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March 27, 2008

Your Turn: Vogue + LaBron (Kong?) + Gisele = Kaching


Some say the photo of LeBron James — in a gorilla-like pose — perpetuates racial stereotypes.

Men's Fitness editor-in-chief Roy Johnson says: "It's a reminder that as African-Americans, we have come very far to have an African-American male featured on the cover of Vogue, but we have very far to go to continue to educate people within our industry regarding the power of images and the potential impact they can have on their readers."

Jason Whitlock: "Would we be having this discussion if LeBron struck the same pose on the cover of Ebony while holding Selita Ebanks?"

… I think the image is worth our deconstruction, but I don't believe for a second Vogue/Leibovitz didn't know exactly what they were doing.  In spite of his approval (before, and up to this moment), did LeBron get the shape of it?

More images in the shoot (Vogue/

Is Vogue's "LeBron Kong" Cover Offensive? (Jezebel + more links)

Memo Pad: People Are Talking About… Soon To Be a Ph.D Thesis.. (

If They All Do It... (The Beyonce lightening treatment – BAGnewsNotes)

Selita Ebanks (wikipedia)

(h/t and paragraph 1-3 from Wayne Dickson.)

(image: Annie Leibovitz. 2008. Vogue Magazine)

  • boxcar

    I disagree. There is nothing to deconstruct here. Other than a violent looking male and a slinky blonde.
    King Kong? Is that the racist angle i am supposed to be offended by? Is racist to mention it? Is it racist NOT to mention it?
    At what point do we move beyond this? As i tell my white audiences: “It is just as racist to say i love all black people as it is to say i hate all black people”.
    So let us assume it IS a King Kong pose. To quote our VP (and you know i must love to do that!): So What?
    In fact why are we discussing why the Giselle is not being deconstructed for allowing herself to be objectified?
    Lastly, i think it is a weak photo. Definitely not one of Annie’s best.
    The contrast of black and white makes for a striking visual justification. Not a racial statement.
    Looking forward to what other’s think. The tremendous Bag community, please help me understand what the big deal is….if there is one?

  • Kid Hill

    While I’m not outright offended by this photo, it is a bit ridiculous, and I can see why others could see it negatively.
    To answer Jason Whitlock, no we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion IF it was Ebony and IF the woman had darker-hued skin, but that’s just the point, isn’t it?
    I mean, LeBron James didn’t just make that face on his own (why is he so angry?), and neither did Gisele (why is she so happy when the guy next to her is screaming or roaring or whatever it is he’s doing?).
    Boxcar is right, just technically speaking this is a weak photo, which makes the racial implications worse.
    The King Kong reference might be a little outdated (given the remake never had the same kind of racist overtones that the original had), but it’s still an angry black man with his arm around a white woman who looks as if she’s running(away from him?).
    Again, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal because most people won’t read that much into it, just that there are two extremely good-looking, in-shape celebrities on the cover, but it remains awfully weird.

  • Sonja

    The editor (or Leibovitz) chose to run the shot you see here. Of hundreds of photos taken, the editorial decision was to run one in which the male is screaming, mouth agape, eyebrows furrowed, legs spread at an anchoring width, and trunk hunched forward. The editorial decision also went with the shot in which the woman is being held at her waist, while she appears to be running forward (note the position of her feet and the movement of her hair). Also note the Y-shape their bodies form, as their upper halves diverge from one another.
    This is classic Bernini. Yes, the comparison is exaggerated, but there is a difference between the explicit portrayal of violence and its suggestion is a photograph:
    Now, close you eyes and imagine Lance Armstrong striking this pose on a magazine cover. Seems impossible, doesn’t it?
    It doesn’t matter “people” won’t look into it, or that you look at this cover and think: “top athlete at the top of his game.” What matters is that this image looks natural to you. You’ve been conditioned to seeing a black man in this aggressive pose, and you’ve been conditioned to find it ridiculous were it a white man in the same position. And that’s why this image is troubling.

  • steve

    If a sports writer or ESPN reporter referred to LeBron as a primate of sorts, they would be in big trouble. Rightfully so – but, LeBron and his handlers agreed to be a part of this … (?)
    Kong was a very likable character in the movie. Perhaps LeBron, taken from his youth by the NBA, with his immense talent and stardom feels like Kong did in the story – caged and controlled. Wasn’t he 18 when he was drafted? We all need a little space to grow up, he might be recognizing those feelings as he matures. I dunno, more coffee, por favor.

  • Thirdeye Pushpin

    Notice Lebron’s head between the letters OG, an acronym for old time gangster and then there is Giselle over the letter U. who shall one identify with…
    I would be interested to see this photo altered so that Lebron;s skin hue comes out whiter and Giselle’s blacker, or a series of such alterations.

