Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition: Sexist AND Racist

posted by The Rabbit Hole
Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 8:39am EST

Blogger Courtney Szto is a Master's Student studying the socio-cultural aspects of sport, physical activity and health (or as some call it Physical Cultural Studies). Bachelor's in Sport Management. Former tennis coach & ropes course facilitator.

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The Sports Illustrated (SI) swimsuit edition is sexist, I think we can all agree on that.  This year's edition of the swimsuit issue took their sexism to all seven continents in an attempt to "present the natural beauty of each setting and its people."  Unfortunately, some argue that the photos merely reproduce white superiority and the primitive exoticness of foreign people.

Anne V. in Guangzi China.Dodai Stewart from the blog Jezebel comments that the photo above

cements stereotypes, perpetuates an imbalance in the power dynamic, is reminiscent of centuries of colonialism (and indentured servitude) and serves as a good example of both creating a centrality of whiteness and using "exotic" people as fashion props.

In the shot below, Stewart explains

These shots tap into the West's past obsession/fetishization with so-called savages, jungle comics and the like.  Again: In a visit to seven continents, this image is what Sports Illustrated is using to represent the continent of Africa.

Emily DiDonato in Namibia.
Sports Illustrated issued an apology to "anyone who has taken exception to the way their culture was represented" but plenty of people fail to see the relevance of such harmless photos.  Here are some examples of the comments posted on the Huffington Post article about this topic:

By and large these comments seem to be representative of the general opinion on the matter - we see women being sexualized but we don't see any racism here, or if there is racism it is obviously unintentional.  I contend that the least obvious racism is often the most insidious and powerful because we don't question it.  A Namibian man holding a spear and wearing a loincloth is harmless.  An old Chinese man in rural China is no big deal.  Here's the thing, it wouldn't be a big deal if these images were rarities but they are in fact the norm.  These photos do not represent the reality that exists, rather the reality that we create.  China is the world's second largest economy with Beijing and Shanghai representing world class cities and technology that is often ahead of North American electronics but SI chose to use an image that best represents stereotypical China.  That is not to say that rural China and Chinese men on hand-crafted rafts don't exist, but he is not necessarily an accurate representation of a nation with one billion people.  If the majority of images that represented America consisted of a white male wearing overalls, a cut-off t-shirt, and a confederate trucker hat, standing next to a Ford pick-up truck, I think we would all agree that that is not an accurate representation of the diversity of people within the United States.  That guy and his overalls exist but if you aren't him you would probably get tired of seeing him touted as the quintessential American.  Similarly, I as a Canadian get tired of lumberjacks, eskimos and hockey players with no teeth representing my experiences as an Asian Canadian woman.

Importantly, this is not about stereotypes.  Stereotypes are symptoms of racism so embedded within society that we are able to distill people down to x,y, and z.  Let's take shopson651's comment above: "do you think the chinese raft pusher feels SI is racist. I bet he had a fun day."  Maybe he did have a fun day but we will never hear his words or his opinion because he has no control over how he is represented.  The photo isn't about him; he is an after thought - he is always an after thought. What we are talking about is Edward Said's Orientalism; a theory that articulates how non-Western people are consistently depicted as aberrant, underdeveloped, and inferior.  It is an exercise in cultural strength.

Racism in fashion shoots is nothing new.  Vanity Fair has been critically torn apart for it's Product RED issue where Africans were, unsurprisingly, portrayed as spear-holding, loin cloth wearing, uncivilized people (Hintzen, 2008; Jungar & Salo, 2008; Richey & Ponte, 2008). In 1997, the New York Times wrote,

What can't be argued is that in fashion magazines today, nonwhite models are likely to be made exotic by editors and photographers.  Unlike white models, they are not as often posed in everyday situations, buying groceries or driving a slick car.  Instead, they are posed on African plains or Caribbean islands.  Asian models are often put in high-tech computer-heavy scenarios, stereotypes of the link visual artists seem determined to make between the Japanese and cyberculture.

Now sixteen years later we continue to run into the same issues.  Jennifer Lynn Stoever's (2006) analysis about how Marie Claire, in an attempt to promote global activism, ended up representing women of the "Third World" as "unemployed Guatemalan weavers, impoverished Vietnamese email order brides, and the suffering mothers of murdered maquiladora workers in Cuidad Juarez" (p.600).  Lynn Stoever argues that through the "exoticized and fantasy-oriented fashion spreads that depict First World women globetrotting in the Third, Marie Claire actually reinscribes the oppressive colonialist mentality under the guise of modern feminism" (p.596).  I would argue that this is exactly what SI has unwittingly reproduced.  Importantly, "the Orientalist representations of Third World violence, sexuality, and decadence that fills the pages of Marie Claire have less to do with the realities of women's lives in countries like Afghanistan and much more with how the First World represents, reads and consumes itself" (Lynn Stoever, p.596). In other words, the Western world dares only to produce an image of itself as normal, fully developed, and the benchmark of civilization.  Comparison is only spread towards the Other.  We are never different because they are always different.  It is a normal that benefits us, yet we do not have the courage to admit that it (always) benefits us.

As the comments above point out sometimes a photo is just a photo; however, we must remember that these aren't just snapshots of pretty girls walking through a mall. Photo shoots are constructed and controlled experiences.  You take photo after photo. You edit your photos. Then you select which photo you want published.  If this were the first time that these types of photographic portrayals have appeared then we could chalk it up as an unintended offence, but then I wouldn't be able to attach a host of other similar themed photos to the end of my post...

Photo from angloamerica101Gisele Bunchen for Product RED and American Express.
Photo from http://www.joinred.com/Learn/Partners/AmericanExpress.aspxAdriana Lima for Donna Karan with Haitians in background.
Photo from JezebelVogue photo shoot. Photo from racialicious.Vogue Italia Editorial.  Photo from Bostonfashionslut.J Crew add. Photo from Independent Fashion Bloggers.Photo from Platform.Works Cited:

Hintzen, P.C.  (2008).  Desire and the enrapture of capitalist consumption: Product Red, Africa, the crisis of sustainability.  The Journal of Pan African Studies, 2(6), pp.77-91.

Jungar, K. & Salo, E.  (2008).  Shop and do good? The Journal of Pan African Studies, 2(6), pp.92-102.

Lynn Stoever, J.  (2006).  'Haute Culture' for mail order missionaries: Representing the Third World Woman in the American fashion magazine.  Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation, and Culture, 12(5), pp.595-613.

Richey, L.A. & Ponte, S.  (2008).  Better (Red) than Dead? Celebrities, consumption and international aid.  Third World Quarterly, 29(4), pp.711-729.

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