Well, the 2013 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue is out and, stirred up by a posting by Dodai Stewart on Jezebel, there is new controversy flying about the web and news media concerning the fashion industry . Well there’s a mighty surprise. The goal of Sports Illustrated is to tillilate its clientele and to stir up controversy. Controversy equals kaching, kaching.
Men being titillated by sexy women is nothing new, nor is the saprophytic exploitation of the models. The question that Stewart raises is one of culture. SI is taking you to the seven continents, profiling its models against what it sees as characteristic of the cultural location. Stewart objects to the use of “natives” as “props.” She tells us that “people are not props.” To be accurate I looked up the meaning of “prop” on the Free Online Dictionary. This is definition 2: “a theatrical property.” The word property applied to people is problematic, but I would argue that props are inanimate and that while people cannot be props they can certainly be background. It is done all of the time and quite innocuously.
Let’s take a look at some of the pictures that Ms. Stewart is objecting to. First we have Emily Didonato in the Namibian desert with a spear carrying tribesman, whose rear end is even more exposed than Ms. Didonato’s. The photograph by Kayt Jones is truly wonderfully constructed in terms of composition. The background is out of focus so as not to steal emphasis. The balance between sand and sky is perfect. The tribesman is just sufficiently out of focus that there’s no question about what is foreground and what is background. The juxtaposition of the spears is beautifully done. And, of course, Ms. Didonato is is gorgeous and exotic herself. I see all of that and then I get a kind of lump in my stomach that says to me: “Ooh, how embarrassing!” What is the man thinking about this strange creature in his world. He is scantily clad because he’s hot, she because someone’s selling sex (not really bathing suits). And as Ms. Stewart points out, no matter how much he was paid, does he really understand that his near naked behind is now in glossy print worldwide?
Second let’s consider Derek Kettela’s photograph taken in Guilin, Guangxi Province, China of model Emily V reposing on a raft as she is poled about by a “native” with serious dental issues and complete with “coolie hat.” Yikes! I mean somebody please help me. Why don’t we just bring back the “black-face minstrel shows?” A white women relaxing as a “native” poles her along or across the river is such a throwback to an imperial age. I know a lot of modern Chinese, who would go ballistic over this photograph. It is not the image that they have of their country – even with all its problems. Yet SI has chosen this image as representative of China.
The issue here is not the right of an industry to take the photographs that they want, exploit whom they want, and to make as much money as they want. The issue here is the subliminal messages that come across, that the photographs convey. I am not a supporter of the concept that one must always speak or photograph politically correctly. To me the question of what you are thinking, what’s in your heart, is much more important than what comes out of your mouth. However, when your pictures are going out to 3.5 million subscribers, 23 million readers (of whom over 18 million are men BTW) there is a very serious issue of social responsibility.