If you would like to read Jemele Hill's original article about the cover photo, you can do so here.
In the spring of 2008, Vogue released a cover featuring LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen. Bundchen wore a blue-green strapless dress that wrapped around and stuck to her like loose cellophane. Her shoulder blade-length golden hair was blowing back and she was smiling like any model who has just found herself on the cover of Vogue. Her glamor and grace was in complete contradiction to James, who was dressed as if ready for basketball practice, complete with high-top basketball shoes, gym shorts, and a sleeveless shirt. His back and knees were slightly bent, causing him to hunch slightly forward as he yells threateningly at the camera. All this he does as he is dribbling a basketball in one hand, and loosely holding Bundchen’s waist in the other. In contrast to Bundchen's pleasant smile and appearance, James looks intimidating and angry, an uncommon image for Vogue.
The argument made by Jemele Hill, a columnist for ESPN.com's Page 2, is that this image portrays LeBron James, a black athlete, in a stereotypical bestial pose, and that this stereotype has lived in American culture, unchecked, for too long. She went on to compare the cover to an old poster for “King Kong” where an incredibly large and intimidating ape clutches his beautiful blond love interest.
Hill's statement may be correct if the stereotype were to be so ingrained in my subconscious that I was unable to recognize the image in that light until she exposed it. Still, I highly doubt that this was the case. On the other hand, I am not one who generally reads too deeply into the meanings of photographs. My initial thoughts upon my brief glance at the cover image was the indifference of seeing LeBron James on yet another magazine cover, and wondering if there are any magazines on which he has not been. I asked some knowledgeable artistic friends who had not heard about this article what they thought about the image. Neither saw the “King Kong” similarities, and both came to the conclusion that it most likely showed the contrast between the perceived notions of masculinity and femininity.
Hill admits that perhaps the photo is supposed to show that contrast, or perhaps that of brawn and beauty, or strength and grace, but claims that Vogue would not have asked white athletes like Brett Favre, Steve Nash, or David Beckham to strike their best beast pose for the masculine role. Perhaps she feels that Vogue would not ask a white athlete to strip down for a fashion magazine, because they would fail to supplement such a bestial role. But I am certain that, even though it may not have the same racial undertones, high profile white athletes such as football player Brian Urlacher, wrestler John Cena, or any veteran hockey player could easily have slid into James's shoes for this role.
It is noted in Hill’s argument that having a shirtless black male athlete on the cover of a magazine has become a fashion staple reinforcing the idea that black athletes are blessed with physical characteristics, not mental ones. While it does reinforce this idea about black athletes, it also reinforces this idea about all athletes of any race. With the exception of on field intelligence that is necessary in all positions but is best known for quarterbacks, point guards, and catchers, there are not many athletes that are heralded for their intellectual strengths. While one could argue that Muhammed Ali did more than just box to inspire people, that Yogi Berra's confusing quotes were filled with scrambled wisdom, and that Lynn Swan has done just as many great things as a politician as he did in any Super Bowl, getting to know an athlete for their off field feats are why we read interviews and biographies, and cannot often be seen in photographs.
Hill believes that James should be more careful with the way he allows his image to be used, but he and many of the NBA's young black stars have been making great strides to change the way that the players and their league are viewed. Gone are the days of the Portland “Jail Blazers,” the Latrell Sprewell choking incident, and the Jayson Williams limousine driver shooting. Now we have a league of young, likable, good character players like Chris Paul, Chris Bosh, and Kevin Durant who will be representing the United States alongside LeBron James at the Olympics. The league has become more likable and fan friendly than it has in a long time, and I do not believe that this magazine cover has done anything to tarnish the image of those players or the league in which they play.
Perhaps Vogue and James should have gone in a different direction than they did for this cover shoot, and it would have been more appropriate for James to have been dressed in a fashionable suit as he is often seen when not on a basketball court, but I believe that most people were not affected by the image in the same way as Hill. The racial undertones come off as unintentional, especially when there are so many other forms of symbolism the picture. Our society has done a remarkable job in a short amount of time of looking past racial stereotypes. Perhaps it is a credit to all of us when I say that Vogue has done nothing wrong by featuring this photo on the cover of their magazine.