Waves of criticism and commentary rippled out from Sport Illustrated’s recent Swimsuit Issue, with their “it’s a small world, it’s a small bikini” theme. A friend and colleague of ours, Charles Modiano, creator of POPSpot (Power, Oppression & Privilege in Sport) provides the phenomenal service of dissecting racist and sexist dynamics and representations in the sports world. In his piece Beyond Bikinis: Sports Illustrated Nine Rules to Land a Cover, Modiano breaks down how sexism and racism function in SI’s “yearly one-and-done women’s cover quota”.
We are re-posting the Jezebel blog by Dodai Stewart: “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Goes to 7 Continents, Finds Exotic People to Use As Props“, as it takes a tour through the shoot and names the popular fashion trope of using people of color as props, backgrounds or extras and provides a critical reading of these images that focus on white female bodies at the center. How is the colonial imagination still alive? When do female bodies get to occupy so much space not in sexy swimsuits? A look at how we look, at and to others.
Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Goes to 7 Continents, Finds Exotic People to Use as Props
For the 2013 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, the magazine photographed models on all 7 continents. A world tour of ill-fitting “swim” wear! But sometimes a half-naked lady standing in front of a gorgeous natural backdrop just isn’t enough. So the photographers used natives as props.
Using people of color as background or extras is a popular fashion trope, whether it’s Nylon magazine, the Free People catalog, British Vogue or J. Crew. But although it’s prevalent, it’s very distasteful.
A photo shoot in Spain included matadors. Cliché but not that problematic: Matadors are performers themselves, in a way. (Spain, and by extension, the rest of Europe, was also represented by these carriage drivers.)
However. One photograph shot in Guangxi, China, included a group of young girls. The model, Jessica Gomes, is Australian, but her father is from Portugal and her mother is from Singapore. Since she’s part Asian, it could be argued that this shot is not about what Gwen Sharp at Sociological Images calls the centrality of whiteness. Yet the model, in Western clothes (however skimpy that suit may be), is placed in the center as a contrast to the children in non-Western clothes. It renders them “exotic,” a spectacle. In addition, the model is not interacting with the kids. Classic case of othering. Also: People are not props.
In another shot from Guilin, Guangxi, model Anne V. reclines as a local man uses a pole to propel a raft. A white person relaxing, a person of color working. Tale as old as time. A non-white person in the service of a white person. This 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. China has tons of skyscrapers and modern cities that make New York look rickety, but this image recreates an age-old narrative in which anything non-Western is quaint, backward and impoverished. This is the image the mag is using to represent Asia. (Maybe the editors didn’t want to shoot swimsuits in a city, but they did take shots on dry land and they didn’t have to use a dude with dental issues on a river raft.) Also: People are not props.
But even more upsetting are the shots taken in Namibia, in which a black man is a prop. A 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. Also: People are not props.
Africa has long been portrayed as a place of uncivilized, primitive people, despite the fact that it is a very diverse continent with an epic diaspora and considered the birthplace of civilization. From Morocco to Côte d’Ivoire to Ethiopia to Egypt and Nigeria, no one African country is like another. But these shots tap into the West’s past obsession/fetishization with so-called savages, jungle comics and the like. Again: In a visit to seven continents, this image is what Sports Illustrated is using to represent the continent of Africa. A model holding a fucking spear.
Just FYI, there were no people-props used in the Australia photoshoot. Australians probably aren’t exotic enough? The photo shoots done in the Bahamas and Chile had no people-props either. In Antartica, Kate Upton was joined by penguins. Black man, Chinese man, penguins.