Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Is Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue Racist?

Note that this is a rewritten/reorganized high-level recap of a longer paper. Since bibliographies aren’t ripe for blogs, I have stripped the citations from a number of facts. If you want a full copy of the paper, complete with bibliography and footnotes, email me. Also, this is not accusing the editors or photographers of Sports Illustrated of being consciously racist. The Swimsuit Issue is simply a well-known lens through which to llustrate how cultural images effect our perception of the surrounding world. To be fair, many of these examples come from SI's between 1996 and 2004. Since then, the issue has been better - consciously or not - about how they photograph women of color.

Sure, Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue - which hit news stands earlier this month - stands as a cultural marker. It is perhaps the most (in)famous annual issue of any magazine and its arrival in the middle of brutal Midwest winters hints at the hopeful thaw that awaits in the coming months. Over its 40+ years of publication, the issue has managed to drum up its fair share of controversy.

That’s really no longer the case. Surrounding swimsuit issue controversy has been blunted in recent years because it’s now relatively tame in comparison to its contemporary surroundings. R-rated movies are more explicit than ever. The Internet age has brought many freedoms, including finding scantily clad women – and women who lack even a little clad – in mere seconds. (A great philosopher and noted Internet user, Trekkie Monster, is fond of asserting that, “The Internet is for porn.”) Unable to show women entirely naked (or without body paint on), SI is resigned to photograph merely near their swimsuits, rather than wearing them. Or as one model shows this year, only behind a well-placed oceanic shell. Culture at large will not be subjected to such restraints! But alas, Sports Illustrated must. However, there are a number of important other issues the publication brings up, at least on the periphery.

The most obvious component of this is the portrayal of women solely as sexual objects, encouraging individual and group practices that maintain gender inequality. I think we can all agree that the issue objectifies women. That’s not the point I’m trying to make.

Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue also helps determine and reinforce the accepted standard of beauty in America – blonde and straight hair, blued eyed, and small-nosed – descriptions that entirely exclude minorities. The larger issue with this is that most Americans have become so immersed in certain cultural standards that they are interpreted as natural, normal and bias-free. This establishes a pretty rigid hierarchy for beauty in America for women, where in-group prejudice fosters a sense of superiority to other women simply because of their racial characteristics.

This ethno-centric view of beauty captured by the Sports Illustrated cameras has a lengthy history and strong precedent. Only one model with visible African ancestry appeared between the inaugural issue and 1982. Only eleven of the ninety models – or 12% – featured on Sports Illustrated's archived section of their website in 2007 are African-American. The archive only dates back sixteen years or the percentage would certainly be substantially lower. While the number of African-American women featured slowly increased, the models typically exhibited Anglo-friendly features of light-skin and straight-hair. An African-American failed to appear on the issue's cover until 1996 when the magazine featured Tyra Banks posing next to a blonde-haired fair-skinned model. While Banks' appearance on the cover of the issue signifies progress, it still leaves room for improvement regarding the under representation of minorities in the media, even within the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The success of one should not be used to obscure the injustices of many. To the publishers of the swimsuit issue, minorities seems to mean solely African American women; a single woman of color representing the entire spectrum of beauty, ignoring Latin-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans and so forth. This is pretty clearly token-ship. For example, Banks was the only African-American model in the ‘96 issue.

Future issues also marginalized women of color, choosing instead to features models with an "ethnic" or "exotic" look who commonly possess slightly darker skin. Even so, the accepted American standard of beauty continues to dominate popular images. Consider the cover of the 2006 swimsuit issue – which declared the subjects to be the "All-Star Cover Models"– featuring eight women, with six of them reflecting America's beauty standard with white skin and blonde, straight hair. “2 OF 8 IS 25%. LOOK! DIVERSITY!” Hardly. The remaining two were brunettes, not blondes.

While this does not suggest that Sports Illustrated and its publishers are inherently racist, it does implicate the magazine in reinforcing the media's color-coded standards and norms. Once these standards of beauty find themselves accepted into the cultural conscious, they are tough to get rid of.

While the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue under represents minorities, the images of those minorities that are included still catalyze additional racial stereotypes. While scientists have since dismissed claims of inherent physical and mental differences, the prevailing image of blacks as more natural or physically gifted continue in contemporary America, perhaps influenced most greatly by success in the arena of sports.