  • Roi

    LeBron is not a professional model.
    So when the shoot got to be lengthy, he needed orange juice or a snicker bar and started shouting” Hey I’m hungry and this is boring”.
    Giselle, being a pro who starves for a living, starts to run to her 18,000$ handbag where she keeps 6 almonds, and click, here’s the picture.
    Vogue regularly prints stupid setups of pale, haunted, teens with bad haircuts and black makeup under their eyes. big deal.

  • Jacques

    I saw this as a “male sporting” image, which is about testosterone vs the “female fashion model” image which is about femininity. I did not see this as racist or stereotypical.

  • jtfromBC

    if it bleeds it leads
    if it shocks it sells
    or does it
    i don’t know
    Maestra Annie, music please

  • boomer

    Whatever happened to Faye Ray?

  • Gray Lensman

    Come on people! It’s a visual joke, involving two supreme physical performers at the top of their respective games. Lighten up.
    If you are standing in front of a display of several hundred magazines, this cover might make you pick up this mag. That’s why Annie L. gets the big bucks. If it’s trivial, it’s only on display for thirty days.

  • black dog barking

    Vogue doesn’t seem to be much concerned about the non-superficial.

    • Perfect Fit
    • 87 Swimsuits to Flatter Every Figure
    • Secrets of the Best Bodies
    • Diet, Diet, more Diet …

    A couple of people who get paid a lot of money for their bodies pose for a picture. Is it Kong or Pluto and the maiden? Could be. My first thought was TO and the Housewife.
    I really don’t think the magazine is trying to anything other than 1) get your attention, and 2) look good. They’re very good at looking good. Like boxcar, I don’t see anything intentional that isn’t completely on the surface. Superficial, in a word.

  • Kris T

    Interestingly, as I stood in line at the grocery store yesterday evening, I did not even notice the cover picture at all, I noticed only the catch all hook-line-and-sinker “You Are (Not) What You Eat Debunking Diet Myths” which is obviously what Vogue hopes will lure all those average, yet overweight ladies into buying yet another issue while waiting in line. I concur with BoxCar, Roi, and blackdogbarking.

  • Stan B.

    This cover has absolutely nothing to do with the legacy of race in these United States, and the (white) decision makers at Vogue did not consider the controversy (and sales) that would ensue as a result of this pose.
    To think that the long, bloody and hysterical legacy of interracial relations between the sexes in this country is at all at play here is totally beyond reason.
    I don’t see race… I don’t see poverty… I don’t see homelessness… I don’t see a needless, futile war costing the lives of hundreds of thousands, many of them women and children…

  • tardigrade

    OH….. for heavens sake!
    Take the gal out of there and it would be a typical Sports Illustrated. That’s what GUYS LIKE! Super Men!
    Something guys aspire to and if they can’t – well, they can be like them by association.
    As for women. Same thing. Go to the market and buy something and take a gander at the magazines. And do forget to buy your candy and gum.
    By the way the other pictures were very beautiful, TOO!

  • David Ciarlo

    Actually, this photo is a VERBATIM (if you can use that term with images) restaging of a famous American World War I propaganda poster, “Destroy this Mad Brute.”
    Even down her dress color. (It’s a visual pun for those in the know.)
    (or do a google image-search for “Destroy this Mad Brute”)
    So what does this have to do with race? Well, this is a long story, but an important one.
    The poster itself was issued in 1917. It was designed to be anti-German (obviously): the bloody cudgel labeled “Kultur,” for instance (cleverly swapped out for a basketball in the Vogue photo) was an insult to the internationally-renowned German scientists and literary figures who issued a public declaration in 1914 that Germany, the land of “Kultur” (high culture) was fighting a “defensive” war. (They were wrong, of course.)
    When the US entered the war, they had to mobilize the American public to make sacrifices for a war that, frankly, most Americans did not really want to be fighting. (Notice in the poster how Europe burns, and the Mad Brute has just swum the Atlantic… “If we don’t fight them over there,” the poster is saying, “we will have to fight them over here.”)
    1. The ravaged woman held by the brute serves to both illustrate his savagery, and at the same time, be titillating. (Few public posters revealed bare breasts before the 1930s.)
    2. The ravaged woman and the black ape also play into old racist stereotypes.
    See, the graphic designer (H. R. Hoops) had a problem: it was tricky to find a way to visually demonize Germans, because there were a great many German-Americans who seemed so gosh darned non-threatening. (hello Wisconsin!)
    So Hoops did a very cagey thing: he drew on widely circulating imagery of BLACK Americans raping white women. i.e. he took a political conflict (war) and racialized it by tying it in to American racism.
    (There are hundreds of postcards, drawings, etc. from the 1890s that show blacks as apes, and a half-naked white woman. They were popular for all sorts of reasons: to enforce and/or celebrate white supremacy; to justify lynching; to be sort of soft-core pornography… etc. etc.
    (No, this is not the American History you learned in high school: this is the real stuff. :-)
    3. When the moving King Kong came out 15 years later, it played on this propaganda-poster image… and it (subtly) played on white Americans’ fears, anxieties, and even sexual fantasies.
    King Kong is not just about man vs. nature; it’s a metaphor of a raging black savage dragged out of his natural element, falls for the (universally-desired) white woman, and goes on a rampage. Thrilling stuff… and everyone who saw the move in 1933 would have felt at least a vague sense of familiarity. Because they’d seen this story before, but in a different context.
    4. In the 1930s, black performers (cf. Josephine Baker) played on this blacks-as-savages theme to make their fortunes. Some people in the audience really thought Baker was an untamed, sexually-wild jungle-savage. Others realized she was playing with the old racist trope.
    5. Enter Vogue, 2008. Is this irony? Post-modern appropriate and re-interpretation? Or just old fashioned playing to racist stereotypes to attract attention?? The answer lies in the eyes of the beholder.
    But if you claim that this photo–or any image of a black ape carrying off a white woman–has nothing at all to do with the legacy of race in the United States,
    then you are wrong.

