pageok
pageok
pageok
The Vogue Cover Controversy:

This cover:

is causing controversy (see here and here), apparently because of the supposed similarity to King Kong posters. A sample objection: "[T]here is a long history in the United States of imaging black men as brutish, and comparing black people to monkeys and apes. A good deal of racist propaganda has rested on those images, and they're a deeply ingrained part of our cultural history. That's why this Vogue cover, which plays on racist imagery, is troubling."

Here's my thinking on the matter: The first thing I look to in this sort of picture, and I think the first thing most viewers look to, is what the characters are doing, and what aspects of the characters' personality this highlights. The woman here is smiling; Jezebel suggests the "photo ... casts the black man as 'big and scary,'" but that's hard to reconcile with the woman's obviously not being scared.

The man is shown with a basketball, a clear reference to his being celebrated as being a master at his game; in the context of his being a sports player, and in the context of the headlines, his fitness is also being celebrated. While size and fitness in men may be seen as threatening in some contexts, they are an obvious asset in a basketball player. So far, the cover seems like a positive portrayal of both characters, but especially of the man — he's being featured as competent, as having a figure that most men would aspire to, and as being embraced by a beautiful woman who obviously seems to be enjoying his company.

Now what about the scream, which Jezebel contrasts with a much more "civilized" (in quotes) alternative picture Jezebel points to? My guess is that the answer to her own questions, "Were they looking for something more dynamic and animated? Did they want something with action, with impact?" is "yes" and "yes." The scream is more eye-catching; and beyond that, a sportsman screaming with a basketball immediately off his hand conveys the message of athletic enthusiasm, not of threat. A large, fit man dressed in gangbanger-style clothes screaming might be "scary"; gangbangers are scary, as are many kinds of screams. A black man dressed in basketball clothes dribbling a basketball and screaming, while being embraced by a beautiful smiling woman, is not.

So that's what I got from the image on its own. But is it supposed to remind viewers of the other image contained in various King Kong posters, as Jezebel suggests in showing the two side by side, or otherwise "play[] on racist imagery"?

If it was, then it didn't work with me. Maybe that's because King Kong (and visual iconography more generally) occupies a small corner of my brain — but even if there is such a reminder for some viewers, the image remains obviously a celebratory picture of LeBron James, with a message that is obviously very different from that conveyed by King Kong and Fay Wray. It's praise, not a pejorative; it portrays James as successful and admirable, not "brutish."

Artistic visual images are notoriously difficult to pin down into a single unambiguous statement, especially when one adds to them all the possible allusions that the images can contain, so I'm not surprised that others may get a different view. But my sense is that the thematic differences here overwhelm any possible visual similarities (or even deliberate visual references, if there are any).

Thanks to InstaPundit for the pointer.

UPDATE: Commenters pointed me to a datum I missed -- one of James' nicknames is "King James," which increases the likelihood that there is a deliberate allusion to "King Kong" here (and I suppose somewhat increases the likelihood that Vogue readers would be reminded of the King Kong posters, though my guess is that most Vogue readers are not basketball experts). On the other hand, it further suggests that the allusion, if allusion it is, is a positive one: What would link the two is that they are Kings (not the Sacramento kind).

wuzzagrunt (mail):
This controversy is clear proof that some people would well served by dislodging the you-know-what from their you-know-where.
4.28.2008 3:37pm
Terrivus:
Is that what we've come to in the Internet age? One or two random bloggers -- that is, one or two random people -- post their fairly misguided thoughts on a topic; four or five others link to those posts; four or five others link to each of the previous four or five others; and all of sudden we've got a "controversy"? On the basis of a couple eggshell-mentality people somewhere around the country?

