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LeBron James as King Kong? [Monday, Mar. 31st, 2008|08:54 pm]
The richest girl in town.
This has been blogged about elsewhere quite a bit over the last couple of weeks. Was Annie Leibowitz invoking King Kong when she shot this photo of LeBron James and Gisele for the cover of Vogue or is it just an innocent representation of a popular athlete and a supermodel? I have my own ideas, but I'm curious what other people think.


Does your impression change when you see this?


And in case you were wondering, the rest of the athlete/model pairings from that issue are available here. The rest don't seem quite as loaded. I wonder why.
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[User Picture]From: blaugirl
2008-04-01 04:09 am (UTC)

...

Wow. This seems to be an "interesting" racial commentary.
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[User Picture]From: fightingwords
2008-04-01 04:12 am (UTC)

Re: ...

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[User Picture]From: heresiarch
2008-04-01 04:17 am (UTC)
c'mon, is any representation ever "innocent," especially in a publication like Vogue? roles such as "popular athlete" and "super model" already conform to (and reproduce) certain racialized and gendered social norms, to say nothing of body shapes.
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[User Picture]From: fightingwords
2008-04-01 04:20 am (UTC)
Now, see--I don't think "popular athlete" necessarily does conform to certain racialized norms, at least not in the rest of the spread. Which is the point--why is that particular image on the cover?
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[User Picture]From: whittles
2008-04-01 05:03 am (UTC)
I continue to be amazed that there are folks that don't see the obvious connections on this one. There were plenty of folks in blackfolk who were saying folks are too sensitive. It's actually just as much her dress and hair that gave me the sense of image mimicry.

I was looking for the blackfolk post on this and couldn't find it, but I remember folks talking about critics being to sensitive. What more would they need to see the connection?
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[User Picture]From: elusis
2008-04-01 05:16 am (UTC)
It's her dress and hair that are the dead giveaways.

Why are all the athletes dudes?
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[User Picture]From: rednfiery
2008-04-01 05:07 am (UTC)
that army poster is about 16 years older than the original king kong movie, so the king kong reference is a bit disingenuous, however similar the lebron and giselle pose is to a king kong/fay wray poster. having said that, likening any black man to an ape or gorilla is just plain sickening.

following up on your "i wonder why" comment at the end of your post -- i wonder whether there would be as much of an uproar about it if vogue had paired lebron with a POC model in the exact same (or similar) pose? would we still see the similarity to this army poster or a king kong movie poster?

at the very least, the folks at vogue need some education in what racism looks like....

Edited at 2008-04-01 05:08 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: fightingwords
2008-04-01 05:30 am (UTC)
Interesting. I did a little poking of the internets, and it seems that that poster and others from WWI (along with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World and the black exploitation film Ingagi) may have actually inspired the 1933 film's directors, so maybe not so disingenuous. It looks like "gorillas and women in peril" was already a cultural meme, and King Kong just capitalized on it.

http://aitri.blogspot.com/2007/03/el-padre-de-king-kong.html

As for what would happen with a pairing of James with a woman of color--no idea how that would play. But I'd suggest that it's particularly how Gisele is styled that contributes to the King Kong metaphor, not just her pose, and I don't think that's an accident.
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[User Picture]From: baconmonkey
2008-04-01 06:12 am (UTC)
I'd be willing to wager that prior to that juxtaposition, 99.9999% of the world had never seen that poster, and their notions of King Kong are about 70% black-and-white gorilla on Empire State Building, and 30% CGI Gorilla fighting dinosaurs and chasing Jack Black.

14 pages into a Google image search for King Kong, and still no sign of that image. Nearly every image of King Kong with Fay Wray or Naomi Watts show him cradling her in a protective manner.

When I think King Kong, I think powerful, caring, and misunderstood.

LeBron James IS a powerful gigantic brick wall. I don't think a Carlton Banks look would work for him at all.
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[User Picture]From: fightingwords
2008-04-01 06:19 am (UTC)
And that's why symbolism is as important as it is.

Whether 99.999% of the world has seen that poster (which is an army recruitment poster from 1917, not a poster from the film) or not, the implication, the subliminal message, may still very well be there for plenty of Americans passing that image on their news stands. (See my comment to rednfiery. It seems that WWI propaganda posters did in part inform the film.)

