NBA star LeBron James became the first African-American male to grace the cover of Vogue this month, but instead of prompting praise, the move embroiled the publication in controversy.
James told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he was cool with the cover, and Vogue hasn't issued any apologies.
Editors of several publications, including Men's Fitness, Giant Magazine and Politico.com, have qualms with the depiction of James, and Women'sWearDaily.com says some have suggested the cover recalls an image of King Kong sweeping away a defenseless white woman.
Besides that parallel, there is at least one other stereotype the cover brings to mind. Since James is the only African-American male to ever be represented on Vogue's cover, his status as a hoops star brings to mind the longstanding misconception that the only path to big money for African-American men is through sports in general and basketball specifically.
The photo of James has him decked out in a jersey and gym shorts (Bündchen sports an aquamarine cocktail gown), while the other two males to make the front of Vogue, leading men Richard Gere (November 1992) and George Clooney (June 2000), are in dress clothes for their cover shots. Both look dapper, cooly smiling and holding women in their arms in a romantic depiction of upper-class (that is, "white") masculinity. It's a stark contrast from James' aggressive yet one-dimensional pose. Unlike Gere and Clooney, he seems wholly disinterested in any sort of exchange with his female counterpart, other than using her as a screener against the defense.
But, all the hubbub could just be much ado about nothing. As AOL Sports' online blogger "TAN" points out, any sound-minded individual is not going to confuse James for King Kong. It's also possible that Vogue's choosing of the photo has more to do with the basketball player's competitive nature and his status as an athlete than his race.
Regardless of how nefarious the photo is, the criticisms are essential in order to keep fashion magazines and other image-heavy media outlets aware of the possible connotations of the pictures they publish. All the complaints aren't simply a result of oversensitivity to how African-Americans are depicted, but the cover isn't tantamount to blatant racism, either.
What effect all of the harsh words will have on Vogue's future issues remains to be seen. It would be disappointing if the negative press makes the higher-ups at the magazine shy away from featuring African-Americans for fear of stirring up another hornets’ nest.
Instead of a dry spell in minority coverage, let's hope the end result of the conflict is an effort by Vogue and other decision-makers in the press to be more aware of how they portray their subjects, regardless of their race.