Your NPR news source

Vogue Cover Stirs Controversy

SHARE Vogue Cover Stirs Controversy
Vogue Cover Stirs Controversy

Over the past few weeks, Vogue magazine has been catching a lot of criticism for its recent cover shot: a black basketball player clutching a white woman. It's obviously not the first criticism of the fashion industry – magazines have long been scorned for their depictions of women. But this particular incident has struck a nerve with commentator Jessica Young.

In the grocery store the other day I saw that Vogue magazine cover. You know, the one with LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen. LeBron is crouching in this black basketball outfit snarling at the camera, thick pink tongue hanging out of his face. He's clutching at Gisele, who looks small and windswept beside him in a clingy green strapless dress.

People have landed on all sides about this cover: it's edgy, it's sexy, it's racist, it's art. But I look at this cover and it makes me wince like I've been slapped in the face. Here is yet another black man who seems to have abandoned his own community in pursuit of a white standard of beauty.

A shot like this is not an accident. Annie Liebovitz, who shot the cover, knew her responsibility. She's an artist; art is supposed to provoke, to sometimes offend and indict. The editors at Vogue knew what they were doing, too. Edgy covers sell magazines. Gisele, as fashion model, was doing her job. Even LeBron was doing what Vogue paid him to do, look like a big, bad, black basketball hero and grab a pretty girl like a trophy. In a photo shoot like this, everyone does his job, and at the end of the day, I, a black woman, am hurt and alienated, and no one cares. If you doubt me, the proof is on your newsstand.

I'd love to consider Gisele a pawn of the fashion industry and LeBron a victim of white racist capitalism. But I can't do that; this cover touches a nerve. It reminds me that some successful black men want no part of me. Once they've reached certain status, many are interested only in surrounding themselves with white women.

Don't misunderstand: I am not a black woman scorned; no black man has ever forsaken me for a woman with light skin and straight hair. But every time I see this in pop culture, it stings. It distances me from other women, with whom I should be pursuing a common experience, and it alienates me from black men, men I should love and respect as my fathers, uncles, brothers and sons. It is painful and divisive, and try as I might not to be hurt by it, I am.

Maybe I shouldn't feel this way. Our world is so tightly bound by political correctness, it's hard to know if a cover like this is reinforcing stereotypes, or if it's steeped in irony. Last year, Annie Liebovitz shot a similar cover for Vanity Fair with James Gandolfini holding a nearly naked white woman in his lap. This was met with little backlash. In pop culture black men objectify black women every day. Is it right to make such a big deal of LeBron and Gisele? I don't know; here's what I do know: the Vogue cover venerates a standard of beauty that I, as a black woman, will never possess. It rubs salt into a familiar wound that many black women in America carry, a wound we fear will never heal. This cover tells me that the fashion industry doesn't care if it alienates me, as long as it's profitable. It reminds me that successful black men may often pursue white women precisely because they are white. It's a provocative and complicated photo, that black man snatching at that white woman; and if you look closely over their shoulders, almost out of frame, you can see my shadow, the shadow of a black woman cast aside and invisible.

More From This Show