Sports Illustrated perpetuates an image of African-Americans as more primitive and primal. Since the turn of the century, African American models are far more likely to pose with exotic animals or in unconventional settings than their Caucasian counterparts. In 2006, the only model to pose with an animal is thedarker-skinned, curly haired Noemie Lenoir, who is photographed with a leopard. The same holds true for the 2005 issue, where Oluchi Onweagba is photographed leaning on the front left leg of an elephant. In 2003, Jessica White made her swimsuit issue debut with a shoot in Kenya, where photographers captured her standing along side a river holding an elongated spear, which could be interpreted as either some type of primitive hunter or a fisher. Other photographs showed her in the midst of an African safari, even posing in a jewel-encrusted suit next to a safari hat and a book on African game, as if she was the most elusive and wildest target. A final five photo set shows her body caked in mud, as if she just emerged from the dirty waters of the small Kenyan pond behind her. Noemie Lenoir returned in this issue as well, photographed carrying a wicker basket of freshly picked fruit, implying a simple, primitive existence (Sports Illustrated 2003, p. 178). She is also shown in the 2004 issue straddling a Mississippi license plate (Sports Illustrated 2004, p. 136). The 2001 issue featured an extensive pictorial with Shakara Ledard, who posed in a series of shots inside of and around grass and clay huts, while her lighter-skinned counterparts rarely stepped off of the beach. This continued the following year when Ledard appeared playing a tambourine in the middle of a group of natives dancing, while her fellow models along for the shoot posed alone. I should point out each of these were photographs that actually published in the magazine. Countless others showing the models in more conventional (and I use that adjective loosely) poses, including a most in the on-line archive, were not selected to be published.

African-American models rarely appear in locations traditionally thought to be dominated by whites. For example, no models of color appeared in the 2001 pictorial titled "Arctic Explorers". Even on Tyra Banks' noteworthy first cover in 1996, she wore a leopard print swimsuit and needed to share the cover with a model of “standard beauty”. Sports Illustrated reinforces these collective stereotypes by positioning their models in situations that reaffirm the accepted position and interpretation of races in society at-large. The stereotype of blacks as more primal, basic, and unsophisticated finds continual traction through mediums like the swimsuit issue, which positions models within contexts that imply their accepted position and image within the social hierarchy while pandering to society's prejudices.

You think this type of representation doesn’t matter or that you have control over your subconscious reactions? Try an implicit association test for race and see what happens. You can take one here.

As for the editors and photographers of the swimsuit issue, are they racist? No, at least not overtly. But they are weaned on the same culture as we are and not immune to standardized beauty and socio-economic and historical concepts that we often bath ourselves in. Isolated examples like the swimsuit issue may not seem to have great importance, much the same way a single tile of a mosaic appears insignificant apart from its whole. However, both these stand as integral parts of a larger whole that gain greater significance when placed within their proper context. As for the case of the swimsuit issue, it helps construct and perpetuate exclusionary cultural standards.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Do Aaron and Ben count as part of the Oceanic 6?

Piecing together the ever-expanding mythology of LOST is like attempting a crossword puzzle with only the down clues, a sometimes frustrating and often futile exercise. The paradox of LOST is that no one question can (or is) ever answered without two new ones popping up. So last week's episode was refreshing in its answering of some large Kate questions while setting the table for the rest of the season.

We found out both why Kate isn't in jail when she met with Jack at the airport fence at the end of season 3. And we also - presumably - found on who "he" is that would be wondering where Kate was when she excused herself from grizzly-beard Jack. And it wasn't Sawyer or Ben or her ex-husband from Tampa, but a BEH-BEE! More specifically, Aaron. As Hurley said after Rose and Bernard were reunited, "Didn't see that coming."

And for the second straight week before the gravel-pounding sound that marks the end of every Island adventure, we were left to wonder/speculate who exactly are the last two members of the Oceanic 6. Does Ben - under an adopted name from the 815 manifest - count? And more importantly, does Aaron? Let's take a look at these cases separately.

My initial reaction is that Aaron wouldn't be considered a member of the Oceanic 6. But the more I think about it, the more likely I think he is. First, he makes it off the island despite not being born before the crash. I doubt its the Oceanic 6 plus one baby. That designation doesn't seem right. Plus a number of people, namely in red states, would say that Aaron - though unborn - was actually a survivor of the crash despite the fact he was not formally listed on the manifest.