Sigh.
4.28.2008 3:38pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
There is enough real injustice in the world that I find it irksome that some people waste their time and ours on problems that, were they not imaginary, would still be trivial.
4.28.2008 3:40pm
Terrivus:
Also: as the great Cecil Adams once said, "These are the kind of people that would find something suggestive in a dial tone."
4.28.2008 3:41pm
another anonVCfan:
I think this side-by-side, which I first saw at BlackProf, is closer: http://www.yourblackworld.com/news/stories2/lebron_vogue.jpg
4.28.2008 3:44pm
alkali (mail):
I hear the concern but this strikes me as not problematic at the end of the day. If you subbed in some other well-known African-American man for Lebron here -- Barack Obama, Denzel Washington, Tiger Woods, Chris Rock, Usher -- it would just look silly. If you subbed in some other physically imposing basketball player -- Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Yao Ming -- it wouldn't.
4.28.2008 3:45pm
another anonVCfan:
How about I make that click-able: LINK
4.28.2008 3:46pm
notalawyer:
We have come a long way. When I saw the headline, I thought the controversy would center around a black man touching a white woman. I can remember a time and place where that would have generated real controversy.
4.28.2008 3:50pm
Wright stuff:
Oh, that's just European left-brained thinking, Prof. Volokh.
4.28.2008 3:52pm
Prufrock765 (mail):
Fay Wray?
Am I the only one here who when he hears "King Kong", thinks Jessica Lange?
4.28.2008 3:56pm
Kenvee:
Sheesh. People really will complain about anything. Looking at the more "civilized" example, I see a lot more troubling examples of racism. Why emphasize Gisele in the white dress, with LeBron hunkered down beneath her? Why have the white woman standing on top of the black man with a contemptuous look on her face? Or coming at it from another angle, why is the helpless white woman slung caveman-style over the mean black man's shoulder?

Personally, I'm not a huge fan of the picture they chose, but I don't like a lot of the pictures they use for magazine covers. It's just a style issue for me. But I don't see anything racist about it, and I don't see what was so preferable about the other one.
4.28.2008 4:03pm
ithaqua (mail):
Typical liberals. They look at a black man and see a gorilla; instead of blaming their own racist impulses and, in the vernacular of the site you linked, owning their sh*t, they blame the photograph for their own racism.
4.28.2008 4:08pm
Anonymouseducator:
My first thought was of King Kong; I can't imagine it wasn't intentional. But I just don't think it's a big deal.
4.28.2008 4:09pm
Anonymouseducator:
BTW, you're a little late to the party on this one.
4.28.2008 4:09pm
bobolinq (mail):
LeBron is known as "King James." It's obvious that the photographer was thinking of, and riffing on, King Kong. The only question is whether that's a problem.

If the train of association were: Big black man = ape, then that would be a racist train of association.

But if the train of association were: "King" James = "King" Kong, then it would not be a racist train of association.

The overlay or race and nickname is what makes this hard to judge (at least if you're thoughtful). Imagine that (as a commenter suggested) insetad of LeBron, this picture showed Dirk Nowitzki, and imagine that Dirk's nickname were "King Dirk." There would be no racist overtone, just a winking reference to a powerful giant (King Kong) sweeping a woman off her feet (so just a sexist overtone). The image would be less visually striking than the original both because of the lack of visual contrast between Dirk and a white woman and because of the attenuated visual connection between the photo and the King Kong poster.

Similarly, a picture of LeBron and Halle Berry would be less striking, if only because of the lessened visual contrast between the two.

So the most striking image, visually, is the one we see here. And it's strikingness also derives in part -- in this I think the critics are right -- from how it taps into stereotyped fears about black men and white woman.

Does that make the picture bad or offensive? I still don't know. But it's not a bad question.
4.28.2008 4:14pm
Guest of a Guest:
Come on now. That comparison printed above is arguable. But that is not the poster that the controversy is about. This one is. And, as Jezebel notes, Annie Leibowitz's process is not a random one. The visual similarities are not coincidences, and your analysis should change accordingly.
4.28.2008 4:17pm
ejo:
if one cares, why not ask the photographer for his/her inspiration?
4.28.2008 4:18pm
melk (mail):
Well. The minute I saw this cover it was obvious that there would be controversy. That doesn't mean that I give a hoot. But in our age of delicate sensiblities, it should hardly be surprising that certain connotations are invoked. If I was the photo editor of Vogue, I would have turned it down. Let's not overdo the disingenuousness.
4.28.2008 4:21pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Sort of brings up Jonah Goldberg's observation of those who saw racism in LOTR's orcs.

They look at fanged, misshapen subhuman baby-eaters and think, African-Americans. I say, "Orcs. Cool."
4.28.2008 4:22pm
Barbara Skolaut (mail):
Fer cryin' out loud.

