Die Already, King Kong Racism: Lady Gaga Edition

by Deputy Editor Thea Lim

Why oh why does the King Kong image and its attendant suggestions of pure white goodness and evil black barbarism keep on rearing its ugly head?  Sent to us by reader Ruth, this photo is one of a series done by celeb art photographer David LaChappelle, for special editions of Lady Gaga’s new album.   See the whole series here.

You may remember this image from the 2008 Lebron James & Gisele Bundchen Vogue Magazine cover:

Or you may remember it and its ilk from the Amanda Marcotte/Seal Press debacle, where Seal Press used images such as the following to illustrate Marcotte’s book, It’s a Jungle Out There:

Or you may remember this image from this:

The list goes on.

In September, I linked to another Gaga/West image, which features a white lady (Gaga I assume) and a black person (West I assume) humping around.  I suggested that the image dehumanised both players in a sexist and racist way.  Mostly the reader response was: yawn.

This new King Kong photo of Gaga being the white virgin for West’s primal altar is problematic just to look at: a naked blonde woman with a perfect body is being stolen by a dark-skinned tropical heathen with dead eyes.  Aiyeeee.

But the shot is even problematic in the context of the Iconography of Gaga.

In the first place, Gaga’s face is not obscured and she doesn’t have a whacky hairdo.  Gaga is photographed as the stereotypical feminine that she is famous for subverting.   Both of these states are extremely unusual for a Lady Gaga shot.  In fact, her only costume item is…Kanye.  Come on, now.

In the second place, this photo breaks from Gaganess because there is no subversion of femininity. Or whiteness or heterosexuality or body image…I looked at this photo for a long time, trying to find some suggestion of a critical gaze.  I couldn’t find any.

Hipsterism and post-hipsterism are synonymous with irony.  Cool, urban youth wear the cultural artifacts of tacky bygone eras, poor people and people of colour, and it’s funny -  because some people actually wear these artifacts for real.  Get it?  Yet the problem with this side of hipsterism is that it is based on ridiculing others; inside it is an empty subculture, with nothing of its own other than leveraging one’s own privilege to mock others.  But more than this, from the outside, when you wear a fanny pack, acid wash jeans and a handlebar mustache, you look just like the person you’re mocking.  In the attempt to satirise others, hipsters become them.

There’s no problem with this when we are talking about something as benign as a fanny pack.  Besides, a lot of hipsters wear stuff like acid wash jeans out of actual affection for the fashion.  However, when you attempt to satirise antiquated images that contain racism, you just perpetuate the racism, if your satire takes the form of a straight copy.

Well, maybe this image isn’t meant to be satire.  Fine.  When you attempt to reference antiquated images that contain racism in order to suggest that it is ok to invoke said images because we are so beyond them…you better be damn well sure that we are beyond them.  I don’t think we are.

Well, maybe this image isn’t meant to suggest a grand distance between David LaChappelle, Lady Gaga, Kanye West and the racism of the image.  Fine.  If you are referencing antiquated images, please make sure that they are not racist/sexist/homophobic/ableist…Because many antiquated images are.

[Sidenote: speaking of ableism, what's with the preponderence of walking aids (wheelchairs, crutches) in the other LaChappelle shots of Gaga?]

Perhaps the most depressing part of this, is that I found this image because Ruth forwarded it to us along with a link to  an article on Feministing that celebrates Gaga for her feminism. Ruth asked us what we thought of Gaga’s feminism in the context of the King Kong shot.  (I am not even going to deal with what this shot suggests about Kanye’s politics. I leave it to you, dear reader, to beat that dead horse.)

While in my September article I gave a digital eyeroll to Gaga’s assertion that she is “redefining beauty,” I’m willing to reconsider that stance.  I can see how Gaga often subverts viewer expectation, enticing us with views of perfect white beauty, but then ensconcing that beauty in the disturbing.  She presents her “perfect body,” but covers it in fake blood.  She dresses up in sparkly dresses and matching heels, but her shoes are creepily curved into scary bird feet.  Juxtaposing images that are comfortable or normative with images that are unsettling or bizarre, Gaga turns the tables on us.  Instead of simply refusing to allow voyeurism, she harnesses it, tricking and punishing the heteronormative in us, while rewarding our inner pervert.

And yet, like sooooo many artists who do interesting and progressive work in one area, Gaga totally fails in another.  The very visible problems with the King Kong Gaga image suggests that along with some great parts of feminism – being sex-positive, being critical of how the entertainment industry uses women’s bodies – Gaga is also practicising the worst part of feminism: racism.