Sports Illustrated does Namibia

Jezebel has already gone overboard commenting on and identifying the obvious misogyny and racial stereotyping in Sports Illustrated’s Seven Continents spread. They went through each photo, tagging them with gems such as:

  • “White person relaxing, a person of color working. Tale as old as time. A non-white person in the service of a white person.”
  • “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.”
  • “Also people are not props.”

Al Jazeera’s done the same. So we won’t waste time re-venting along the same lines. But we should pay special attention to the model representing Africa as a continent. Jezebel’s post points out, about the photoshoot that took place in Namibia:

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.

Whereas many of the other photographs contrast the model’s near-nakedness with the clothed (and othered) bodies of the ‘native’ of the continent, here, both figures — model and Native-as-Prop — are similarly clothed. Here, nakedness of the model is depicted as a “choice” granted modernity, which dictates to us that being part of this great liberal experiment permits women to have access to the same freedoms as men.

Unfortunately, of course, the expression of that supposed freedom, for women, is often limited to exposing the body — as long as it is a much-controlled, reshaped body. Part of how this myth — linking freedom to body-display — is perpetuated is by juxtaposing the modern woman’s ‘nakedness by choice’ with (a) an ‘over-clothed’ person from a society that is perceived to be behind the times, and with less access to the freedoms granted to women in the west, or (b) by posing the naked/near-naked woman next to the Edenic Primitive. In Sports Illustrated’s choice for Africa, the latter option worked best: it perpetuates the Africa as location of prelapsarian fantasy story. Here, Africa stands in for the world before the Fall, unspoilt and pristine. After all, the fantasy may not work as well as photo depicted Africa-as-savage (imagine naked model next to child-soldier/brutal African dictator…ah, on second thought, has that already been done?).

Posing this model next to the quintessential image of human ancestry — the primitive ancestor, porting nothing but loincloth and spear, his spare, lean body devoid of the ugly traces of excessive fat (the scourge of modernity) — means we can also project our fantasy of return to that fat-free, supposedly simpler time, when we were not tainted by the miseries of our industrialised state, one that we nonetheless would want to give up. Because the model’s facial features and skin are supple and youthful — while her ‘primitive’ companion’s face is marked by the stamp of sun, dry air and general harsh environment — she appears markedly privileged, different. The resulting effect of the juxtaposition is a deep  contrast between where we came from, and how far we’ve come. This game is still about us saying we, with our access to Sports Illustrated, are better off, and better evolved.

The New York Times Global View blog gave its gratuitous attention to the outrage, too, ending its post by listing “the sighs of despair at the politically correct nature of the debate”:

  • from someone named Pete, one of thousands on Yahoo’s Shine site: “They are not ‘minorities’ when they are in their own country. What a bunch of P.C. dopes we have here in the U.S.”
  • John S: “Wow, some people need to lighten up. I see pictures of pretty girls in bathing suits. I give it about 1 second and no deeper thought. I spend no time analyzing the background scenery, people or not.”
  • Jamba went for a funny one, noting: “There are other people in the photos? I guess my eyes were fixated elsewhere.”

Pete: thank you. But we might point out to John S that his thoughts, despite him, may be deeper than him. Hate to bring up Freud, but didn’t the man point out the relevance of the subconscious, and how it reads certain messages while one’s eyes are riveted elsewhere, and then affect our thoughts in ways we may never suspect? The only way to salvage the repetitive Native-as-Prop trope would be to write a parody, emphasising the imagined aspirations of the Other, as a model, individual, and a representative? What if the spear-porting “San” man was vain, club-going Derek Zoolander? Or better yet, someone might attempt a “prequel” to Sports Illustrated’s latest idiotic spread, à la Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea: rather than service the subjectivity and personal growth of Mr. Rochester/Emily DiDonato/’readers’ of Sports Illustrated, San Zoolander takes on the duty of moving to the foreground of the image, re-educating the reader about his own complex aspirations, despite his somewhat limited options.


10 thoughts on “Sports Illustrated does Namibia

  1. Are we surprised? Please revisit these two pieces: (1) “How to Write about Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina(Granta, National Geographic, etc.) and (2) Vanity Farce(Transition: The Official Magazine of the WEB Du Bois School of African-American and African Studies) by yours truly bongani madondo. And let’s discuss.

  2. Sports Illustrated should take its models where they belong: sunny beaches and dumm posh hotels… Leave the Bushmen in peace! By the way: the guy is fit, dignified in his ethnic natural attire. On the contrary the model looks fat, clumsy in her mouvement and out of place, like just been undressed / dressed for the shot… Further: her left foot gives the impression that she is wearing highheels over a red carpet… But this is no-man’s land: she wouldn’t survive in that harsh environment more than 1 hour without her companion… Lucky enough the desert has its own rules and doesn’t admit much stupidity…!

