April 03, 2008
The latest media chatter concerns whether a certain cover of Vogue is “racist” because it portrays model Giselle Bundchen alongside basketball player LeBron James in a pose that reminds some people of Fay Wray and King Kong. Or Jessica Lange and King Kong. Or Naomi Watts and King Kong. Or something.
I suppose this is progress over the reaction that might occurred to such an image among Americans (NOT just Southerners, thank y’all very much) 50 years ago. But it’s profoundly silly. First of all, it’s simply wrong on the facts. In most of the stills from any of those three versions of the film, the Ann Darrow character reacts to her manhandling by a giant ape with (understandable) terror. Later on in each of the films, some tenderness arises between these differently sized primates. But that isn’t what made it into the movie posters—not nearly as dramatic as a blonde girl writhing in horror at being picked up by a giant gorilla. Was there some racist subtext in the whole mythos of King Kong? Yeah, I’m sure there was. But it’s a good bet your average blonde would be ALMOST as uncomfortable being carried to the top of the Empire State Building by a snowy white giant Yeti. Racial solidarity only goes so far.
But on the Vogue cover, Bundchen doesn’t look scared—or even aroused. She’s clearly amused by a tantrum that is obviously fake, as if she’s laughing at the sports stereotype which James is playing. The tone is not race anxiety, but camp. As Steven Sailer has often pointed out, the whole “Mandingo” thing that has bubbled under the surface of our culture since the days of slavery has deep anthropological roots: As a general rule, women really do like their men to be “tall, dark, and handsome,” and standards of beauty even in the West have tended to portray handsome men as at least a little darker than their mates. The primal rage we see in James can be found equally among heroes in Norse and Greek mythology, and while it’s perceived (rightly) as dangerous, it also for many women reads as “sexy.” Of course, those lady readers who’d rather polish floors with James Spader may beg to differ. There’s no accounting for taste.
On the Vogue cover, James is engaged in the kind of histrionics our culture encourages among the stars of every sport and every race—think of white and nerdy John McEnroe throwing tennis tantrums, for heaven’s sake. The model of sportsmen as gentleman has long ago decayed—with the possible exception of courtly figures such as Tiger Woods and, I’d like to point out, the Harlem Globetrotters, whose showmanship has always been combined with sportsmanship. James is throwing the same kind of tantrum we might expect from Billy Martin. Or Dick Cheney. Or John McCain. And Bundchen, cool and confident, is having a good laugh at the whole thing. So should we.