When Vogue announced its April cover would feature basketball superstar LeBron James and supermodel Giselle Bundchen, the magazine noted with some fanfare that it would be the first time a black man had graced the cover.
But the image is stirring up controversy, with some commentators claiming that the picture reinforces racial stereotypes. People are saying that the image conjures up the idea of a dangerous black man. Magazine analyst Samir Husni believes the photo was deliberately provocative, adding that it ‘screams King Kong.’ Prominent sportswriter Jason Whitlock says that the cover merely shows African American athletes as they really are; he asks, ‘When Johnson slaps in his gold teeth, dyes and cuts his hair into a blonde Mohawk, dances a jig in the end zone and makes life absolute hell on his black coach, that is fun and good for the game. But when King James apes King Kong it is a terrible blow to the perception of black men.’
Sports radio has been buzzing with varying interpretations of the cover, with most white men saying that they see James in the cover as merely an athlete who is celebrating the fact that he is rich and has a beautiful woman on his arm the way he would celebrate a spectacular slam-dunk on the court. However, many black men have stated the opposite: that someone should have recognized how these images would be seen by the greater public. (Not too many women call into sports radio.)
So what is the correct answer? How should we view this cover? Or rather, how can we reconcile all the different interpretations this cover has generated?
Mikhail Bakhtin claimed that criticism must recognize that the meaning of a literary work depends on the historical situation of the text, the social situation of the reader and the complex interaction that is generated by the act of reading. In his essay ‘The Problem of Speech Genres,’ he wants the idea of speech genres to honor both constraints and openness in communication, which Bizzell and Herzberg say allows us to view these genres as ‘rhetorical situations and to see Bakhtin’s argument as a way of extending rhetoric’s gaze to every act of speaking or writing’ (1208). Therefore, I believe it is possible to call the LeBron cover of Vogue a literary text, and read it in the way Bakhtin describes.
The perception of LeBron’s image as King Kong-esque is a result of the historical situation of the African American community in this nation, and they way they have been classically depicted in the media, from lazy slaves to the racist crows in Dumbo. For viewers of this image to whom these depictions are insulting and the feelings still relatively raw, it isn’t too difficult to see how this pose, on the cover of a widely circulated magazine that proudly admitted that in 2008 it was putting its first black man on that cover, could be easily read as racist in nature. However for readers to whom these depictions seem archaic and not part of their daily existence in a racially mixed community, it isn’t surprising that they only see the cover as an athlete with a beautiful woman. Of course, this view also stems from the social situation of the reader as well, another of Bakhtin’s criteria for good criticism.
No certain view is correct, but the rhetorical situation the image of LeBron James and Giselle Bundchen embodies is different for each reader of the text because each reader brings a different social situation with them. And the complex interaction that is generated by the act of reading is different for each reader for precisely these reasons. I’m not sure how Mikhail Bakhtin would react to the April cover of Vogue, but I know that he wouldn’t see any of these interpretations as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ only credibly different.