I want you to look at this Vogue cover and tell me what you see. LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen? An athlete and a model? King Kong and Faye Wray? If you answered the latter, you’re not alone. The April cover of Vogue magazine has been stirring up controversy and cries of racism since it was unveiled two weeks ago.
The protests started, as so many do these days, on the internet, with bloggers pointing out the similarities between Annie Leibovitz‘s shot of the two superstars and the iconic imagery of King Kong. Take a look at the poster for the 1933 classic and judge for yourself:
The similarities are hard to deny. But more importantly, the symbolism is deeply troubling. Anyone familiar with our country’s terrible history of racism knows the despicable propaganda that once painted black men as frightening, ape-like brutes out to defile the purity of white women. Whether intended or not, this photo hearkens back to that ugly and unconscionable ideology.
Since the cover came out, the controversy has exploded across the blogosphere and mainstream press. It’s racist! You’re racist for noticing it! King Kong is overrated! Fine, maybe not the last one. The debate has completely overshadowed the now-ironic fact that LeBron is the first black man (not to mention third man, period) to grace the cover of Vogue.
When I first saw the photo, I thought it was odd but couldn’t put my finger on exactly why. His open mouth, the clutching of Gisele — it just seemed off. This is a fashion magazine, right? But once I saw the side-by-sides, it turned my stomach. I have the utmost respect for Annie’s work, but what the hell was she thinking? For now, we don’t know — she hasn’t commented. If her past work is precedent, we know she has a penchant for recreating other historical artwork in her images.
Which is all fine, but not a single editor at Vogue noticed the parallels and asked questions before it hit the press? Look, art is art, and I have no problems with people expressing themselves through their work. But once it’s out there, you have to also own up to the issues and baggage your creations unleash.
So, what do you think? Reprehensible racist imagery or just so much hoopla?