The Vogue Blackface Spread: Provocative or Insensitive?

14 10 2009
Vogue's Blackface Shoot

Supermodel Lara Stone in Blackface for French Vogue

The latest issue of French Vogue features Dutch model Lara Stone donning African-inspired garb and painted black, head to toe.  Trés chic?   Mais non, chérie.

The text blurb in the mag says something to the effect of, We chose this particular white model because she has funky teeth and isn’t anorexic.  This woman is a whopping size 4, ladies and gents, and her mouth is closed in all the photos.  Plus, what do funny teeth and a “normal-sized” body, in model dimensions, have to do with painting her skin black?  Why didn’t they just use a normal-sized, funky-toothed black model?  They would have saved a whole bucket of charcoal.

On top of this controversial photo shoot, an Australian TV equivalent to SNL called “Hey Hey It’s Saturday” featured 5 white men performing a blackface Jackson 5 skit this week:

Harry Connick, Jr. (what, who cares?) wasn’t impressed, and neither am I.  Sure, I understand the fact that neither the stylists/photographers/editors at French Vogue nor the men in the “Hey Hey” skit meant to offend the African-American community, but SURELY they understand the complex, demeaning history of blackface and its implications.  Like Hitler’s extensive anti-Jewish propaganda, including posters, movies and books exaggerating certain stereotypes of Jews in order to solidify anti-Semitism, the tradition of blackface in theatre and printed art played a significant role in the proliferation of racist attitudes and stereotypes.

I remember back when I was in college at UVA, two seriously idiotic frat boys decided to dress up in blackface for Halloween (as Venus and Serena Williams).  They were both suspended, to my delight, but I was shocked at the number of people on campus who jumped to their defense.  It was a joke!  People dress as other people on Halloween, that’s the whole point!

No- a white man dressing up as Bill Clinton and a white man dressing up as Venus Williams send two very different messages.  To participate in the blackface tradition nowadays, even without any kind of malicious intention, is to rub salt in a centuries-old wound.  You should know better than that, educated college man.

Now the Vogue photo shoot is decidedly not blackface minstrelsy, since none of the model’s features have been exaggerated and she is not performing any kind of stereotype.  Still, why paint a white model black if not to purposefully allude to the controversial blackface tradition?  And to further fan the flame, in choosing a white model for an African shoot, especially since Vogue has been criticized in the past for its lack of black models, the magazine’s editors are only highlighting the lack of racial diversity in their publication.  I could suggest a ton of stunning black models Vogue could have chosen for that shoot, my personal favorite being Alek Wek:

alek-wek-ghghs1

Swoon. Look how fabulous she is.  I just forgot what I was even talking about.

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12 responses

14 10 2009
bros

I’m with you on the blackface halloween thing, and the same thing happened at swarthmore when I was there with similar disciplinary result. I am not with you on this photoshoot, however. There is nothing to suggest or cue the idiom of ‘blackface’ and they have done nothing to create any caricature of supposed black features. Her whole body is painted dark (not black), and she is not engaging in any type of behaviors or movement that would connote blackface or minstrelsy. there is nothing contextually or historically minstrel about this in terms of the setting. I think context matters a lot, and simply putting dark paint on a model doesnt automatically mean blackface. same with the argument that they could have used a black model to do this-I think not. I think artistically, the photographer was trying to make a different point, and it involved body paint. you’ll notice that some of the photos have the model with thick white paint over her already painted face-this shoot had something artistic to say about paint and Im not sure the point was that they were taking a white model and making her african. I think getting up in arms about this (because other celeb gossip sites have been covering this) dilutes the fight against things that truly are offensive (the australian TV thing). and I think using alek wek in the shoot would have created its own swirl of controversy if they painted her face white (are they trying to say she’s not beautiful unless she is white?) and put her in an african setting (its so racist and cliche and thats all the french vogue people could come up with is putting a black woman next to a zebra in africa). I could be totally off, but that’s my take.

