Perception of Image: The LeBron James Controversy

The interpretation of images is as varied as the people exposed to them. Perception of an image’s intent is often based on the individual’s experience and the analysis of that experience. I came face to face with this notion this week while watching the morning news. The newscaster’s teaser implored me to “stay tuned” to find out why many in the media and African American society were upset with the basketball star, LeBron James.
Certainly I was intrigued as I could not imagine where this scenario was headed. After the newsbreak, the April 2008 cover of Vogue magazine was splashed on the screen. LeBron James and supermodel Gisele Bundchen were front and center. Gisele was long and shapely in a green evening gown, while LeBron was wearing a blue sleeve-less athletic shirt and matching warm-up shorts. The supermodel had a look of sheer glee while LeBron, who was dribbling a basketball and palming Gisele’s waist, displayed a powerful snarl. Opponents of the cover argued that the image perpetuated the stereotype of aggressive and dangerous black manhood. Many likened it’s symbolism to the 1930’s King Kong, where a huge black ape grips a fair maiden in one hand while growling and swatting at her would-be rescuers.
Admittedly an ape, or more specifically King Kong, was one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind when I saw this cover. However, I was not offended. I marveled at how striking LeBron looked. In addition, there was something sexy about that image. After years of all the oppressive images of black people in general, I never want to see a black man in a position of subordination. Being a long-time spectator of basketball, I am well aware of the raw facial expressions these athletes make while driving to the hoop. To me, LeBron’s expression was nothing more than that. I was far more impressed by the image of power and aggression he displayed. When looking at this cover, it is LeBron who grabs your attention. Gisele is a mere after thought; a beautiful after thought, but an after thought nonetheless.
Opponents argue that there were many other shots Vogue could have used for its cover, many fine shots which are displayed inside the magazine. However, if one of those shots would have been used, would we all be discussing this issue? The cover’s image also took away from another surprising fact. LeBron James is the first African American man to grace Vogue’s cover after over 90 years in circulation. While Sean “Puffy” Combs and Naomi Campbell appeared on UK’s Vogue in October of 2001, I could not find an instance of an African American man appearing on the cover of the U.S. version. Over the decades the covers ranged from abstract art often with only objects depicted to tarot card-like images to silly carefree snapshots and finally to glam-goddesses in every branch of the media/entertainment arena.
There is an underlying objection to April’s cover that has less to do with the pose LeBron chose and more to do with what Gisele and LeBron represent together. Many on both sides of the racial coin are still uncomfortable with seeing a white woman and a black man together. Unlike the damsel in King Kong, Gisele looks elated with her partner, not terrified despite LeBron’s exaggerated snarl. Some feel it plays to the myths about the dangerous criminal minded black man and his desire to possess the white man’s woman. Interestingly enough the contrast between Gisele’s fair skin and LeBron’s ebony beauty was evident throughout many of the other pictures as well. Pictures of Gisele’s curvy five foot eleven frame dressed in white and LeBron’s towering six foot nine inch body dressed in black on the inside pages of the magazine played up their biggest differences. The contrast would have been more interesting if LeBron had been wearing white and Gisele the dark garb. Maybe the images would have then played upon the integration and perceived intimacy instead of drawing stark differences.
Once I was able to look past the controversy of the ape stance and the interracial coupling, I became more intrigued as to why LeBron was the first African American male to be immortalized on Vogue’s cover in the first place. Nothing against LeBron, but certainly there were more debonair African American men that would have kept with Vogue’s fabulous fashion image. Names like Denzel Washington, Muhammad Ali, and Michael Jordan come to mind.
This issue not only demonstrated our continuing struggle with cultural image and interracial intimacy, it also speaks to the conflict of gender identity. Gisele and LeBron are no doubt excellent representatives of their gender but does a woman always want to be depicted as a possession and the man as predator?
Vogue has brought to light many conflicting ideals with a simple picture. Isn’t that what we expect from art?
References:

http://www.usatoday.com/life/people/2008-03-24-vogue-controversy_N.htm
http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/678805/vogues_lebron_james_cover_evokes_negative.html
http://www.nationalcenter.org/P21PR-LeBron_James_Gisele_Bundchen032808.html
http://canadianpress.google.com/article/ALeqM5gWaMDbRUCgZF2-v1DAiHnJ-lrdig

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