And it should go without saying that there are other ways to style black men, including LeBron James, than as either King Kong or Carlton Banks.
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[User Picture]From: geishaghost
2008-04-01 06:19 am (UTC)
That's not just anyone taking that picture. That's Annie Leibowitz--someone who has devoted her life to images and representation... Of course, there is no way Leibowitz is ignorant of an image like that. She probably thought she was being brilliantly ironic or something. Ick.
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[User Picture]From: fightingwords
2008-04-01 06:21 am (UTC)
You know?
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[User Picture]From: cindymonkey
2008-04-01 06:41 am (UTC)
well shit. now that is just fucked. and of course annie l knew the reference. i have a casual interest in films from the 20s and often the pop culture signifiers that informed them and i knew the image was familiar and referencing something. its from her windswept hair to the very non-model expression on her face to everything in how they styled and positioned him. i am so tired of people claiming that stylized things aren't intentional. this is a business - these pop culture things. it's ALL intentional. it's to play to subconscious cultural memories and imagery that's been held up as iconic and representations that seem like they're forward thinking and not fucked (ie vogue putting a black man on their cover) and really just keep regurgitating the same tropes - oh but this time is it more sophisitcated because it was annie l and it was referencing old cinema / war propaganda. that's retro right? doesn't that make it cool? doesn't that mean it doesn't count since that was a different era right? gah. (sarcasm abounding here for those who don't know me irl) just gah.
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[User Picture]From: fightingwords
2008-04-01 07:43 am (UTC)
I'm very disappointed in Ms. Leibowitz. This kind of imagery plays on the notion that racism is a thing of the past, so no one needs to think about the implication of potentially offensive representations they put out now, and if someone complains, it's because we're being oversensitive.

So irritating.
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[User Picture]From: liquid_siftings
2008-04-01 07:27 am (UTC)
While Annie Leibowitz was likely familiar with (or had at least come across) this image, it is much more likely she (and Vogue's editors) were looking toward the King Kong reference. After all, LeBron's nickname is "King" James, he is larger than life (literally and figuratively), it's a significant cultural trope (unlike the recruiting poster, which hasn't been anywhere within the broader cultural memory of the past 50 years), etc.

Of course, referencing King Kong in this way is rife with racist implications, whether intended or not. Perhaps they felt that Gisele's smile makes a difference?

Regardless, it was a horrible choice, and while I doubt strongly there was any specific racist intent (in fact, there may have been an attempt to "deconstruct" a racist reference), this is a great example of how intent doesn't always matter in the context of racism.
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[User Picture]From: geishaghost
2008-04-01 07:31 am (UTC)
Gosh, I hadn't even thought about his nickname!
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[User Picture]From: fightingwords
2008-04-02 10:07 am (UTC)
Yup. I don't think it's even a question, and neither do a lot of people.

At this point, folks are just waiting for Leibowitz to cop to it and explain herself.
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[User Picture]From: slutbunwalla
2008-04-01 07:56 am (UTC)
my only response (and I honestly haven't read everyone else's) is that there is a big difference----She's smiling.

She's happy...so even if it is a riff off of that picture the re-representation is that of joy and not of fear.

beyond that I don't know.
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[User Picture]From: fightingwords
2008-04-01 07:57 am (UTC)
True.

But it doesn't change the representation of him...

Hmm.
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[User Picture]From: dahlia_noir
2008-04-01 09:54 am (UTC)
...my tired butt is going to go out on a limb here, despite all the educated, well worded comments left and state that [in my 2:30am, totally tired from a very, very long day] ... in general: most images that are meant to scream out from fashion magazines... such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, etc etc etc often fall on some side of offensiveness, something that portrays ignorance [even if they declare "NOT SO!"], false, pervasive, offensive [be it rascism, sexism, "is this what America thinks is beautiful for the human body?!?!"] etc.... The basic fact is: fashion magazines are generally full of ignorance and offensiveness. False portrayals of what is healthy/acceptable/appropriate/morally correct...

That doesn't make it any less questionable/sad/offensive/etc...

I look at fashion magazines for many reasons, but I hate them for a million more.

I write countless letters to editors. None of them ever published.

Have you thought about writting a letter to the editor on this issue?
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[User Picture]From: fightingwords
2008-04-01 07:02 pm (UTC)
With something that's gotten this much publicity, I'm not sure a letter from me is going to do anything--I'm sure they've gotten plenty.

