Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Vogue's hot voodoo

I recently re-read a chapter from Mary Anne Doane’s Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, and Psychoanalysis, in which Doane tries to tease out some of the complex relationships between articulations of race and gender in cultural history.

In particular, she explores the way that the sexuality of white women has been figured in terms of race; the "pure" (racially pure, sexually pure) white woman is the figure against which the black man is constructed as a violent, hypersexual taint, as seen in the rhetoric of racist organizations in the nineteenth century (and continuing to today) and thoroughly played up in D.W. Griffith's famous Birth of a Nation, a landmark in film technique and in deeply horrifying racist propaganda all at once.

At the same time, white female sexuality is also seen as profoundly unstable, the "weak link" in civilization, so that the white woman is prone to "falling" (like Eve) and becoming a "fallen woman" whose sexual "impurity" translates into a kind of racial "impurity." The white woman, in other words, exists (culturally speaking) in the madonna/whore binary, and the "whore" half of that binary is mapped onto blackness. Meanwhile, the black woman is the invisible term, erased from the cultural map by the black man/white woman complex of social anxieties. As Doane observes,
Just as Africa was considered to be the continent without a history, European femininity represented a pure presence and timelessness (whose psychical history was held, by Freud, to be largely inaccessible). The trope, however, reduces and over-simplifies the extremely complex relations between racial and sexual difference articulated by the colonialist enterprise. For that enterprise required as a crucially significant element the presence of the black woman (who is relegated to non-existence by the trope)." (212)

All this recently in my mind, I was completely shocked to run across this Vogue cover on the internet:

A quick google revealed that I was by no means the first to notice the cultural contexts evoked by the cover (here, here, here, here...)

As usual, any time a historically oppressed group is publicly subjected to further oppression, a bunch of astonishing people have to crawl out of the woodwork to inform the world that there is no problem, because they "just don't see" the racism in the photo, because after all they are "colorblind" and the world would be perfect if everyone would be as blind as they are and stop complaining about racist images.

It is true that you pretty much have to invoke the imagery of blindness to get away with claiming that the photo above is not racist, although as I'll elaborate, it's not as straightforward as the press is making it out to be.

In the photo, the basketball player LeBron James is enormous, but not standing up quite straight. Instead, he is hunched forward, his right arm dangling, notionally to dribble a basketball but effectively striking an ape-like pose, his right hand reaching nearly to his knee. (And let us face it; they probably photoshopped that ball in.)

His mouth is wide open in a growl (other bloggers are taking it as a matter of course that basketball players growl as part of their job; I will have to take their word for it).

His clothes are short, revealing bare limbs and evoking nakedness; apart from that they are entirely black -- athletic wear, as many have observed, but in no way his actual athletic uniform (research in the form of googling "Cleveland Cavaliers" reveals that the players wear uniforms that carry, you know, the team logo).

In James's left arm, model Gisele Bündchen leans sideways at a crazy angle, her body barely supported by her feet, her head leaning away, her fair hair blown up behind her. Her odd angle evokes helplessness; our casual experience of physics tell us that she would be sprawled on the floor were it not for James's arm around her. Her clingy, sleeveless dress reveals the contours of her limbs.

The composition of the shot -- the coloring of the models (especially James's clothes and Bündchen's hair), their poses, their positions in the frame, James's growl -- thoroughly evokes the iconic image of King Kong clutching a screaming Fay Wray, from Merion C. Cooper's 1933 film King Kong.

Except for one thing.

Bündchen is smiling. She looks happy.

Her pose is unstable, and she certainly looks helpless, as if she might fall, but hers is not the stricken backwards arc to which Wray's unfortunate spine was subjected. (Of course, Bündchen's unfortunate spine is subjected to her shoes. Perhaps Annie Leibovitz felt that this was enough.)

It looks more like Bündchen is playing with weight and balance (in a "roses, roses, we all fall down" kind of way) than that she's been grabbed by a giant ape. And although her head is tilted back, her eyes are directed back down at the viewer.

Her fair hair, though evocative of Wray's, is not falling abjectly, a visual indication of what would happen to Wray if King Kong were to drop her; rather, Bundchen's hair defies gravity, billowing up behind her as if to insist on the contrived quality of the photo.

After all, the shot is clearly taken indoors; her hair could not be windblown without a fan and/or enormous amounts of environmentally unsound chemicals. (Ironically, perhaps Wray's hair in the film should be more windblown, given that she is supposedly outside at a pretty high altitude.) This hair signifies glamor, and specifically all the technologies of contrived glamor that a high-status fashion magazine can marshal for its photo subjects.

Seen in that light, Bündchen's mischievous, playful smile is jarring next to James's dramatic scowl.

What is she so happy about? What is he so angry about? It's as if James is diligently playing King Kong, while Bundchen gleefully breaks character to wave at the camera.

* * * * *

Vogue, of course, is the blind that proudly leads the blind, insisting that the photo has no iconographic context. A Daily Telegraph article quotes their position thus:
Patrick O'Connell, a spokesman for Vogue, said the magazine had chosen to "celebrate two superstars at the top of their game" for the cover of the annual "Shape" issue, which also features a series of unusual athlete-and-model combinations inside. "We think LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen look beautiful together and we are honoured to have them on the cover," he said.

