives show that they were not all portrayed as such. A great number of books and stories have also shown the black man’s ability to rise above the chains of slavery, even while in the premises of their masters. Edward P. Jones’ The Known World (2003), a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, narrates the story of Henry Townsend, an African-American farmer and slave of Manchester County’s most powerful man named William Robbins. Townsend, even as a slave, is portrayed to have been treated by Robbins as one of his own, ultimately leaving Townsend his vast businesses and land.

Again, while this does not intend to negate the evils brought upon by slavery, it still demonstrates the acknowledgment of the intellectual capabilities of slaves by their own captors. An example once more of how blacks were not completely portrayed as animals, as referred to by the abovementioned reviews. Even African-American women are depicted using the same framework of intellect and reason. In the collection of stories entitled The Women of Brewster Place (1982) by Gloria Naylor, the female protagonists who live in a blind alley called Brewster Place have shown their ability to fight against the struggle of black women during the era.

The hardships they had experienced allowed them to create a universe that transcended beyond the opportunities society had afforded them. This echoes not just black women’s issues, but those of women in general—proving once more that history has not exclusively characterized African-Americans through the parameters superficially interpreted in the King Kong representations. In fact, more recent events involving celebrated African-American personalities are evidences of the success of blacks in dissolving the old stereotype.

The popularity and credibility resulting from the intelligence and iconoclastic character of America’s possible first black President, Barack Obama, has truly upgraded whatever undignified image is left of black Americans. And while he was enshrouded in controversy and negative publicity, Clarence Thomas had been able to go beyond the preferential option for whites as he succeeded in becoming one of the very few persons of color that were elevated by both former presidents Reagan and Bush to the position of federal judge (Marable, 1992).

His climb to the Supreme Court, while not completely free of objections, ultimately represented the reversal of the negative image of blacks. It is unfortunate, though, that such an illustrious member of the black community had to be involved in controversial issues. But no matter how much race and image are discussed, the extent of supposed racial prejudice conveyed in the Vogue cover may be quite limited and, possibly, unfounded. If the photo were really abound with negative implications, this would have elicited the same reactions from members of other cultural minorities in America.

This, apparently, is not the case. While some indeed made the connection between the photograph and an old poster promoting the King Kong film (Bernstein, 2008), others did not. The Persuader’s Jack Yan, himself a non-white American, admitted to his confusion to the racist reactions. Yan did not make the connection between the image and King Kong, and even thought as far as to imagine a switch of roles—had Vogue featured a black woman and a white man instead—and still did not arrive at the conclusions of the outraged audience.

Yan did question, though, if Vogue would have used a male cover model who was not a basketball player, and not dressed the way James was on the cover. This is not without reason, for Vogue has had a history of only featuring famous women on its covers, and has only featured two other men (actors Richard Gere and George Clooney) in all its 116 years (Bierman, 2008). Black women, on the other hand, can only lay claim to three Vogue covers, counting talk show icon Oprah Winfrey and American Idol success story Jennifer Hudson in its ranks.

However, while Jack Yan disagrees with the observed racial slur in the James-Bundchen photograph, he points out a more obvious stereotype that has no connection with the black man’s character or historical image. Yan’s reading of Vogue’s featuring Lebron James in his basketball apparel gives more allusions to the stereotype of black men excelling only in sports appears to be more sound and objective, and has clearer evidences to support it. Inside the Vogue issue, more pictures of James and Bundchen can be seen, and quite possibly, the magazine’s editors could have opted to shoot James in non-sports outfits (MagHag, 2008).

This comment does make much sense, if only the impeccable and consistent history of Vogue were to be considered. Vogue has prided itself in being the fashion bible of women all over the world, and has always featured of-the-minute women on its covers, all wearing fashions indicative of the time, by designers enjoying more editorial coverage than the rest. Therefore, it is indeed surprising to see a man, whether he is black, white, or of any other color, dressed in garb not from the houses of Armani or Prada.

Clearly, the “fashion” in this context is exclusively left to Bundchen, who is dressed in a creation by . Putting James in an Armani suit, for example, would have addressed the magazine’s equities of fashion and style, yet still express the man’s association with basketball—being the icon that he is, no one would miss that fact. John Hoberman, author of Darwin’s Athletes, has expounded on the perception that blacks are stereotyped as better athletes. While he has noted the success of African Americans in sports and athletics, he has observed that it has put academic achievement of blacks on a lesser scale.

Other writers have even gone as far to conclude that sports coverage, on a general level, may have the unfortunate effect of highlighting the superiority of blacks in sports but emphasize the intellectual edge of whites in other areas (Hall, 2001). Still, some sports writers are of the mind that blacks should not be given strategic-thinking positions in sports, such as being coach, and instead just keep exclusively as athletes (Hill, 2003). These perceptions of African-Americans in sports do happen to this day, and are supported well enough to provide for the argument of racism in the context of the featured James-Bundchen cover.

But it is safe to assume that this is a more extensive reading of the issue, and quite possibly was not a consideration of the Vogue staff. This may be what the fashion journalists missed out on—the implications of each symbol, each nuance employed in every magazine cover they produce. Some concepts may have had the objective of effecting a fun and upbeat yet fresh take on popular culture, but all the underpinnings are left unexamined and thought through.

But to think the James-Bundchen cover as racist in terms of its resonance of King Kong is an overreaction, an impulsive view made by readers who may be quick to find fault in anything remotely referring to the sensitivities of race and/or gender. Further introspection should be done at all times; as well as consideration of the supposed offender’s nature and objectives. What may be more significant, in this cover, is the representation of blacks as athletes—only as athletes. However, it is also not overtly exposed, which is a fact easily understood considering the history and goals of a fashion magazine like Vogue.

Also, it is not as if it just features a black athlete with a fashion model—it is an epic collaboration of Lebron James and Giselle Bundchen, two pop culture icons who are known by name and face by the majority of the magazine’s readers. To create further interpretations of this just proves futile, for their celebrity trumps any other representation or symbolism. Lastly, if Vogue really wanted James and Bundchen to appear like King Kong and the damsel in distress, wouldn’t they have shown a giant image of James with a minuscule Bundchen in his large hand?

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