BREAKING NEWS: Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue is racially and sexually dehumanizing

Sports Illustrated'd Swimsuit Edition is offensive. Who knew?
Sports Illustrated’d Swimsuit Edition is offensive. Who knew?

Note: this post contains images which may not be desirable to view at work… at least without having to explaining yourself out of some awkward moments.

Earlier this past month, Sports Illustrated released its 2013 edition of its popular “Swimsuit Issue”. This issue is, as far as I know, this magazine’s only influential “contribution” to American pop culture. I mean, who’s even seen any other issues of Sports Illustrated these days?  Does anyone even have a Sports Illustrated subscription, anymore? It’s like people claiming they read Playboy for the articles.

According to Wikipedia, Sports Illustrated — started in the 1950’s — was once America’s most prominent and influential sports magazines. Credited with both popularizing many sports and many athletes over the decades, as well as liberal use of colour photographs in the magazine media, Sports Illustrated set out to legitimize itself as the premiere magazine for sports enthusiasts.

It’s interesting to note, therefore, that the magazine’s Swimsuit Issue, which was first published 14 years after Sports Illustrated‘s founding, was intended to fill space in an otherwise slow winter issue of the magazine when few sports were being played. The magazine’s editor requested that a then-unknown photographer conscript some aspiring models and take pictures of them in bikinis in exotic locales to fill a five-page spread and the cover. Since that time, the swimsuit issue has come to define Sports Illustrated, and has helped launch the careers of many supermodels. Yet, the irony of the swimsuit issue is that, even in its conception, the feature was never expected to have anything to do with athleticism. It was intended merely as a ploy to sell magazines, not focus on athletes or the sports they play in any way. Over the years, the swimsuit edition has evolved into what it unabashedly remains today: cheap regressive exploitation of (White) sexuality imperialistically juxtaposed against exotic locales in a seedy effort to sell more magazines.

And, the tragedy of the swimsuit edition is that it works: in 2005, it generated $35 million dollars in advertising sales alone.

Last week, several feminist and Asian American blogs including Jezebel, Shanghaiist, and Angry Asian Man wrote about Sports Illustrated‘s latest swimsuit edition, citing its use of Asian and African people and cultures as ethnic props. And indeed, the magazine’s usage of clearly ethnic signifiers to underscore the “exoticism” of each model’s environment is clearly offensive.

A model is pictured above in a bikini with a Chinese fisherman as an ethnic prop.,
A Sports Illustrated model, Anne V, is pictured above in a bikini contrasted against a Chinese fisherman serving as an ethnic prop. The image is part of the magazine’s extensive Swimsuit Issue photoshoot in China.

In these photos, locals are not treated as human; instead they are ethnic and cultural scenery, no more human than the hat they are wearing or the boat they are poling around on the river.

But, I also have to express some frustration that of all the problems inherent in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, that the blogosphere has chosen to focuse largely on the few images (that I could find) of people of colour (and frequently Asia people) being used as ethnic props, and have spoken largely on the problem therein. No mention is made of the more widespread Orientalism inherent in these images and their design, wherein the same blonde model pictured above is also dressed in a chi pao-inspired one piece and stood up in front of a curtain with Chinese writing on it to evoke a sense of the wild, sensual East. True, no Asian person is being used as an ethnic prop in these images, but that doesn’t make them any less Orientalist.

Model, Anne V, poses in a chi pao-inspired one piece and a feather for SI's 2013 swimsuit issue.
Model, Anne V, poses in a chi pao-inspired one piece and a feather for SI’s 2013 swimsuit issue.

The very nature of these photoshoots is that they are (and have been since their conception) nothing more than an annual cultural safari that feeds upon the West’s fetishism for the foreign and the exotic.

Moreoever, while one can express clear anger towards the dehumanization and Otherization of the Chinese fisherman above as an ethnic prop, I would argue that that the models, themselves, are also no more humanized than their backdrops (human or otherwise). The visual juxtaposition that Sports Illustrated hopes to achieve through their swimsuit issue is one of culture clash: a “hot girl-next-door” meets “exotic locale”, all designed to tantalize and titillate. In that pursuit, it’s no surprise that just as Chinese fishermen, coolie hats, and feathers are used to signify the exotic and the Other, the swimsuit models themselves — and specifically their race, ethnicity, and overall aesthetic — are signifiers of the familiar (and specifically the West). It’s no surprise therefore that of the 21 models featured in this year’s swimsuit edition, no more than three are non-White or Hispanic. In fact, most are blonde or brunette Caucasian women, and all (regardless of race) share the same facial features and body-type typical of Eurocentric ideals of beauty.

Thus, these female models, too, are dehumanized props: of Whiteness, of femininity, of sexuality. These women are not presented in these photographs as intellectual and nuanced individuals, but as objects to evoke the reader’s sexual desire. They exist in these pages to entice the (implicitly male and implicitly heterosexual) reader, to be looked at and longed for. In short, it’s soft-core porn, pure and simple.

I mean, really. This picture doesn't even have a swimsuit in it.
I mean, really. This picture doesn’t even have a swimsuit in it. And my problem with this photo really has almost nothing to do with the presence of the coolie hat

In short, there is no one in these photos who is humanized by the camera’s lens: neither the half-naked woman ostensibly “modeling” a swimsuit (whatever that has to do with sports) nor the Chinese fisherman standing behind her (whatever that has to do with sports). Everything about these photoshoots is about putting women and non-White people subservient to the sexuality of the White male reader of Sports Illustrated.

