Sports Illustrated Called Racist For Using 'Exotic' People In Swimsuit Issue

By: The Huffington Post Email
By: The Huffington Post Email

(The Huffington Post) - The newest edition of Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue is getting a lot of buzz for the wrong reasons this week, with critics charging that the global pictorials are racist and reinforce bad stereotypes.

This year the heralded swimsuit issue decided on a seven continents theme, with its bikini-clad models posing in countries around the world. The problem for some, however, is who the models were posed with.

Instead of sticking to exotic backdrops, some of the models are featured standing next to people allegedly representing the various countries--an editorial decision that makes the "native people" tantamount to exotic props.

Jezebel's Dodai Stewart takes specific offense to two pictures, one from China, and another from Namibia.

In a shot taken in a picture taken on a river in Guilin, Guangxi, model Anne V., who is white and blonde, sits on a raft piloted by an elderly Chinese man:

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.

Besides which, the picture represents a specific decision to portray China as "non-Western" and "backward." As Shanghaiist notes, in Sports Illustrated's view "China is poverty and 'ethnic' clothing, not the world's second largest economy where the majority of people live in cities rather than the countryside."

The second controversial shot, featuring Emily DiDonato in an African desert, also include a tribal-looking, half-naked man carrying a spear:

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.

David Leonard, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University, told Yahoo! Shine he understands why some might find the pictures offensive.

"These photos depict people of color as exotic backdrops," Leonard said. "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."

In contrast, cover model Kate Upton, photographed in Antarctica, has penguins in her background.

Shooting fashion spreads in exotic locales has caused controversy in the past, of course -- remember when J. Crew raised eyebrows with a Bali shoot featuring local kids? Magazines have also found themselves in hot water over exoticizing cultures for the sake of a fashion shoot. Vogue Italia took a serious misstep in 2011 when they decided to call hoop earrings "Slave Earrings" on their website.

Meanwhile, some people have argued the whole Sports Illustrated debacle has been blown out of proportion. Unsurprisingly, a story on Fox Nation titled "Liberals Call SI Swimsuit Issue Racist" was filled with comments in support of the magazine.

Head to SportsIllustrated.com to see for yourself. Do you find any of the photos offensive?


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