  • David Ciarlo

    By the way, I have no doubt that Labron knew exactly what he was doing… and had a blast with it.
    Black Americans often poke fun at the racial and racist stereotypes that white Americans just can’t seem to let go.
    Josephine Baker, Harry Belafonte, Spike Lee, Dave Chappelle: a long tradition of African American performers hamming up a racist stereotype… cashing in on it, and at the same time, oh so subtly rubbing whitey’s nose in.
    well done Labron!

  • Nina Berman

    What got my attention was how stiff and strange Gisele looks, as though she is there against her will. Her smile is a teeth clenching one, she’s enduring the position. Notice the gaping hole between her elbow and his hand. Their contact is so forced. Along with the black male = savage, there is such a sexist message of weak, play thing, female. She can’t even stand on two feet. At least he has a ball to play with, but what is her claim to fame, wind blown hair? It’s not even sexy.

  • black dog barking

    Thanks for the background David. Wasn’t aware of this particular strand of our national fabric, now I am.
    (Link to Destroy This Mad Brute poster)
    The damsel in distress is obviously the highly-prized White Woman but the manner of draping / undraping recalls AG Ashcroft’s discomfort. So toss of bit of that into our national libido soup.
    And kudos to Vogue and present company for expanding my awareness a bit.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    When universalized the figures in this image invoke that primal myth (in Western culture, ‘Persephone’), expressing to us above all else that to be human is to exist in gender as MALE or FEMALE with distinct attributes ourselves; relating to a world that, does itself consist of objects and processes nouns, which possess gender; relating one gender to another within a framework of possession : animals and “nature” occupy time and space ~ but to be human is to possess Self awareness being, realized through HimSelf and HerSelf identities becoming.
    the irony, actually IMHO more paradox of the ‘KingKong’ myth is that The Beast (ie., male presumed :) takes away to possess The Maiden (ie., nature-state innocence, presumed :) yet ‘She’ is the only one who can control ‘Him’.
    But personally i don’t see either of these expressions in this image… its message is base, to be sure ~ but much less an expression of mankind’s universal mythology of gender polarity than it is specifically an American cultural stereotyping of ‘THE NEGRO and THE WHITE WOMAN’.
    it is, to me more rooted in the vein of The Birth of A Nation . . . a mythology in which Post-Reconstruction era America “realizes” segregation as (the only) reasonable interpretation of A Union of Races brought, not of Peoples, wrought ~ that should be the 20th century U.S.A.
    But here the figures are comic extremes : they are mocking a now archaic notion of ‘Nation’.
    in the current event of The Conversation, they mock the contest of the Negro and the White Woman as it might be seen through the eyes of those who choose to live in the past paradigm of Reconstruction ~ and, by doing so ~ the image suggests that the Reformation Era of our notion of Nation in the 21st century has arrived, whereby these archaic stereotypes will be seen by many to be silly : if you can laugh at this, you render harmless a stubborn old angst.