Do these complaining clowns have to go to school to become such racist bigots, or is it a natural talent?

I look at the picture and see a basketball player and a model. Since I don't care about sports, and will NEVER look like a model, my basic reaction is "whatever."

The people complaining this is a racist photo are projecting their own bigotry onto others - probably so they can keep pretending that they're not the bigoted ones.

Pfui.
4.28.2008 4:22pm
alias:
When I first saw this controversy a month ago, though, the websites I saw compared it to a WW1 recruiting poster.

I don't think it's offensive or meant to make LeBron look like a monkey. I largely agree with the post -- Gisele doesn't look scared or in any danger. That is an odd expression on LeBron's face, though. It's not the "game face" that one sees on posters when he's in the middle of dunk, either... it's just odd.
4.28.2008 4:22pm
Josh E:
Looking at the images, I think it's more likely than not that they were alluding to the classic King Kong image. Seeing the link from AnonVCFan, it's pretty clear that the King Kong image was (depending on the chronology) either inspired by or the inspiration for an ugly racist message. However, I'd never even considered racist implications of King Kong, and likewise would not have seen racist implications in an image linking Lebron "King" James to King Kong. I mean, isn't it possible that they did it because his nickname is King James, and he's, well, a physically big man?

I recognize that there is a history of racists equating blacks and various monkeys, so I can completely see how this could be taken as offensive. But could the offended people step back and recognize that the editors and photographers at Vogue, not to mention Lebron James, would not have used the photo if they'd seen it that way?

There are two ways you can view this, one positively and one negatively:

1. The people involved were so beyond racist thinking that they didn't even admit the possibility that someone would equate Lebron James with a monkey. Is this not a sign that we're getting beyond viewing people in terms of race and stereotypes?

2. The people involved are so racist that even when they don't intend to, they let their racism shine through. I could definitely buy that 40 years ago. Then it would probably have been intentional, and nobody would've been trying to slip it by, they'd probably have been open about it.

I think #1 is more likely, but maybe I'm just naive.

Josh
4.28.2008 4:23pm
LarryA (mail) (www):
I remember when the only black images in magazines like Vogue would have been the Aunt Jemima Syrup bottle.

I take that back. Black males featured in the "Women Beware: How to Avoid Criminals" articles.

We've come a long way.
4.28.2008 4:28pm
skyywise (mail):
@ bobolinq: I agree exactly with the characterization of "King" and think that a photographer with a knowledge of historical cinematic posters (as one guesses an artistic photographer might be) would choose to make that allusion with regard to his strength &dominance.
4.28.2008 4:30pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Sort of brings up Jonah Goldberg's observation of those who saw racism in LOTR's orcs.


You know actually, I just rewatched the original animated version of LOTR this weekend and there is a seen when the orcs after carrying of Merry and Pippen and when they run into the Riders of Rohan where they refer to their enemies as "white skins." I just about did a double-take when I heard that and I wonder if the author who suggested the orcs were racist stereotypes may have seen the original animated LOTR and had that color his perception of the live-action movies (which were far superior).
4.28.2008 4:30pm
Russ (mail):
Sheesh...welcome to the United States of the offended...

I'd have loved to have been LeBron in that photo - extolling my strengths, in addition to my multi-million dolar contract, plus having a drop dead gorgeous model on my arm.

Some people need to get a grip.
4.28.2008 4:48pm
Jaime non-Lawyer:
There's a guy in that picture? I was too busy looking at the chick.
4.28.2008 4:50pm
lonetown (mail):
To be honest I don't think that is a typical expression for Lebron James.
4.28.2008 4:52pm
PLR:
I like that photo very much, and I have little doubt there's a cinematic allusion there. But if it were Manu Ginobili on the cover, I wouldn't get it.

King Kong is ultimately a sympathetic character in the film versions, as I recall. Not a brute.
4.28.2008 4:58pm
DG:
Oh no, that poor, victimized black man! Perhaps he should take a break from being both rich and a master of his craft, and complain to someone? Come on, people - this is, to older viewers, a clever riff on the old King Kong image, but without a bit of negative intent. This is just a fun picture - art performed in concert by three wealthy and popular personalities (I'm including the photographer, who is a master).

