Suggestions For The Future: Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition

by Fashion and Entertainment Editor Joseph Lamour

Emily DiDonato in Namibia. Image via SI.com.

I’m sure by now you’ve heard or you’ve read articles about the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition fail that swept like wildfire through the tubes and pipes of the internet. We have enough “WTF, mate?” articles about this most recent cultural appropriation fail, and unless I’m breaking a story–which I’m clearly not since this happened last week–I like to add something new to the conversation. I took a look at the (offending) pictures from this shoot and, frankly, regardless of the use of race props, most of the (again, offending) pictures are just terrible.

I know the point of the SI swimsuit shoot is to take a picture of a hot woman in a bikini and all the other elements are just stuff distracting the reader from boobs (what, it’s true,) but that doesn’t mean the pictures have to be awful, do they? Does anyone care about the art in pictures of scantily clad twenty-somethings? And I’m not only feeling this because I’m a big smoothie, because (link pretty NSFW) Exterface is a pretty awesome photo studio that deals in beautiful people (of both genders) wearing not much at all, and the pictures are fantastic as well as sexy.

So, for my exploration of the intense racefail that permeates the pages of this year’s Swimsuit edition, I want to offer my take on what would be a culturally respectful, creative, and sexy “Around the World” shoot, if at all possible. To make sure (as I possibly can) I wasn’t offering suggestions that were in themselves problematic, I referred to Jezebel’s recent article “A Much Needed Primer On Cultural Appropriation.” Here are a few suggestions (I limit these suggestions to three of the images, because you don’t have all day, do you?):

1. Jessica Gomes, China:

Jessica Gomes, China. Image via SI.com

Jessica Gomes in China. Image via SI.com.

The underlying problem with a shoot like this is there is almost no way for a bikini-clad model in a foreign place to not somehow sexualize that place, and by extension, its people. If I was the editor I would have nixed this idea at the pitch meeting because, in order to get to the end of the idea safely, you have to cross a minefield of bad taste. And…like…is it just me or do pictures of barely dressed women placed among children just a strange, strange choice for any sexy photo shoot?

And, I have to admit something as well before I go on: in doing this, I had to snooze button all the feminist alarms that are sounding in my head. They ring every time I go back to SI.com. I know these pictures aren’t for me, so I’m trying, y’all. I honestly took a Pretty Little Liars break (what?) because I was afraid the entire internet would yell at this article and by extension, me. But then, while watching Spencer and Aria (what?) Suggestion Number 1 popped into my head: don’t include the native peoples in the shoot–at least as a prop, for goodness sake. You’ve already crossed the threshold into thinking about respect at least a little.

Jessica Gomes in China. Image via SI.com.

Jessica Gomes in China. Image via SI.com.

Pictures like the image above of Jessica Gomes strike no racefail to me. Mostly because she looks like a hot lady on vacation. This was probably the intention of this whole shoot, yes? I feel like their intention succeeds without a children in traditional dress, or man in a conical hat (and I’ll get to that picture), as “local contrast.” To me, this particular image is just a beauty in a beautiful place.

2. Emily DiDonato, Namibia:

Emily DiDonato in Namibia. Image via SI.com.

Emily DiDonato in Namibia. Image via SI.com.

Now this…this is a whole other kettle of fish. Part of the problem people are having with this shoot lies in the fact that the model sticks out as an anomaly in every offending image in question. This image here does not say, “The world is wonderful and so are its people…now take a look at Ms. DiDonato over here–yow!” like the photo editors intended. It says, “Wouldn’t Namibia be so much better if instead of those National Geographic-ish Namibian ladies there was a hot white girl in her place? Wouldn’t that be awesome?” Also problematic is the way she’s wearing the jewelry kiiiind of like she just came out of Urban Outfitters. Now, a quote from Ms. Baker’s article:

What is Cultural Appropriation?

Scafidi, the author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, said even she found it hard to give a succinct and clear definition. Here’s what she’d go with: “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.”