  • aimai

    You can’t really see this vogue cover out of context. As I recall, the last two or three or so covers have been white women who were powdered to within an inch of their lives into looking like statues, stripped of their humanity while their sexuality is exalted into a dreamy, divine status. The female comics as the “three graces?” The “new looks” cover which was five whiter than white women all looking exactly the same and quite anorexic? You can’t say a priori that this particular cover is “racist” or “not racist” that is in the eye of the beholder as to whether they see the depiction of the black man as “animalistic” and not in keeping with vogue’s style book or *animalistic* and *in keeping* with vogue’s stylebook which continually represents women as frail, white, pale, almost dead. Its a look that goes way back–check out bram dykstra’s Idols of Perversity. That isn’t to say that the cover isn’t perhaps *also* racist as well as sexist. Maybe it can’t be one without the other.

  • arty

    You’ve got to admit, left-wing, right-wing, flesh always gets attention.
    Now back to saving the world…

  • lytom

    How complicated and controversial this cover is.
    Is Vogue’s direction for their “readers – clientele” to present the flesh and to inform on the diet, swim suits, perfect fit, and not much more? Seems the “perfect” models have been put forth. The brain matter does not matter! Bit hollow, not that the color matters:-)

  • jtfromBC

    I believe this depiction with caption would really engender silent rage in racists of the *Mark Fuhrman variety.
    “She’s all about business, and she’s all about fun,” says LeBron of Gisele. Calvin Klein Collection alabaster T-shirt dress. Cartier bracelet.

  • gmoke

    His hands are interesting. The fingers pointing down to the basketball look stiff but are actually flexibly waiting for the ball to bounce back into his hand. His other hand is around her waist but he’s not grasping her, his thumb is folded against his fingers not against her waist. There is no restraint.
    His roar is disconcerting as is his sheer size next to her, not exactly short herself being a model.

  • Ralph

    David Ciarlo’s mostly well-taken comment above is misleading on one point — the brutal ape as an image representing the German menace – the militarized Hun – was already in use before Hopps designed this poster — you see it in English posters and cartoons as well. So to say that Hopps was being “cagey” and playing to American racist stereotypes in order to demonize Germans isn’t right – the visual vocabulary has another source.
    As for the Vogue cover, it’s not so much a quotation of the WWI poster as a revision of its imagery. Why would anyone assume that this photo “means” the same thing, racially or otherwise, as an almost century-old image that it alludes to? Hello, parody, irony, pastiche, detournement…..whatever. Judging from the comments here, people project whatever they want onto the photo anyway. Racists will find reasons to see racism there. It just reminds me that athletes in general are monstrous…

  • Cactus

    The Bag has hit on this subject before, most interestingly in this selection:
    But this cover would have been my third choice. Both Nos. 1 and 2 of the images in the shoot were more interesting. No. 2 was almost lyrical. So why did they choose this one for the cover? Hmmmmm……Could it be because we have a black man and a blonde woman running for president? I don’t know the politics of Vogue, but one would almost be able to intuit a presumptive slant towards a blonde woman.
    In a broader sense, it is easy to see why they picked these two for the cover. Of the entire set, only No. 7 was even interesting. The rest were cutesy/hackneyed and (I agree with other commenters) not up to Liebowitz standard. Given the choices, I would have picked No. 2 for the cover; much classier and ambiguous. No. 1 is an action shot that is too disparate for a cover. So why did they pick this one? Is it more inflammatory? Or more stereotypical? Does it suggest to an uninformed and prejudiced public to fear the big black man? And, I assume, their target audience is younger white women, right?
    There is also a discontinuity between the “poses” of the two, as if they were in two different scenarios or given two different instructions. It doesn’t compute as a whole.
    Sonja brought up an interesting point, substituting a white man in the photo. That may explain why the rest of the images in the series were so week and uninspired. They are all white men and in only 2 of them are they even touching (maybe a third if you count a hand on shoulder). SO, the most intimate photos are the cover and No 2 with the black man/white woman.
    This cover may not, in the long run, have anything to do with race in America. But it is on everyone’s minds these days and they will take advantage of it to sell magazines. The lead time on these magazines these days is, what, two months? They must be watching TV.

  • The BAG

    I had forgotten about that Playstation campaign, but Cactus touches on something I was wondering about which is, a.) how much was this shoot at least partially inspired by the Democratic contest, and b.) how much more attention did this cover garner as a result. It got what I think was unusual play by the political media and the ’sphere, and I went for it as soon as I saw it. 
    (I can’t help but think that the timing was particularly fortuitous hitting the newsstand two weeks, no less, after Obama challenged the country to engage in a discussion of race.  WWD seems to cheekily capture this set-up with their “Soon To Be a Ph.D Thesis.. ” post title.) 