  3. While I agree that the attitude of “pristine Africa” is what’s being perpetuated. I fail to see this “Because the model’s facial features and skin are supple and youthful — while her ‘primitive’ companion’s face is marked by the stamp of sun, dry air and general harsh environment — she appears markedly privileged, different. The resulting effect of the juxtaposition is a deep contrast between where we came from, and how far we’ve come. This game is still about us saying we, with our access to Sports Illustrated, are better off, and better evolved.”

    I see a privileged model making a ton of money staying in some high end hotel in Cape Town or Windhoek for the shoot. What I don’t see a supple versus a dry skin if anything the model is so tan that her skin resembles the man. Which brings me to the point I would like to make PERCEPTION. If I live like the Khoisan, the least of my worries is some model (that I most likely culturally don’t consider beautiful but the rest of the world does) taking a photograph with me. I am on my way, on my business with my happiness or my struggles. If given the chance to stay in that fancy hotel or live the life of the foreigner I would most likely turn it down because its not what I seek, I’m not interested in it). Its other people thousands of miles away that are preoccupied with this issue but the Khoisan and the audience of Sports of Illustrated (assuming that Khoisan folk don’t read it) perceive the world in different ways. So what? The “how far we have come?” question- Its ones interpretation of the world i.e. if you view the world as a linear evolutionary progression or what E.B. Taylor cultural evolutionism, which I hope at the very least the writer doesn’t subscribe to.

  4. “even though Namibia is a country with a capital city where there are shopping malls and people, you know, who wear Western clothes.”

    and this is more “authentic” a depiction of namibia than the one pictured? this capital with its shopping malls and shoppers in western clothes represent the majority of leisure and leisured in the country?

    saying that this depiction of namibia is wrong might suggest you have an alternative to offer, one less entangled in the cultural historical other b.s you see here. so…. what is the alternative? what will ably satisfy?

  5. Also let us not forget that this is in many ways a repeat of the 1998 edition which featured the “Ancient” Maasai “Tribe,” with lovely gems like: “When a modern media caravan encountered an ancient tribe, no translators were needed – ‘supermodel,’ it turns out, is something that everyone understands.”

  6. So I hate to nitpick, and I know this is not really central to the thrust of the reactions so far, which speak of power and perception, but:
    ‘Peter’ says: “They are not ‘minorities’ when they are in their own country.”

    While I’m not at all fond of the word, what then are minorities, if not a category compared to another, larger in number and within the same unit? The truth is that people can be minorities in their own country, and can be considered to be minorities in their country as well. The question of whether this is an acceptable category or not should be founded on a correct understanding of what it means.

    • Re. “minority” – yes, the man in the shot is indeed a minority – based on his traditional garb he is of the Bushmen (San) people. San (Bushmen) constitute about 3% of Namibians.

      “The San lived in complete harmony with nature. With no political or inherited power hierarchy, every member of society shared resources and responsibilities equally. Sharing was and still is in some areas the most basic principle of life. Ownership and wealth were unnecessary and harmful concepts. The fact that nothing was ever wasted, ensured San survival as nomads and hunters in an extremely harsh environment of Southern African deserts such as Namib and Kalahari. Everything was used from a hunted animal: from skin to bones, from meat to even stomach for making waterproof bags.”

      A beautiful, noble, and resourceful people, no doubt.

  7. My questions include: How much did the African in the video get paid? Is he ever going to want to f*** a fellow African now that he has seen and touched the forbidden fruit of the beautiful skinny straight-haired white woman? Does the African speak English … model claims he is one of the most blah blah blah person she has ever met … how did they communicate? How many other Africans were hired on set? What this bushman the first to be casted for this role? Why does that model look malnourished? Did the African get some equipment in consideration? Is he going to become the next Malick Sidibe after this? Would the black Columbia Uni professor ever go to visit this African or he only knows corrupt rich Africans in the cities? Has the Columbian professor ever been to anywhere in Africa? Do you all think Africans are dignified only when in suit and swimsuits like westerners? Are Afropolitans pissed off just because they are ashamed of normal everyday africans who do not dress like white people in the 60s? Who is the marketing genius that came up with this controversial sale blizzard idea – promote him/her? Why do we allow this commodification of women’s bodies but yet scream murder when more than half of our sisters and mothers are raped globally? How much did the Namibian government make from this? What do the white German Namibians who actually run the country think about this? Is SADC more messed up than the rest of the continent? Must the gods really be crazy (takes some wit to get this one, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t)?

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