Jezebel has already gone overboard commenting on and identifying the obvious misogyny and racial stereotyping in Sports Illustrated’s Seven Continents spread. They went through each photo, tagging them with gems such as:

“White person relaxing, a person of color working. Tale as old as time. A non-white person in the service of a white person.”
“Photo 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.”
“Also people are not props.”

Al Jazeera’s done the same. So we won’t waste time re-venting along the same lines. But we should pay special attention to the model representing Africa as a continent. Jezebel’s post points out, about the photoshoot that took place in Namibia:

black model was also shot in the African country, but when the magazine used the man as a prop, they used a white model, for contrast. Photographing Emily DiDonato against the country’s stunning sands wasn’t enough. A half-naked native makes the shot seem more exotic — even though Namibia is a country with a capital city where there are shopping malls and people, you know, who wear Western clothes.

Whereas many of the other photographs contrast the model’s near-nakedness with the clothed (and othered) bodies of the ‘native’ of the continent, here, both figures — model and Native-as-Prop — are similarly clothed. Here, nakedness of the model is depicted as a “choice” granted modernity, which dictates to us that being part of this great liberal experiment permits women to have access to the same freedoms as men.

Unfortunately, of course, the expression of that supposed freedom, for women, is often limited to exposing the body — as long as it is a much-controlled, reshaped body. Part of how this myth — linking freedom to body-display — is perpetuated is by juxtaposing the modern woman’s ‘nakedness by choice’ with (a) an ‘over-clothed’ person from a society that is perceived to be behind the times, and with less access to the freedoms granted to women in the west, or (b) by posing the naked/near-naked woman next to the Edenic Primitive. In Sports Illustrated’s choice for Africa, the latter option worked best: it perpetuates the Africa as location of prelapsarian fantasy story. Here, Africa stands in for the world before the Fall, unspoilt and pristine. After all, the fantasy may not work as well as photo depicted Africa-as-savage (imagine naked model next to child-soldier/brutal African dictator…ah, on second thought, has that already been done?).

Posing this model next to the quintessential image of human ancestry — the primitive ancestor, porting nothing but loincloth and spear, his spare, lean body devoid of the ugly traces of excessive fat (the scourge of modernity) — means we can also project our fantasy of return to that fat-free, supposedly simpler time, when we were not tainted by the miseries of our industrialised state, one that we nonetheless would want to give up. Because the model’s facial features and skin are supple and youthful — while her ‘primitive’ companion’s face is marked by the stamp of sun, dry air and general harsh environment — she appears markedly privileged, different. The resulting effect of the juxtaposition is a deep  contrast between where we came from, and how far we’ve come. This game is still about us saying we, with our access to Sports Illustrated, are better off, and better evolved.

The New York Times Global View blog gave its gratuitous attention to the outrage, too, ending its post by listing “the sighs of despair at the politically correct nature of the debate”:

from someone named Pete, one of thousands on Yahoo’s Shine site: “They are not ‘minorities’ when they are in their own country. What a bunch of P.C. dopes we have here in the U.S.”
John S: “Wow, some people need to lighten up. I see pictures of pretty girls in bathing suits. I give it about 1 second and no deeper thought. I spend no time analyzing the background scenery, people or not.”
Jamba went for a funny one, noting: “There are other people in the photos? I guess my eyes were fixated elsewhere.”

Pete: thank you. But we might point out to John S that his thoughts, despite him, may be deeper than him. Hate to bring up Freud, but didn’t the man point out the relevance of the subconscious, and how it reads certain messages while one’s eyes are riveted elsewhere, and then affect our thoughts in ways we may never suspect? The only way to salvage the repetitive Native-as-Prop trope would be to write a parody, emphasizing the imagined aspirations of the Other, as a model, individual, and a representative? What if the spear-porting “San” man was vain, club-going Derek Zoolander? Or better yet, someone might attempt a “prequel” to Sports Illustrated’s latest idiotic spread, à la Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea: rather than service the subjectivity and personal growth of Mr. Rochester/Emily DiDonato/’readers’ of Sports Illustrated, San Zoolander takes on the duty of moving to the foreground of the image, re-educating the reader about his own complex aspirations, despite his somewhat limited options.

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.