To elaborate: “This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”

This doesn’t mean asking the fellow in the picture with her if she looks good, having him nod, and then saying, “Welp! All Africans must be cool with this.” (And I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say a lot of the people who disagree that this shoot is offensive think it’s okay just because these people are in the picture with them. It’s not.) When you wear the jewelry as an honorific to that culture, that’s good. When you dress up your model to look like “the native”, that’s bad. Also: the spear. The spear, the spear, the spear. (Seriously guys, the spear.)

”Dovima with the Elephants” by Richard Avedon, Cirque d'hiver, Paris, August 1955.

”Dovima with the Elephants” by Richard Avedon, Cirque d’hiver, Paris, August 1955.

With all that in mind, Suggestion Number 2 has to do a lot with mood. This iconic image of model Dovima by Richard Avedon explores the beauty of the different things in the world without fetishizing it. (I know she’s in Paris in this image, but Dovima was American, and these elephants aren’t from France.) Again, beautiful woman, beautiful place, beautiful harmony. Oh, and Namibian SI team? Read Suggestion Number 1 again. Read it twice.

3. Anne V, China

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Anne V in China. Image via SI.com.

The last problem I want to highlight in the offending pictures is multifaceted. It also has to do with people as props. In a lot of these images featuring a male non-model, that man is being used to reinforce that: a) they are, in fact, in the place in question; and b) the man is a beast to contrast with the beauty. This is not true for the matador picture, because those two are humina-humina, so they’re at least on the same model-esque level as Irina Shayk. They’re still being used as props, but with considerably less indication of servitude. Also the mood in those images also implies that the woman is the bull, and that, again, is a whole other ballgame I’m reluctantly snooze-buttoning for the sake of this article’s brevity.

Back to Anne V: the other facet has to do with the outdated stereotypes of each place. It’s not 1920 anymore, and we all have the internet. All signs point to China as becoming more and more industrialized, and yet every time China is in a western photo shoot, they find a man in a conical hat or put the model on a raft or in a pagoda. Not only are these problematic, it’s really just lazy, uncreative thinking. An illustration tenet I learned in art school is that in order to create a successful illustration, the reader has to get what the message is in 7 seconds or less. In SI: Swimsuit Edition shoots the message is always, “Look at this pretty lady here.” None of the people buying this issue are buying it for your outdated impressions of other countries. They’re there for Anne V in a bikini.

From Top Right: 1. Jumeirah Himalayas Hotel in Shanghai, China; 2. Beijing Opera House in Beijing, China; 3. Jin Mao Building in Shanghai, China; 4. Sanya Resort in Sanya, China.

From Top Right: 1. Jumeirah Himalayas Hotel in Shanghai, China; 2. Beijing Opera House in Beijing, China; 3. Jin Mao Building in Shanghai, China; 4. Sanya Resort in Sanya, China.

Suggestion 3 is simple: just cut it out. We all didn’t go into the creative arts to be just like everyone else, did we? As you can see above, China has some modern, beautiful, and intrinsically Chinese places you can use…which is not to say, let’s eliminate the natural elements of the country entirely. That’s not the problem, exactly. Use them in creative ways.

Image via Anne of Carversville.

Image via Anne of Carversville & Vogue China.

This photo shoot of model Du Juan for Vogue China’s September Issue is a good example of an Asian place (with an Asian model, no less) that uses the place in question to enhance the image, and not fetishize the place or the race.

Encouraging Discourse

Going into a pitch meeting while thinking about all of these things isn’t that hard. If you are looking for good publicity, wouldn’t you want to think about this before rather than after? For the past year, every news outlet has been speaking about it, often in great detail. And I’m not immune, either. Some of my suggestions may also have racefail. I’m not the be-all-end-all authority on this. I just know what seems wrong to me and what seems…not so wrong. If you disagree with anything I have to say, I totally encourage you to call me out on it in the comments. Seriously. I’m breezy.

It takes a pretty stubborn mind respond to what others have to say with, “Everyone is calling me racist, ugh! Get over it!” instead of just listening to what is being said to you. These suggestions are for the future–creative teams, photographers, magazine editors. That’s all.

  • Foxessa

    Ooooo — visual captivity narrative, a U.S. tradition since Captain John Smith. John Ford even examined (visually!) many of the elements that go into the trope in The Searchers!

    Surely that’s what the Sports Illustrated cover is about. Isn’t it? Blink Blink Blink