Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Sparks Controversy. Offensive or Overreaction?

Elise Solé, Shine Staff
Healthy LivingFebruary 13, 2013

It's been a big week for Sports Illustrated. First, a blogger leaked the swimsuit issue's much-anticipated cover, upstaging David Letterman's big reveal on Monday. Now website Jezebel is calling out the men's magazine for using minorities as "props" in photos featuring models in bikinis posing in seven different continents.

Jezebel argues that the magazine is perpetuating racial stereotypes by drawing power and class lines between the Westernized models and the "primitive locals" and points to a long history of media using people of various ethnicities as "extras", citing Nylon magazine, the Free People catalog, British Vogue, and J-Crew.

Depending on where you look, the reaction has been mixed, even among the men who are supposed to be titillated. On Jezebel's website, one male commenter wrote, "Pics of woman with local natives is NOT hot, it's exploitative, so the mission is fail right there. Oh and exploitative. I do not know what they were thinking….fail all around." While another guy wrote, "Some of the examples are ›‹reaching a bit…the one with the boat….why pick that for China? Especially when everything I read about China is how they're an industrial powerhouse." And one helpful reader on Sports Illustrated's Facebook page pointed out, "Technically speaking they were not shot in all seven continents. While Easter Island may belong to Chile, it's a Polynesian island, and not part of the South American continent." Oy.

Shine reached out to Sports Illustrated and Scott Novak, SVP, Communications & Brand responded with "No comment" but added that the man who appears in the Namibia photos "may have done other editorial work before."

"These photos depict people of color as exotic backdrops," David Leonard, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University, tells Yahoo! Shine. "As with beautiful oceans, picturesque trees, people of color are imagined as exotic, as novel, as foreign, as uncivilized and as a point of comparison for the civilized white beauties scantily clad in bathing suits. Beyond functioning as props, as scenery to authenticate their third world adventures, people of color are imagined as servants, as the loyal helpers, as existing for white western pleasure, amusement, and enjoyment."

"As Jezebel writes, where are the images and pictures of bustling cities, skyscrapers — the pictures reify dominant narrative about the uncivilized and primitive third world. They define people of different races as 'other' and the sexual white female body as desirable, as they're to be watched, consumed, and enjoyed by men in lounge chairs," he adds.

Evelyn Hu-DeHart, Professor of History and Ethnic Studies, Director, Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America (CSREA) at Brown University tells Yahoo! Shine: "It's understandable why some would find these photos disturbing. The juxtaposition of scantily-clad white, modern, cosmopolitan and western woman against natives, animals, exotic scenery, primitives (African native), traditionals (Chinese fisherman; ethnic minority girls in China); The exception is the photo of the Spanish bullfighters, in which case the model is suggestive of the bull.  The white models are tourists and colonials."

Fashion magazines and advertising are guilty of depicting racial stereotypes, too. In August 2011, Vogue Italia's website featured an accessory they called "Slave Earrings" with the tagline, "A classic always in evolution." After the inevitable backlash, they changed the title to "Ethnic Earrings" and posted a statement that it wasn't their intention to insult anyone. That same year, the skin lotion company Nivea issued an apology on their Facebook page for their "Look Like You Give a Damn Campaign" in which a clean-cut black man held the head of a caveman lookalike with dark skin and an Afro.

To be fair, not everyone's outraged. Most likely, the people buying the magazine aren't exactly reading too much into the photos. The Swimsuit Issue's Facebook page has 200,000 likes. As one commenter puts it: "I'll be buying my issue this weekend. I sure hope they don't sell out...." 

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