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Is Vogue's LeBron cover offensive?

March 19, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
LeBron James has stirred up almost as much commotion on the cover of Vogue as he does on the court. The Cleveland Cavaliers' superstar is on the magazine's April 2008 "shape" issue, mouth gaping, face twisted in a grimace, muscles bulging and arm slung around supermodel Gisele Bundchen.

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They're two of the most beautiful people on earth. But some say the Vogue photograph, shot by Annie Leibovitz, isn't attractive at all because of the racial stereotype it purportedly evokes -- black beast clutching a white damsel in distress, reflected in French sculptor Emmanuel Fremiet's 1887 statue "Gorilla Carrying Off a Woman," and later, in the many incarnations of "King Kong."

"Here you have an image of a black male athlete in an exceptionally aggressive stance, wide footed, bending over, clutching her with his arm," said Jason Rosenfeld, professor of art history at Marymount Manhattan College. "It's one thing to have an athlete in that kind of pose and with that kind of expression on a court after he or she has done something miraculous. It's another thing to couple it with someone who is of an entirely different ilk and gender. That turns it into a racially charged image."

Why the scrutiny? LeBron is the first black man, and only the third man in Vogue's 115-year history, to grace the high fashion mag's cover.

"When you're for the first time putting a black man on the cover, and this is the way you're depicting him, it means that you're going nowhere," Rosenfeld said. "Pose LeBron in the pose of a Greek God and pose her as a Venus -- then you're upping the conversation."

Rosenfeld, in case you're wondering, is white. Robin Givhan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion editor of the Washington Post and a former associate editor at Vogue, is black. And she doesn't see what all the fuss is about.

"It's so exhausting that every time people see an image of a black person they work themselves into a tizzy that somehow it doesn't adhere to the way in which they think a black person should be presented," she said.

"I find it hard to say that Gisele looks like a damsel in distress. She's 5'11 and quite sturdy," she continued. "My initial reaction was, maybe the photograph is trying to capture his personality. Would Michael Jordan, James Blake or Tiger Woods have been photographed in the same way?"

True, it's hard to picture cool and calm Tiger posing like anything reminiscent of his namesake. And Vogue, asked to react to the backlash, said it chose the louder LeBron photo (as opposed to calmer pictorials inside the mag) because it's "expressive, fun and upbeat."

"Needless to say, the intention from the beginning was only to depict LeBron and Gisele as superstars at the top of their game," Vogue spokesperson Patrick O'Connell said. "The point about the entire issue is that it celebrates diversity. And I think that people need to look at the entire issue."

But Givhan said the "entire issue" is the fact that Vogue depicts so little diversity on its covers. In November, Portfolio magazine pointed out that when Jennifer Hudson was on the magazine's cover in March 2007, she was only the third black celebrity to appear there.

"The whole LeBron thing really comes down to ... maybe Vogue should have more people of color on their cover, male and female," she said. "Maybe then they won't be so scrutinized when they do put a person of color on their cover."

Sheila Marikar blogs for "Screen Shots" at ABCNews.com.

 

What do you think? Vote in our poll near the top of the shaded column to the right, or make a comment below.

 

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