Everyday Semiotics

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Ape and essence

The latest cover of Vogue, picturing an African-American basketball player and a white Brazilian supermodel, has stirred up the requisite amount of controversy.

At this point in the game, the objections to such an image are obligatory, utterly predictable. They are, now, part of the text.

What is the text?

It is one in which we are quick to take offense at anything remotely suggestive of racial stereotype (and this image is not a remote suggestion, it is the real McCoy). It is one in which the expected response must be repeated by the media as much as it is voiced by the enlightened.

It is certainly a text that relishes in stating the obvious: the fact that Lebron James looks like King Kong grabbing Gisele Bundchen’s Fay Wray. (Note how the quintessential scream of the monster snack/rape victim is supplanted by the suppliant supermodel smile.)

It is a text that must founder in watching Ving Rames portray a member of a technologically-advanced ape species in Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” remake.

It is a text that is worn out but still current, doubtlessly perpetuated more by media that must comment and analyze Don Imus ad nauseum rather than let him fade.

Where does this text come from? In this case it might have started out accidental. James himself is untroubled by the image.

"Everything my name is on is going to be criticized in a good way or bad way," James told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Who cares what anyone says?"

Then it proceeded to the editors, who would have instantly realize the buzz and titillation it would create.

Vogue spokesman Patrick O'Connell said the magazine "sought to celebrate two superstars at the top of their game" for the magazine's annual issue devoted to size and shape.

"We think Lebron James and Gisele Bundchen look beautiful together and we are honored to have them on the cover," he said.

Then it proceeds to the man of the street, for mixed reaction, and to the editors of other publications for condemnation.

I’m almost hesitant to comment on this image myself because all it does, and all its cloud of accompanying type does, is perpetuate human anxiety. But also I’m compelled to state that fact. Here is a seme with incredible signifying power, and I would be remiss not to write about it here.

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