By Tresa Chambers

Lebron%20Gis%20%28bmp%29.bmpMy immediate response to the image was utter offense. LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen posed like the King Kong and fair lady of a previous era on the cover of Vogue magazine. The image of King James, as LeBron is called by basketball fans, in his basketball uniform grimacing at the camera while grasping at the fashionably dressed Gisele who seems to be smiling only to attempt to appease him, was undeniably offensive. Wasn’t it?As I surveyed friends and family on my email list about their thoughts and feelings on the image, I received a range of responses, from the utter shock and surprise that reflected my sentiments to indifference to views that there was, in fact, nothing wrong with the cover. These sentiments I found particularly surprising because they came from people I know who are of the generation that experienced segregation and legal discrimination firsthand. Moreover, these people were women of color who love and insist on having loving relationships with black men. They are a generation older than mine, but also among the generation that produced Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Dr. Cornel West, Nathan McCall, Jill Nelson and other voices who loudly and clearly speak truth to power with regard to race. Like these better-known individuals, the women on my email list are among those who have achieved a great level of personal success in spite of the social conditions that worked actively to stunt their progress and leave them living the life of a stereotype of the downtrodden black American that remains pervasive in our society.

As I considered the response of my friends and family, I also reflected on the decision of the editor of Vogue to put this provocative image on the cover of its April 2008 issue. My current status as a graduate student in an M.S. in Publishing program has trained me to do this type of evaluation of media, and I found myself drawing the same conclusion that had been drawn by many when I was on staff at Time magazine in the 1990s and a darkened O.J. Simpson image appeared on newsstands prior to his acquittal on charges of murder of his white wife and her friend. Someone must have sneaked this in after everyone went home. Right?

A brief conversation with one of my female professors on the subject reflected the dominant concern of activist Caucasian women, whose fight for women’s rights overlapped the civil rights battles, who bypassed the discussion of race and went straight to the feminist issue of gender discrimination, an issue about which I am also deeply concerned, and yet I did not feel the need to overlook one issue for the other, as she did. Upon greater consideration of my professor’s point of view, I realized that the way the image is composed is suggestive of both the gender stereotypes to which she reacts and the racial biases that generated my reaction, yet I chose my racial concerns over those of gender bias because this is a fashion magazine after all.

I have become disheartened by the notion that our conversations about race and gender must compete for time in the same manner that they did in previous decades when the barriers to access were intrinsic in our laws and minds. The redefinition of the media as leftist or right-wing reflects the assertion by the general public that news no longer attempts to be an unbiased eye on the world, but merely disseminates information with the stamp of approval of the corporate entities that own it.

Yet, magazines by definition have always had a point of view. They are not meant to be neutral on the issues and ideas they put forth. They are not like newspapers or broadcast television or radio programs intended for the masses. Each magazine title has an intended, limited audience and a distinctive point of view. Each one goes in-depth with its telling of stories in words and images that only a small percentage of the country would be interested in reading. They are sought out by their readers who pay good money to escape to the world of ideas that a particular magazine creates for them on a monthly basis.

This is why I believe the Vogue cover is so damaging. Vogue is a well-known national fashion brand, but it is a magazine that is read by only a small percentage of the entire population. The readers of Vogue are more likely to be the wannabe Paris Hilton’s of the world than those who identify with india.arie. So when a cover image like the one of the April issue shows up on newsstands or in the mail, the first question has to be: What is the message Vogue is trying to convey? The cover image of every magazine is its most important sales tool, and Vogue had to believe that such an image would be well-received in retail stores around the country.

Historically, the shock factor really doesn’t sell fashion, and pairings of black men and white women have not been fashionable in magazines or in life. Perhaps this is exactly the message the so-called fashion bible wanted to send as clearly and as loudly as possible. I suspect the message reached the heiress wannabes, but what about the young men who identify with LeBron?

Tresa Chambers is a graduate student in the M.S. in Publishing program at Pace University in New York concentrating on the magazine business. Email her at: tlchambe@hotmail.com

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