That said, dismissing this as a fashion magazine doesn't work for me. Popular culture has always been offensive, and ignoring that offensiveness doesn't actually help anything--it's portrayals like this that are written off or seen as innocent that help perpetuate all kinds of things without any accountability.

Also, this isn't just a magazine. It's Vogue, which has enough credibility in the culture to be significant. And the photographer is Annie Leibowitz, not just a hack.
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[User Picture]From: penguingod
2008-04-01 02:32 pm (UTC)
I see it. Saw it before the army propaganda got out. Like others have said, it's Vogue. They aren't exactly progressive.
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[User Picture]From: fightingwords
2008-04-01 07:03 pm (UTC)
And not something to be ignored, either, especially when one of the country's best known photographers was the one behind the shoot.
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[User Picture]From: whypnk
2008-04-01 02:45 pm (UTC)
the photo confused the hell out of me (and i agree w/one of the comments above on many of the artistic choices in the shot). i couldn't figure out exactly what the image was trying to say. it looks like a photoshop cut and paste.

juxtaposed next to the king kong poster, i'd say, yup... that's what they were going for.

having a black man pose as an ape is NOT cool at all (understatement of the century). but, maybe if you look at it in this way, maybe it's not "ape" that they were trying to say, maybe:

King Kong is a symbol of strength and power, but he was also intelligent, abused and misunderstood. only the heroine in the movie was able to see this. the rest of the humans in the movie exploited him. the white guys were the bad guys.

so yes, it is disturbing. but also maybe the message is being skewed by our perceptions. i'd like to see the bright side to this, but it sure isn't easy.

(off topic: dressing for *every* shape - but only 0-16. i will never buy a vogue. ever. not that i ever have, but this all just makes it more concrete)
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[User Picture]From: fightingwords
2008-04-02 10:06 am (UTC)
I think that the photographer, in invoking King Kong, is well aware of the problems with that image. The issue is she's providing no context in which to find a bright side. I don't trust the American public to see this image and be able to parse it. Most people are too ignorant or blind to do so. Most of the comments I've seen on blog posts elsewhere about it support that lack of trust I have.
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[User Picture]From: golden_lady
2008-04-01 03:32 pm (UTC)
The most amusing thing for me was how, pre-backlash, Vogue made such a big deal about Lebron James being the first black man featured on their cover.

I've been debating this one back and forth with my best friend's boyfriend ever since the story hit the 'net. He is firmly in the "these things don't matter and you want to see racism in everything" camp. Last week, we were all out to lunch together, and the waitress was screwing up - she brought out the order of a table near us that came in 10 minutes after us while we sat, hungry and food-less. She saw the look on my best friend's face and said our food would be right out, and somewhat under her breath that there was "no bias"...luckily she didn't hear her or that would have been a "nigger moment".

I told her boyfriend that *this* is why media images of POC matter. If your only exposure to black people is through media, then it makes sense to you that we think you are being racist in your service. We aren't upset because we think you are being racist - we are upset because you are incompetent! When it comes to this photo, I wonder: where have Annie Leibowitz and the editors of Vogue gotten their ideas about black men and black people? If all you know is what is prevalent in popular culture than a lot of what you've gotten is Mandingo/gorilla imagery. And here they are, perpetuating the same images and ideas as if it's okay, and then being baffled when people find them offensive.

I'm almost sorry I clicked and saw the other photos because they prove this could have been handled *so* much better. Though the entire concept of the shoot is problematic (but hey, it's Vogue), at least I can look at the photos and see the ideal of beauty they are trying to portray. So why this image on the cover? I'm not even sure if I want an answer to that.
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[User Picture]From: fightingwords
2008-04-02 10:06 am (UTC)
Co-sign.
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[User Picture]From: pantryslut
2008-04-01 03:38 pm (UTC)
Totally intentionally provocative and evocative. (Excuse me, "provocative.")

Also, the smile on her face and the exaggerated expression on his are supposed to signal, "hee hee, this is a joke and we're in on it, so don't be offended, OK?"

Uh, yeah.

I got a headache yesterday deconstructing the gender politics of the image, too. Bleah.

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[User Picture]From: fightingwords
2008-04-02 10:08 am (UTC)
Oh, the gender politics... why are all the athletes in this spread male? Apparently there are female athletes in the issue, but not in this spread.

So many issues.
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