No matter how many “courageous” speeches Barack Obama gives, America will never be a “Let’s talk about race” kind of place. It’ll always be a “Let’s talk about how we can’t talk about race” kind of place. I’m all for doing my part. I’d like to start a talk show called This Week in Racism. Eventually, in the broadcast, we’d get around to the cover of Vogue’s current “shape” issue.
At the end of last week, a lot of people, smart and dumb, were losing their minds over it. The cover captures LeBron James dribbling a basketball while holding onto Gisele Bündchen. James, of course, is the NBA sensation, and Bündchen is the sensational Brazilian supermodel. His face is in mid-roar. His arm is around her waist. He appears to be 10 times her width. She looks underfed but appears to be having a very good time.
And yet: “It’s racist,” people cried. “Racist how, you oversensitive weirdos?” people cried back. James and Bündchen were playing themselves—unless the image happened to remind you of a certain cinematic classic from 1933, in which a giant gorilla scoops up a pretty white lady and proceeds to mount the Empire State Building. This is where the trouble begins. According to this scenario, James is King Kong and Bündchen his Fay Wray. It’s an easy conclusion to draw. James isn’t wearing his Cavaliers uniform—he’s wearing anonymous black shorts and an anonymous black tank top. She’s wearing a silky bias-cut gown, not unlike the one Wray wore. The photo, shot by Annie Leibovitz and surely signed off by Vogue Editor Anna Wintour, appeared, to some, to evoke one of the ugliest racist tropes: black male as ape.
In the movie, Kong has a thing for Wray. But she’s already sort of seeing someone, the dashing white adventurer who’s trying to rescue her. The Vogue “remake” has intriguing symmetry. Bündchen is already seeing someone, too: the dashing quarterback Tom Brady, who is not simply white—in the minds of many season-ticket holders and journalists alike, Brady is gilt. Vogue could have chosen Tyra Banks, Alek Wek, or even Heidi Klum. But it went with a woman who, while ridiculously famous in her own right, is now recognizable as the girlfriend of American sports’ golden boy. Somebody at that magazine knew what he or she was doing. The picture’s visual inspiration might be King Kong, but the narrative corollary is D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Men, lock up your ladies! Here comes LeBron!
But even typing that just gave me a headache. Only on a second glance, at a supermarket checkout, did any of the cover’s subtexts surface for me. I was struck less by the stereotypes at play than by its erotic value: It’s a hot image, and what’s sexy about it is more a matter of celebrity than race. Bündchen doesn’t look terrified. She looks exhilarated. And James looks neither mad nor simian: He looks triumphant.Vogue could have put one of the issue’s more friendly, less suggestive photos on the cover. But they’re comparatively dull. In the other shots of James and Bündchen, the two look like old girlfriends. The fun and sex that leap off the cover are gone. On the cover, the superstar and the supermodel have surprising chemistry, the kind that makes you stop pushing your shopping cart and pick up the magazine.
It’s possible that Tom Brady will get ribbed when he arrives at training camp this summer, but the ribbing seems just as likely to come from Randy Moss, who’s black, as it would from Wes Welker, who’s white. I’d like to think that after their groggy Super Bowl performance a few months ago, the Patriots have more pressing concerns. So do black people. I, for one, have racism fatigue. I’m wiped out. Between the outrage over Obama’s Jeremiah Wright problems and Bill Clinton’s unbelievable mutation from American’s first black president into Karl Rove, I don’t have the bandwidth to fight Anna Wintour. Seeing that cover as purely racist doesn’t give the people looking at it enough credit. It dates Vogue for relying on the allusion but it also dates us for going crazy over it. Racial hysteria is the old black. Maybe it’s so old it’s avant-garde—very Vogue.