What further convinces me is that some 815 survivors who want to get off the island can't get off. From a narrative perspective, if all the people who want to get off the island do, why should we care that Jack gets back to the Island? Why go back if there isn't anyone there that we want to see saved? And honestly, the number of people left on the Island who are 815 survivors that want to leave is pretty low. We already know that Jack, Kate, Hurley and Sayid want to leave. If Sun and Jin get off, would we really care that Locke and Sawyer (two who want to stay) or Claire, Rose and Bernard (who are now just periphery characters) got off? The writers know we have to emotionally invest in the characters to make the story compelling. We couldn't believe Jack's grief if the remaining stranded survivors were people who WANTED to be there. The way Sun and Jin have been written in the first few episodes has been meant to engender sympathy if they don't get off the Island (picking out a place to live in the US, excitement about having her baby in a hospital, etc.) So if Aaron counts as one of the Oceanic 6, that's one less core character the show has to remove from the Island. I'll apply this same logic for the last member of the Oceanic half-dozen and say that Michael is number six (again, I have no idea where Walt is) and speculate that neither Desmond nor Juliet makes it off. I suppose it's possible that Sun and Jin make it off, but I think that would be damaging to the narrative.

The case against? During Jack's testimony, he said that only eight people survived the crash and that Kate was a hero, helping people to shore and trying to save the other two. That wording would lead me to believe that six passengers survived the crash and made it to the shore, not five manifested passengers and one unborn baby. Beyond that, I don't have much. I'd put the Aaron odds at 3:2.

The other interesting thing about Aaron is that Jack is clearly hesitant to see him. We still don't know the circumstances that lead Aaron into Kate's protection, but I think it's pretty clear that he wasn't taken forcefully. Does Jack know that Claire is his half-sister now? Or that Aaron is his half-nephew? Does Jack make a decision that separates Claire and Aaron before he knows of their relation and upon its revelation, Jack is devastated by his choices more so than he previously has been? Last summer at Comic-Con, the shows producers were asked if Jack and Claire ever found out they were related. They began to answer the question and then abruptly stopped. I think it's pretty clear now why they wanted to avoid the question.

In an interview this week with Doc Jensen, the shows producers tried to make a case that Ben is one of the Oceanic Six, saying that nothing precludes him from being one of the Oceanic Six even though he wasn't on the plane. We know he is at least somewhat powerful (with a net worth of 3.2 million dollars?) and that he has a number of aliases. Who's to say that he couldn't just assume the identity of someone with no friends or family on the plane who would never know any difference? While technically this is possible, I don't think its likely at all. We know the O6 are celebrities and Ben - with all his unfinished business - doesn't probably want any time of attention or scrutiny that comes with the O6 status. My guess is that it's just a red-herring.

An interesting side note to that interview, the producers said by the end of the seventh episode (airing March 13), the O6 will be definitively known. Just something to keep in mind...

While "Eggtown" satisfied a few burning Kate questions, I feel as if it was more of a place-setter for the next few weeks. Coming off of "The Economist", LOST didn't have much room for improvement.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

It's Not Wilson in the Casket

I think it is at least somewhat likely that the last two yet-to-be-revealed members of the Oceanic 6 are Tom Hanks and Wilson (thank you, Kenny Havok), so if you are looking for really intelligent LOST analysis, this is not the place to be seeking it. I suggest making a trip over to Doc Jensen at Entertainment Weekly. I agree with most of what he argues, although he's way more excited about the possibility of 815/Other clones existing on the mainland than I am.

What I can promise is a regular dose of irresponsible speculation and rumor mongering. Let's start with my new favorite question: Who's in the casket at the end of season 3?

I always thought it was Michael in the casket but after the season premier when they introduced the Oceanic 6 idea, it wouldn't have made any sense for Michael to make it back to the mainland. How would he have explained how he got back? What would he have said happened to the plane and the other survivors? It doesn't seem like it would fit to have Michael make it back, so now I'm thinking he never returned to the mainland. Furthermore, I think it's very likely Michael is Ben's spy on the freighter. Don't ask me where "bigger, taller" Walt is. I don't even have a scientific wild ass guess for that. All I know is that he is probably bugging the hell out of the freighter crew yelling "WAAALLLTT!" as they travel across the Pacific.