I doubt younger viewers will see this as anything but two famous people having fun, being photographed by another famous person.
4.28.2008 5:03pm
A. Nony Mouse:
alias wrote;


When I first saw this controversy a month ago, though, the websites I saw compared it to a WW1 recruiting poster.


Since the mad beast in the War Propaganda poster is clearly intended to be a German, does that mean that the evil racist magazine people are insinuating that Lebron is actually an Aryan?

just askin' ...
4.28.2008 5:07pm
lurker-999 (mail):
I haven't watched either of the King Kong movies in quite a while, so my memory is hazy, but isn't there at least a partial subtext in both versions that Kong is really the "good guy" i.e. a sensitive noble creature until he has finally been driven over the edge by his human tormentors?
4.28.2008 5:11pm
AntonK (mail):
This is as insulting to African-Americans as the Jar Jar Binks fiasco was. These cultural icons (Lucas, Vogue) are in serious need of sensitivity training.
4.28.2008 5:11pm
AK (mail):
Just so I'm clear on the rules, it's still okay to call Bush "Chimpy McHitlerFlightsuitBurton," 'cause he kinda looks like a monkey, right? But you can't call equally-lower-primate-looking Senator Obama "Barack Obamutang," 'cause that's racist. Gotta be clear on who's gonna get offended at what.
4.28.2008 5:12pm
Displaced Midwesterner:

If you subbed in some other physically imposing basketball player -- Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Yao Ming -- it wouldn't.


One of these three names does not belong, I think. :)
4.28.2008 5:44pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Thorley.
I think it was the redskins who referred to the Euros as whites or whiteskins. So, if the Orcs were anything in the animation, they were, maybe, Commanche.

Howsomever, the fact remains that you have to be kind of twisted in a weird, not a good, way to look at orcs and think...African-Americans.
4.28.2008 5:48pm
alias:

Just so I'm clear on the rules, it's still okay to call Bush "Chimpy McHitlerFlightsuitBurton," 'cause he kinda looks like a monkey, right? But you can't call equally-lower-primate-looking Senator Obama "Barack Obamutang," 'cause that's racist. Gotta be clear on who's gonna get offended at what.
Right. See the first paragraph of the post above.
4.28.2008 5:57pm
Al Maviva (mail):
but isn't there at least a partial subtext in both versions that Kong is really the "good guy" i.e. a sensitive noble creature until he has finally been driven over the edge by his human tormentors

The King's human tormentors? You mean those allegorical figures foreshadowing DeShawn Stevenson?
4.28.2008 5:57pm
The General:
anyone who looks at that Lebron on the cover and immediately thinks "monkey" or "ape" is the real racist.
4.28.2008 6:04pm
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):
Oh my God. A star athlete is being analogized to a hyper-dominant masculine image. Horrors.
4.28.2008 6:07pm
Hoosier:
My thought, as the father of an attractive blonde girl:

If that were my daughter, I'd be HORRIFIED!
How many times have I told her that she's not allowed to date outside of OUR heritage?!!! (We are Baseball-Americans.)

Lighten up, Francis.
4.28.2008 6:18pm
Ion:
Jezebel, in the linked post, state that "just because you don't see racism, it doesn't mean that it isn't there", and then goes on to state how "stupid" many of the posters are that disagree with her. This is why so many Americans have a problem with Feminist theory - the adherents and proselytizers of it tend to prevent open and honest discourse through just such ad hominem attacks.

Jezebel absolutely fails to take an opportunity to post something more intelligent and more insightful to the many readers who, as she states, are not well versed in feminis theory.

By claiming that those who disagree with her are "stupid" she circumvents the many arguments that attempt to force a confrontation with the Orwellian nature of her above quoted assertion.

Just because you don't see terrorists in our midst, it doesn't mean they aren't there. Quick... suspend Habeas Corpus...
4.28.2008 6:35pm
DG:
To whomever analogized King Kong to Jar-Jar Binks - you, sir, are the one who needs sensitivity training! One movie character was the centerpiece of a classic, while the other was the basis for an inferior action figure - nay, a DOLL! Please retract your comment or I will meet you with lightsabers and banana peels on the field of honor!
4.28.2008 6:36pm
c.gray (mail):

This is just a fun picture - art performed in concert by three wealthy and popular personalities (I'm including the photographer, who is a master).