The insistence is that the photo is not racist because it's not a still of King Kong and Fay Wray, both abject in their own ways; it's a photo of successful basketball star LeBron James and successful fashion star Gisele Bündchen.

But no one ever said that the photograph was the still from King Kong. The fact that the photo subjects are LeBron James and Gisele Bündchen is precisely the point: the photograph both evokes the 1933 still and departs from it.

Here's the photo again:

There is absolutely zero possibility that Annie Leibovitz didn't know what she was doing when she composed this photograph; she is a visual artist, and visual composition is what she does. Of course, Leibovitz's awareness is not the question; even if she were magically unaware of what she was invoking, the objective resemblance remains. The Vogue cover mimics an iconic American image in very clear ways.

At the same time, the photography plays with the icon that it mimics -- and the icon's racist context. As I noted above, Bündchen does not completely keep faith with Wray's character, looking playful, secure, and happy where Wray is terrified and totally without control of her body's relation to its physical environment.

James continues to evoke the "black man = voracious ape-like predator" image, with his near-perfect King Kong imitation, but his stance is alienated and objectified by the image. However fearsome his scowl, he is not scary to Bündchen, who is smiling happily and not even looking at him; if he is a predator, she is not his prey.

But neither is she engaged with him as an equal; as noted above, she does not look at him at all. In fact, both their gazes are directed outward -- James's toward the camera but vaguely off center, Bündchen's deliberately focused on the viewer, despite her tilted-back head. James functions more like a stage prop than a photo subject, since his gaze is met by no one, and his clutching arm is being used by Bündchen more or less like a piece of playground equipment. And though James has the "basketball," his figure is curiously static; it is Bündchen who, thanks to her turbo-fan, appears to be in motion. Though James's enormous figure dominates the field of the photo, it is Bündchen's photo -- Bündchen's Vogue cover.

Of course, it may also be argued that the 1933 still is Wray's scene. Sure, there's a giant ape tromping across the city, but the image does not receive its cultural meaning until we spot the tiny abject white woman in King Kong's hand. Buildings can be destroyed and rebuilt, but racial taint, figured in the violation of the sexualized white woman's bodily sovereignty, is, according to the logic of the film, forever. So even the way that Bündchen seems to be the real subject of the photograph in a way reproduces the dynamics of the 1933 film.

But that's clearly not the only thing going on. Playing on a reconstructed Hollywood stage set, Bündchen is all carefree glamor. The racist specter of the predatory black monster is still there all right; it's just that no one really cares about it any more, least of all the supposedly threatened white woman, who in this case happens to be famous for being one of the most highly paid women in the world -- paid, of course, for renting herself out as a highly sexualized clothes-hanger, still one of the most lucrative professions available to women.

Mary Ann Doane argues that by the 1930s, the figure of the New Woman of the 1920s had made it impossible to maintain the madonna/whore binary stringently enough to invest racial purity in white female sexual purity; white female sexual purity was by now too much in question. I don't really buy it; it's kind of a cheap historical link, and even if maternal melodramas like von Sternberg's 1932 Blonde Venus(1) registered sympathy with the "fallen woman," the madonna/whore binary was still going strong. (It still is, although now our society rewards whore status, up to a point, in order to then indulge in the gleeful and lucrative shaming of said "whore"; see also: Britney.)

Moreover, as Doane herself points, out, the white woman's sexuality is always seen as unstable and capable of reverting to sexual licence/blackness.(2)

What is worth noticing is that there are multiple ways that white female sexuality is used to repudiate blackness on behalf of the white community, not just via the omnipresent Birth of a Nation "black-man-as-raping-ape" stereotype, and these modalities clearly coexist. (King Kong is 1933; Blonde Venus is 1932.) Doane's reading of Blonde Venus is therefore instructive; in the film's "Hot Voodoo" number, Marlene Dietrich appears onstage as a cabaret singer, wearing a gorilla suit to the sound of drums, attended by a chorus of women in blackface decked out as "natives."

In the number, Dietrich removes the gorilla suit to reveal herself as a blonde Venus, white sexualized femininity itself, and a white sexualized femininity that is completely commodified, as her glitzy show outfit indicates. (She even puts on her blonde Venus wig, with two arrows through it, right onstage, covering over her already blonde hair.)

Instead of revealing a fear of the blackness within the white woman -- her proclivity toward sexual licentiousness -- blackness becomes yet another prop for fully commodified white female sexuality. As Doane puts it,
It is as though white femininity were forcefully disengaged from blackness once and for all in the process of commodification of the image of white female sexuality. Such a commodification is already announced by the neon sign flashing "Blonde Venus" which introduces the sequence and slowly dissolves into an image of Dietrich preparing for her act in front of the mirror. Blackness functions here not so much as a term of comparison (as with the Hottentot and the prostitute), but as an erotic accessory to whiteness. The black women (represented by the chorus primarily composed of white women in black face with huge black wigs and shields and spears) becomes the white woman's mise-en-scène. Black masculinity is so fully exhausted representationally by the gorilla costume that the black bartender can only be presented in relation to a stuttering fear produced for comic effect[.] (215)

If the Vogue cover directly invokes the image of King Kong, its logic is closer to that of Blonde Venus; blackness is invoked as spectacle.