14 10 2009
VJane

OK Vogue – next time take a black model, paint her all over with white paint, dress her up as an Eskimo, Cow Girl or even a Southern Belle in hoop skirt standing on the veranda of her plantation home. I think she should have good teeth, tho.

14 10 2009
Geof Boyle

I agree with bros about artistic intent being separate from the baggage of the viewer. At some future point in our trajectory as a species, the skin will hopefully be only a characteristic of an individual, like height or preference for smooth over crunchy peanut butter, i.e. mostly inconsequential, rather than an automatic membership card in a huge, archaic, culturally constructed class of otherwise unrelated people. To paraphrase Dr. King, let us be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin. And let’s face it, that model is more than likely a pain in the ass.

However, I do agree with ramblings that race is still an important issue that people should be considerate of because symbolically, skin color still represents this membership to many people. But I’m not sure that Vogue violated this. I don’t think it was minstrelsy, which is by nature demeaning. All the models here look hot and glamorous. The Australians look like goofballs who don’t know much American history, although I’m pretty sure they couldn’t get away with lampooning aborigines.
tangential, but i love these guys

play some didge!

14 10 2009
Pita L.

I think painting a white model in black paint speaks to what popular/majority culture views as the ideal image of beauty. Alek Wek is absolutely beautiful but she also has obvious African features–wide nose, big lips, etc. What I find most disturbing about this photo shoot is, by painting a white model black, Vogue is suggesting they do not think African features are as beautiful as white features. A beautiful black person is one who looks like a Dutch model, not an African model. That’s a terrible message to send.

14 10 2009
Southern Girl

So BROS….you’re saying that the photographer is only making an artistic point with body paint and is not suggesting that the woman in the photo is supposed to look African? Just a coincidence that in this African shoot he happens to use dark brown paint to make his artistic point? C’mon. I love the photos. They are indeed quite artistic, but I think Vogue did it this way to create controversy. Controversy sells magazines. And with the defense of “lighten up, people…it’s art!” they get away with it.

14 10 2009
bros

yes, southern girl-thats what i think. i think it takes a lot more than painting a brown color of paint on someone to constitute ‘being african’ and i dont think the art director of this shoot was engaging in facile mimicry, thinking, gee, if we spraypaint her brown, that will be like an african, right? there is a certain amount of provacativeness in the use of the dark paint, but I still dont think this is an attempt to make a white person be african. should she not wear the african style clothes either? this paint is part of the costuming.

15 10 2009
Geof Boyle

I think this discourse, in a broad sense, will not evolve much until the term African, and the general ignorance surrounding its use, becomes passe amongst bourgeoisie time wasters such as ourselves. It’s a pretty diverse place, and unless you’re talking about the coastline, the term is pretty darn ambiguous. Representing anything as African, regardless of it being a white model or black model (please excuse my use of outdated racist terminology) perpetuates the colonial myth of the “dark continent” and its historical legacy we discuss today. Africa is not a political entity. It is not an ethnic identity. It is a vague idea that is perpetuated by the belief in race. The photos, by their very nature, represent an outsider’s perspective of, oddly enough, an imaginary place invented by the British and perpetuated by the Lion King, and then weirdly re-imagined by some shitty magazine. However, I take issue with “Wide nose, big lips are obvious African features” for the same reason. Again, I ask, what is African really? I’ve seen big lips and noses on all kinds of people on three continents. I agree that Vogue portrays and enforce standards of beauty, but so does thinking that location=color=race=phenotypic facial features.
The photos also raise the question of who has the right to represent whom? We won’t get around this until everyone gets to publish a shallow rag pushing conspicuous consumption and idealized body types.
One more thought on use of terms like black, white, Africa–Language is a reflection of belief, but it also shapes thought. Newspeak (see Orwell) can be generated within any power system. How can we make heal the wounds of racism if we insist on perpetuating these meaningless categories? Drop categories of race. Neither defend nor attack based on those categories. That is how we will move ahead. REIFICATION of skin color or facial features is what causes these problems. Be racially color blind like Stephen Colbert. I know its joke, but isn’t there something profound to his silliness?