So yes, I’m outraged by the use of Asian people as ethnic props. But, I’m also outraged by the use of women as sexual props. And, most of all, I’m outraged that in 2013, Sports Illustrated is still managing to sell itself as a reputable and legitimate magazine when one month out of the year it’s about as racially and sexually progressive as Maxim.

Jeff Yang Contemplates the Casual Racism of Yellowface Fonts

These dumplings are totally more authentically Asian because of the use of that "Asian"-looking font! The only way they could be more authentic is if the website also had a Flash player looping some mandolin music when you click in...

Ever wonder where those ubiquitous pseudo-Asian “chopstick” fonts that are routinely used to mimic Asian languages come from? Jeff Yang tackles the history of this typeface, and the casual racism that arises from its usage, in his latest article: Is Your Font Racist?

The roots of the font seem to be an attempt to emulate the swashing brushstrokes used in Chinese calligraphy. “But of course, the problem is that they were drawing these fonts, not painting, and following pen conventions rather than brush ones,” he says. “That’s why you get these stark daggerlike shapes, that to the untrained eye, may look like ‘Asian’ script” — but which in reality simply signify a generic exotic, non-Western aesthetic.

Since they were first invented, chop suey/chopstick fonts have been used in a broad-spectrum manner to represent faux Asian culture, often paired with extremely stereotypical representations of Asian people. (“You’ll see caricatures with slanted eyes and buck teeth,” says Shaw.)

Given the unpleasant associations of the typeface, why did so many Asian eateries end up adopting it? “In many places it’s become a signaling device,” he says. “Fail to use this kind of lettering and you run the risk of being overlooked. If your sign is something really nice in Helvetica, people might go, ‘Is that really a Chinese restaurant?’ So there’s a commercial incentive for takeout places to use this typeface. And not just Chinese restaurants — I’ve seen Japanese, Korean, even Indian restaurants use this style of type, which of course makes absolutely no sense.”

This final paragraph also brings to mind the entire practice of naming one’s Asian eatery with stereotypical names, in addition to using a yellowface font. How many Asian restaurants and grocery stores include some combination of the words “Golden”, “Lucky”, “8”, “Jade”, “Palace”, and “Dragon”? Of course, unlike font choices (which is ideally arbitrary), the choice to name one’s business is often based on an English translation of a Chinese name that has been chosen to invite fortune and prosperity. But one wonders: if Chinese restaurant names are so stereotypical as to inspire multiple random Chinese restaurant name generators on the Internet, is there a specific naming tradition (and associated imagery, e.g. dragons, pandas, cherry blossomes, etc) that have, themselves, become a Asian cultural signifiers? Further, is there a commercial incentive to Chinese restaurant owners to perpetuate these stereotypical names in order to signal their eatery’s Asian authenticity and thereby attract non-Asian clientele looking for their next Far Eastern fix?

The popular consequences of such stereotypes is a collection of cultural icons and imagery that are used by both Asians and non-Asians alike to evoke the East; and, the popular usage of these signifiers by Asians helps to maintain a sense of authenticity while assuaging any concerns over the casual racism of these icons. The long-term consequences are most galling when some enterprising businesses, hoping to titillate their clientele with exoticism, puts together a potpourri of Orientalist signifiers to build their own authentic-Asia-from-scratch. Take for example, Zynga’s new Jade Falls Farmville add-on, a vomitous blending of every East Asian icon one can imagine (irrespective of ethnicity), complete with dragons, pagodas, cherry blossoms, fishing boats, and even a shiba dog. This is cultural yellowface, at its finest.

It's a cornucopia of Chinese cultural appropriation! An orgy of Orientalism!

The question remains: if members of the Asian community are  in part contributing to the perpetuation of certain stereotypical Asian cultural signifiers, which are then used and abused by non-Asian enterprises to exoticize the Far East, how do we break the cycle? Do we discourage Asian business owners from falling into the stereotype? Do we put an intra-communal moratorium on chopstick fonts and “Lucky Dragon” restaurants?

Or, we could all just lead by example.

Shakira on the MTV Video Music Awards

I’m currently watching the MTV Video Music Awards as I type up my notes for the morning, and I just watched Shakira and Wyclef Jean perform “Hips Don’t Lie”. And would you believe that Shakira and her back-up dancers appropriated Asian Indian traditional dress and dancing?

I’m so tired of watching Asian cultures get appropriated by contemporary performers as a way of “snazzing up” the same ‘ol routine, as if a little dash of “the East” can give an overplayed song an exotic twist. How many pop culture singers and dancers have we seen over the past few years dressed in hanbok or chi-pao? Are we really surprised that this generation’s youth think there’s nothing wrong with appropriating Asian cultures? Those who establish “that which is cool” send the message that not only is there nothing wrong with appropriating Asian cultures, but that it’s in fact desirable.

But then again, why am I turning to the MTV Video Music Awards for discussions of identity politics? Sarah Silverman (known to Asian American activists for her defense of the epithet “chink” in her comedy) just did a homophobic segment lambasting recently outed Lance Bass. I feel my brain cells dying. This is my generation?