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).