  • Kid Hill
  • weisseharre
  • donna

    Eh. I wouldn’t buy Vogue if it were the very last thing on the magazine stand and I was stuck for four hours in an airport.
    I like the cultural references David pointed out, though. Thanks.

  • cenoxo

    What’s fair in Vogue is all Vanity.

  • Cactus

    I have to admit that one of my first connections was to King Kong and Faye. But I brushed it away (hadn’t seen the WWI poster). So was it a subliminal connection? If so, it didn’t work on me, but it may have on countless others.
    And that’s my second point. Not that the editors were aiming at their target audience, but what about all those anonymous eyes that glance (or even less than that) at it on the stands without taking it all in. What impact does it have on them? Apparently this is only the third time a man has appeared on the cover of Vogue.
    Then there is also the timing. When they were going to ‘press’ wasn’t all the talk about the possibility of an Obama/Clinton ticket?
    One of the commenters on HuffPo also mentioned that there was no connection between them and that is specifically why it’s on the cover. Again, titillation instead of real passion. Photo No. 2 shows a real connection and (I thought) was a more emotionally powerful image. It’s not on the cover. Would it have sold as many magazines? Would it have gotten as much, or the same kind of, attention?
    As for whether the elections were on the minds of Liebowitz or the editor, I’d sure like to hear their side of it. I can’t imagine that it wasn’t, but how conscious (or cynical?) was their decision?

  • sravana

    He has to crouch down – that’s the only way to get the 2 of them in the photo together. Believe me, as someone who’s stood right next to David Robinson, you cannot BELIEVE how tall those guys are.

  • Stella

    Yes, I was offended by this photo. My first thought was of pictures from the 60’s of Cassius Clay with mouth open wide. I don’t ever want to see anybody’s mouth looking like that. Would Tiger Woods strike that pose? I think it’s a matter of dignity, which is rarely sold as manly.
    Next – The woman’s only obvious muscles are around her mouth. So, it’s a study of mouths for me – oh yeah, he’s so big and strong and she’s so thin and weak.
    Showbiz, not art.

  • margaret

    I think it’s about what everything is about these days: Hillary and Barack…smirk.

  • David Eoll

    Anyone else notice that parts of the red letters O and G look like devil’s horns? Especially in the cropped version of the picture that I clicked to get here. Coincidence? Those horns are perfectly situated on the man’s head. Maybe its just me, but I can’t help but see it now. I have to believe that there are several people at Vogue who’s jobs consist mainly of putting pictures like this one under a microscope to get everything exactly the way they want it. Especially a cover shot! I find it hard to believe that something that jumped right out at me escaped their notice.

  • anon

    Since it’s primarily women who buy “Vogue”, what is it selling them? She is not doing anything. He is doing something. Both images are stereotypes, but why are images of women doing comparatively nothing, having no identity but the clothes they wear and the fact that they are things, being marketed to other women with success? What kind of depths of fake-hip, “we’re so over sexism and racism that we can use its images to sell magazines,” “don’t eat food and buy this dress”, nonsense are women still buying?

  • Cactus

    I just read David Ciarlo’s comment. The fact that the poster came BEFORE the movie is interesting, almost diabolical. The poster dates from 1917, the movie 15+ years later. But the model for King Kong had been worked up before the depression for another movie. It seems reasonable that the iconic image of the ape/gorilla was in the public consciousness and adapted by the filmmaker for the movie. So the racial context of this cover is inescapable. Which means that the past context is being brought forward to the current context of the “race” for the white house.
    Again, since I’m white, I can’t fathom LeBron’s reasoning or thoughts about this, but it really does appear that the editors (and Liebowitz?) had purposeful intent. But given Wintour’s pique at Clinton, one wonders if it’s some sort of jab at the Obama/Clinton pas de deux.
    As cerebral beings, our brain always looks for connections. When The Bag posted the Kansas tornado post office raising its flag, the image resonated with the Iwo Jima flag photo of WWII. Thus, somehow, our brains cannot NOT make the connections from this photo.

  • cenoxo

    …the visual vocabulary has another source.
    Several of them, I’d say. Starting about 1859 with French sculptor Emmanuel Frémiet and proceeding right on through the 20th Century with American illustrator Frank Frazetta.
    Perhaps it all just combs down to hair vs. Nair, but why do the beasts get the babes? (On the distaff side, maybe the gorilla of our dreams is really a Blonde Venus.)
    The only ones actually going apey over this color issue are Vogue’s advertisers. In the audience-gathering jungle, silverbacks don’t count for nearly as much as greenbacks (and a little controversy doesn’t hurt, either.)

  • Anonymous

    The tremendous Bag community, please help me understand what the big deal is….if there is one? evden eve nakliyat

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