15 10 2009
Pita L.

A color blind society is based on the pretense of the nonexistence of the obvious (note, I’m in school and I ripped that off from one of my recent readings). But I think it hits on the idea perfectly. Race is not meaningless. I agree it is fluid and changes according to they majority culture’s needs but it has defined an entire group of people, at least for African Americans. It is not perpetuating meaningless categories or oversimplifying to state there are African features. There are, in fact, African features. To deny that is to deny the obvious and to deny a group of people a part of who they are as human beings. Alaskan natives look different than Ebos who look different from the Dutch. Contrary to being pejorative, I think it affirms a people–let’s them know they have been seen and acknowledged.

15 10 2009
Geof

First, thank you for the response.

It’s ‘obvious’ because it is drilled into us every day. Race is a cultural construct, which makes it very meaningful. I do not dispute that. What I dispute is the necessity of the construction. I understand the importance of race to the identity of many people, but that is because they have been taught to believe it is important. Race was made, it can be unmade. Humans are humans. Define me not by my appearance but by my actions. Deconstruct it. Make it about individuals, not skin color.
Race is not something that is fundamental to the body. It is applied to the body by culture.
There is no genetic test for race. Ethnicity yes, but there are hundreds, and certainly no widespread conceptions for any individual ethnicity. Pigmentation is a factor of what latitude your ancestors grew up in and has to do with Vitamin D production and protection from the sun. That’s it. Simple genetics.
Yes, it is absolutely an oversimplification to state that there is such a thing as African features. Pick one phenotype and I’ll tell you who else has it that isn’t African, or which Africans do not have it.
The idea that a people can be affirmed is the same as saying nationalism is important because the nation has feelings. People don’t have feelings. Individuals do. Individual efforts count. Your parents genes do not. Are adoptive parents any less parents? Of course not. It is their actions that make them parents, not the genes they did or did not pass on.
Racism, nationalism, and religion are the levers used by elites of all stripes in their attempts to consolidate and wield power.

24 11 2009
SWURDIN — THE BLACKFACE TREND

[…] is namelijk vrij not done en roept nogal wat reacties op. Zie de rel rondom de shoot in de Franse Vogue, een ’supermodel’ issue waarin geen donkere modellen stonden maar wel een shoot in […]

25 01 2010
Sophie

As someone who worked as a pro model from ages 4 to 16 in France, I’d like to offer my “more enlightened than most about the subject” opinion when it comes to Oct. 09 French Vogue’s cover and Blackface. (I’m French but mastered the English language enough to be a pro writer if you’re wondering…) Yes, racism is definitely rampant in the U.S. when it comes to African-Americans, but NOT IN FRANCE. Very dark African women are WORSHIPPED there to the point where many French men go to Africa just to come back with one and marry her! The darker, the better! They are compared to gazelles in their natural elegance. Black men are considered gorgeous and statue-like (same in Germany) and black babies and children are described as cuter than the white ones (I lost a few modeling jobs to the latter)! The only African man in my grandmother’s small town was elected mayor and it’s nothing special. My boarding school in Cannes had more Africans than most because it’s respected and a private school and African parents wanted the best for their kids, so we black kids as above the rest. A lot of them are royalty – how can you look down on that? They’re just as smart and just as well-behaved. See where I’m going with this? The list goes on… When I moved to Washington D.C. with my mother after my B.A., and then L.A., it was a culture shock! From my point of view, painting oneself black ISN’T a negative thing but a positive one, and is therefore not racist: imitation is a form of flattery… (My fiance is a blond; I majorly screwed up, didn’t I? LOL)

26 10 2010
Kujgedcl

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