Yep.

To the extent the photographer was alluding to an old, racist trope, it was obviously to subvert and mock it, not to embrace it.
4.28.2008 6:45pm
gab:
This is exactly the kind of fascinating legal topic that I read the VC for. If I wanted to read banality, I'd go to instapun.
4.28.2008 6:47pm
dearieme:
How did they ever get this muck past the censors?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HX_7DmnAp_E&NR=1
4.28.2008 7:24pm
Elais:
ithaqua,


Typical liberals. They look at a black man and see a gorilla; instead of blaming their own racist impulses and, in the vernacular of the site you linked, owning their sh*t, they blame the photograph for their own racism.


I liked the photo, I didn't notice the resemblence to King Kong until it was pointed out to me and I'm liberal

BTW, a prominent blogger on a conservative black site thought this photo was racist.

Racism isn't limited to one party, please remind yourself of that.
4.28.2008 7:47pm
NickM (mail) (www):
Now suppose it had been Kobe Bryant rather than James in the picture.

Nick
4.28.2008 8:09pm
herm townshend:
What is more objectionable, perhaps, is the name "LeBron," an obvious mishearing of LeBaron, one in a string of failed Chrysler automobiles.
4.28.2008 8:16pm
Brian G (mail) (www):
I once heard someone say the reason that a hockey puck is black, as opposed to red or blue, is because hockey is dominated by whites and every time they slap the puck they feeling like they are back in the good 'ol slave days beating on their slave.

I kid you not.

This "controversy" with LeBron is about as brilliant as the hockey puck theory I noted.
4.28.2008 8:25pm
BruceM (mail) (www):
My god, anyone who says this is racist should be dragged out into the street and shot.
4.28.2008 8:29pm
someone_not_you:
The original VC post is laughable. To claim that because 'there is a basketball this isn't about king kong or apes, it is about the sport of basketball' is simply ridiculous. Anyone else find the post borderline incompetent? You have to be pretty closed-minded (that is, grounded in your own belief) to try so hard to not see the obvious similarities between the cover and King Kong posters. By that logic anything short of James in a King Kong suit climbing a building would fall short of an attempt to portray him as Kong.

Now, I think most objective people can see the similarities and agree that the cover was trying to portray King James as King Kong. But whether this should be offensive or the subject of controversy is another story. I guess it all depends, if it had been Dirk then it wouldn't be offensive. But then the photographer/mag wouldn't place dirk like King Kong, would they? In fact they have only featured a handful of other men on the cover, all white, and all appeared in very elegant 'vogue-ish' ways.

I can see how a black person would be offended. Its funny, these days the 'anti-political correctness police' is almost as bad, if not worse, than the 'political correctness police.' The backlash online is always strong and furious whenever minorities are offended over something (even it it seems reasonable).
4.28.2008 8:57pm
BGates:
We are Baseball-Americans.
Boy, are you in the wrong state.

Wait, 'boy' might be interpreted as racist.

Gee, are you in the wrong state.

No, 'gee' can imply 'gangster' and could also be interpreted as racist.

Can I say 'gosh'? Or would that remind people of Mitt Romney, who is associated with Mormonism, which used to be racist?
4.28.2008 9:13pm
Russ (mail):
Its funny, these days the 'anti-political correctness police' is almost as bad, if not worse, than the 'political correctness police.' The backlash online is always strong and furious whenever minorities are offended over something (even it it seems reasonable).

That's just the point - something like this isn't reasonable. The "PC Police" want everyone walking around on eggshells.

This is not about minorities being offended - it is about radicals being so.
4.28.2008 10:06pm
Hoosier:
BGates: "We are Baseball-Americans.
Boy, are you in the wrong state. "

Tell me about it! And I'm an ND alumnus at that! I grew up just a train ride away from Wrigley Field. And I've spent two decades in the Land of Games with Inflatable Balls.