Posed like the eminently fake giant ape King Kong, James is not so much exhausted by the gorilla suit as he is standing in for it. He is Bündchen's mise-en-scène, and Bündchen's commodification, already clear from her status as a "supermodel" (remember Vogue's insistence that she's not screaming Fay Wray but a successful model "at the top of [her] game") and emphasized by the contrivedness of her improbable hair, is the point. Blackness does not need to be repudiated by her purity or her performance of helpless white femininity à la Wray, not because real racial harmony has intervened but because the logic of the market, which controls Bündchen, James, and Vogue, obviates any such need: your racial history is meaningless to the parent company, which just wants to sell ad space. If the image recalls King Kong, what of it? "We think LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen look beautiful together and we are honoured to have them on the cover."

I suppose it's no surprise that a publication that's devoted to selling luxury goods to wealthy white women by enforcing those women's status as luxury goods chose a cover that focalizes the sexualized-white-woman-as-commodity. I'm rather surprised that they decided to use black masculinity as a prop for it at this late date (although if there is one class of men that is commodified it is surely athletes).

Oh, don't worry, Vogue; this is still completely racist. It's just that you're only getting called out on one of the racist tropes you're exploiting, and on none of the misogynistic ones.

* * * * *

Doane, Mary Ann. Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, and Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge-Chapman Hall, 1991.

(1) This film is crazy.

(2) This is why the girl in The Searchers goes from being the object of rescue to the target of murder; she's "gone native." Being raped is equated to sexual impurity, which is equated to racial impurity; hence she is now one of "them." Since, as a white virgin, she was once the bearer of the whole family's racial purity, the ex-Confederate maniac character feels that she and her impurity have to be wiped out.


Diane said...

This is a fascinating post. There's just no other way to look at the Vogue cover. Also an interesting observation that the white woman becomes the commodity! I'd love to hear LeBron James' reaction to the cover.

Chad Vogler said...

Hi Natalia, I saw this a few days ago, too, and I'm glad you have written on it.

I tended to see Bündchen's figure as a more carefree (her kicked back foot, the wind-blown hair you mentioned) than helpless figure here, as if she represents an elitist mock-feminism that echoes your latest post. Since racism is only committed by evil people, and since her class and privilege clearly place her out of that category, her position here seems to appeal to those wishing to preserve racist stereotypes while delegating the epithet of "racist" toward the less entitled/privileged. I think you're right to point out that she's not his prey, and that she rather seems to be amusing herself (and her intended audience) with her performance of the Fay Wray role.

One of the strangest elements, I think, is the way her left hand cradles some invisible possession in parallel to James's. As her dynamism is coupled with James's wax figure appearance, it definitely questions who is being portrayed as the possession, here. Oh, and one other thing: does her left leg actually seem to go through James's kneecap, or is it just me? Compared to other photos of the two together, I wonder if the two weren't actually photoshopped together, and whether James's wasn't actually made to look stockier in the process. In this one, his head is roughly twice the size of hers.

Thanks again for writing about this!

Natalia said...

Diane, I believe James made a public statement to the effect that the cover didn't have any racial subtext. Of course, I have no idea whether that's his actual opinion.

Chad, I agree that Bündchen looks carefree, but I don't see how this would make her (mock-)feminist. I don't think it makes sense to try to locate racism in Bündchen's figure, unless it's the same racism as the one Vogue espouses, namely obliviousness. But I doubt she personally had much control over how she was positioned for the photo. After all, she's a model -- a "super" model -- and we all know it; her sole claim to fame is that her exceptionally aesthetically appealing body is available for rent as décor. James's hyperracialized body is a stage prop for Bündchen's completely commodified one, and we, the consumers, are to take them as ground and figure, respectively.

You're right about the hand, and to me it reinforces the absence of threat from James; it looks like mimicry-as-play.

But I don't agree about the leg; it doesn't so much interrupt James's body (which is unimpeachably solid in the photo) as disappear. It's hard to see from these little internet thumbnails, but I think she's balancing all her weight on one leg and on James's arm, evidence of her physically precarious position.

Chad Vogler said...

Exactly, I'm just talking about them as visual objects rather than as individuals.

skg046 said...

I've been seeing other references to this cover since reading your fascinating post. Thanks for this--good food for thought. It made me take a second look at the film poster for Dwayne Johnson's The Game Plan, too, when I passed it the other day at Telegraph/Ashby.

Gratuitous link (way more tangential than usual! but possibly of interest): men and women and public space. In addition to the further links given at the bottom of that post, I have a few at the top of this one.

Natalia said...

Sharon, I did see some mention of the so-called "open source boob project" (complete with grade-school slang for female anatomy!) around the web. Since I'm not a bona fide geek, I don't feel qualified to comment much, except to say that it is completely offensive, and also -- isn't it an abuse of the term "open source"? How explicit can these guys be about their belief that women's bodies are property, to which they deserve access? Ugh.