I now think it's very likely that Ben is in the casket. We now know that Ben is still pulling the strings and controlling at least Sayid, having him killing Ben's foes. Ben's presumably doing this order to protect the island, likely from Matthew Abaddon (and Penny's father), who sent the Freighter Foursome to the Island to get Ben. As the exchanged at the end of 4x4 indicates, Sayid is killing in order to "protect his friends." This is important, and we can safely make the logical jump that Ben allowed six of the survivors off the Island to finish his dirty work. Once that work is done, Ben has presumably promised that he will let the balance of the survivors off. This explains why Jack - whose character would never willingly leave the Island and survivors behind knowing he couldn't return and have to lie about the course of events - is keeping his mouth shut and trying to keep Hurley quiet as well. He knows that once Ben has secured the Island's safety, Jack will be able to see the remaining 815 survivors released. That's enough to keep him quiet...at least for now.

Before the dirty work is done though, Ben dies/is killed and Jack - paralyzed by grief of leaving behind 40+ survivors - and knowing no other way to get back to the Island, absolutely loses it (see end of season 3). No one would come to Ben's funeral. Anyone he has ever known is either on the Island, dead on the Island, or unwilling to associate themselves with him. And a final nail into the Michael-idea coffin...why would the funeral home director ask if Jack was "family or friend" if Michael was in the casket? My excellent observational skills tell me that Michael's black...Jack's white. Another interesting piece overlooked in the scene; there is a notebook/journal next to the casket, a common accessory of Ben's.

Just a few loose ends regarding this. Why did Kate tell Jack, "This isn't going to change" at the end of season 3 when they met at the airport? If it was just a matter of eliminating threats to the Island, Jack's anguish could be assuaged. Who is Kate with when she says "he" will be wondering where she is?

And a few other questions: Who planted the fake 815 crash out in the Sunda Trench? If the Freighter Foursome wasn't expecting to find 815 survivors, why did the pilot (Frank Lapidus) memorize the names on the manifest? And why are the FFs afraid of Minkowski and why couldn't he come to the phone to talk with Miles in 4x2?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Reagan more like Monroe than Lohan is?

If you're a male, it's likely that reaction to the newly released Lindsay Lohan photos in New York magazine went probably something like this. "I hate it when young, struggling actresses try to channel their inner/non-existent Monroe for attention, especially wh...oh, BOOBIES!" Effective strategy, but Lindsay and her mean girls aren't too original. Monroe has become the compass for the caravan of wayward, top-heavy, marginally talented starlets of Gen X & Y. Britney Spears was on the cover of Esquire in a Monroe inspired pose over three years ago when her career had already hit its apex. Countless others have been shot in Seven Year Itch, over-the-subway-gate style in the pages of Rolling Stone, W, and others. Even Madonna - without question the most talented and deserving contemporary of Monroe - has borrowed liberally from Norma Jean.

But none of this is new. Monroe was revolutionary. And talented. This continual re-hashing of her iconic status exploited by unworthy teeny-boppers is frustrating. The essence of the photos don't rely on Lohan's talents or her public persona (I have a feeling the thongless-in-the -bathroom-of-Butter idea was shot down early at the New York offices), but in the sorry exercise of parading the Monroe ideal around in a tired manner. If Lohan had any laurels or talent to fall back on, she wouldn't need to do this. You don't see Reese Witherspoon - or even Charlize Theron - doing this. Demi Moore figured out a way to avoid the MM trap too. Those three said, "Screw it, I'm doing my own thing, my own way."

Who other than desperate, fledgling actresses would continue to call upon the past to improve the trajectory of their sputtering star? Desperate, fledgling Republicans of course. While a McCain nomination looks all-but-certain now, a few weeks ago, McCain, Romney, Huckabee, Thompson, and Giuliani all tried their best to out-Ronald Reagan each other for the nod. Who could be unify the party like Reagan? Who could stand up to terrorism and the economy like Reagan? Who could teach my grandfather to swim most like Reagan (true story)? Who would have the guts to ask "Are you better now than you were four years ago" at a debate? (Unfortunately no one who wanted to actually WIN, but that would have been classic. Maybe Hillary or Obama can use that one.) It was a tiresome and stale exercise, indicating that the Republicans were stuck in 1980 while their Democratic counterparts were (for better or worse) firmly fixed on the 21st century and honest "change". Nancy Reagan was clearly exhausted after the GOP'ers continually asked her to go to dig up her husband's corpse so that they could ask him who was the legitimate heir to his kingdom. It was embarrassing and painful.

As of now, we know that Lohan cannot offer anything new and McCain, while he promises some change, already has found much of his maverick cache gone. Let just hope he doesn't decide to do a photo spread inspired by Some Like It Hot in a last ditch effort for attention and support.