Then Cain went out from the Lord's presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
4.29.2008 12:07am
pgepps (www):
I was more troubled by the man holding the woman with the words "Perfect Fit" superimposed.
4.29.2008 4:40am
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):
This is freakin' hilarious! This kerfuffle is about what ideas are being promulgated by the plain meaning and the "subtext" of the photograph ... It's over the issue of "what did the photographer mean in this picture?" Right?

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when the Volokh Conspiracy pondered the question of whether a photographer shoud be required by law to photograph a lesbian wedding commitment ceremony contrary to her own religious convictions. Some people claimed that no First Amendment issues of "freedom of expression" could possibly be involved, because photography is merely a craft, not a mode of expression ...

Sorry but this is not about free speech. Taking wedding photographs is as much about art as painting a house. You are not hired to give your interpretation of the wedding.

Your skills are only required to get the job done correctly. If you failed to take pictures of the bride and groom, then only took pictures of the materialistic trappings of the wedding, as an expression of your feelings that "Marriage is a fraud" then you'd soon find yourself in a lawsuit.

If my wedding photos all came out dark and out of focus then I certainly wouldn't accept the excuse that "as a artist" the photographer was "voicing an opinion".

Since you think this is about art, then do you think a photographer who's a racist could agree to take wedding pictures at a mixed race wedding then submit photos which cropped out the groom? That's certainly an expression of an artistic opinion. However the photographer isn't being hired for such opinions.

So Eugene you are just flat out wrong on this.


*cough*
4.29.2008 5:05am
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):
Josh E wrote:

However, I'd never even considered racist implications of King Kong, and likewise would not have seen racist implications in an image linking Lebron "King" James to King Kong. I mean, isn't it possible that they did it because his nickname is King James, and he's, well, a physically big man?

I recognize that there is a history of racists equating blacks and various monkeys, so I can completely see how this could be taken as offensive. But could the offended people step back and recognize that the editors and photographers at Vogue, not to mention Lebron James, would not have used the photo if they'd seen it that way?


What he said. And then there's the obvious question: Did any of the people who are so worked up over this attempt to contact Lebron James or his agent to get his opinion of all this? Or is his opinion irrelevant, because ... well ... you know ...
4.29.2008 5:28am
PersonFromPorlock:
As an aside, apes have short legs, long arms, thin or no lips, skinny buttocks... by any reasonable standard, Blacks are the least ape-like humans.
4.29.2008 10:38am
Hoosier:
Porlock: That doesn't describe blacks, but it does describe . . ME!!!!

I'm 6'1" with a 32" inseam--all torso. And my arms? 37" sleeves.

Am I, like, part orangutan or something?
4.29.2008 12:04pm
CJColucci:
Anyone remember the TV series Doogie Howser, M.D.? A very bright kid got through medical school and began practising medicine in his teens. Great doctor, but would sometimes say or do things jaw-droppingly stupid because he was rushed through school and into real life before he was ready.
4.29.2008 12:46pm
Gaius Marius:
Am I the only one here who when he hears "King Kong", thinks Jessica Lange?

Nope!
4.29.2008 3:33pm
PersonFromPorlock:
Hoosier:

Am I, like, part orangutan or something?

Nope, probably Irish. Check in the mirror for a beetling brow.

Seriously though, It's amusing how many 'liberals' get indignant over Blacks being called 'ape-like', because it's apparent that it's never occurred to them that it's not true.
4.29.2008 3:48pm
VictoriaB (mail) (www):
The only egregious thing I see in this cover is I momentarily thought the model was Celine Dion.

Now that's an insult.

Cheers,
Victoria
4.30.2008 2:52am
docweasel (mail) (www):
How's this for closer?
If they were basketball fans, instead of women, they'd know that far from being a put up job by racist Vogue editors, LeBron probably made the face himself, naturally. Its one of his signature "grimaces" after he scores or makes a big play:
LeBron roars
that was on the first page of google images, I'll wager there are 50 more where that came from. I've seen him do it dozens of times, and they don't telecast Cavs games down here very often, I'm a transplanted Ohioan in Florida. He's becoming such a big star, they might start, though, thankfully.

But still, if you want to make something out of nothing, or assign motives where they don't exist, I'm sure this won't stop you.
4.30.2008 9:17am