Racists heart Vanity Fair

A writer's criticism of the magazine's all-white March cover brings out the bigots

Published February 4, 2010 11:10PM (EST)

"Until I actually see discrimination being demonstrated, I'm giving the benefit of a doubt," says an early commenter on Joanna Douglas' recent Shine post pointing out the lack of diversity on Vanity Fair's March "New Hollywood" cover. "That's the healthiest thing. When I'm sure of discrimimination[sic], THEN I'll cry foul. Loudly." OK, let me see if I understand this. We don't want to get carried away with crying "discrimimination" here, because some nice white person might feel unfairly accused, and avoiding that is surely more important -- healthier -- than pointing out the ways in which white people are continually presented as the default human beings and people of color as afterthoughts, if they're thought of at all. Right?

Yeah, I don't get it either. But that's the kind of comment Douglas' article was getting before the blatant racists showed up in droves. Then things got really ugly.

First, the background. Here's a sample of what Douglas said about the cover (and a previous all-white "Hollywood's New Wave" offering), which features actresses Abbie Cornish, Kristen Stewart, Carey Mulligan, Amanda Seyfried, Rebecca Hall, Mia Wasikowska, Emma Stone, Evan Rachel Wood, and Anna Kendrick. "Many, if not all of these women have good reason to grace the Vanity Fair cover, and to be a part of what they have dubbed 'the fresh faces of 2010.'" But still, "Were there no promising young actors of color who could have been featured in either issue? ...  surely [Oscar nominee Gabourey] Sidibe, Zoe Saldana of 'Avatar' and 'Star Trek,' and Freida Pinto of 'Slumdog Millionaire' are having their moment." Douglas also called attention to the language chosen to describe these young women -- as did Dodai Stewart at Jezebel when she wrote about the same thing. Some examples: "'[B]utton nose,' 'patrician looks and celebrated pedigree,' 'Ivory-soap-girl features.'" So just in case you were confused about whether a "fresh face" smacks not only of whiteness but aristocracy, they cleared that right up for you. As Dodai says, the look being celebrated here is "Certainly not black, definitely not fat, and never both."

Which, on the one hand, duh. The beauty ideal in this culture is no big secret, and seeing a bunch of women who meet it on a magazine cover is no big surprise. (Also, let me state for the record that I adore Mulligan, Stewart and Kendrick, have no beef with Cornish, Seyfried or Wood, and might very well be quite fond of the others if I'd ever heard of them.) On the other hand, this is supposed to be the "new Hollywood," a fairly representative survey of breakout stars of 2009 -- and although Sidibe's Oscar nomination wasn't in the bag when this went to press, it was at least as widely predicted as Mulligan's or Kendrick's, so why isn't she here again? Oh, right. Frankly, I don't expect I'll live to see a 300-pound, dark-skinned black woman on the cover of Vanity Fair, so I won't even pretend that was an oversight of the sort they might ever address. But Zoe effing Saldana? Who was in two of the year's hugest movies, and is endowed with pretty much every cherished marker of conventional beauty except "Ivory-soap-girl" skin? Vanity Fair's Web site even took note of her splendor in August -- and she didn't seem like a better choice than any of these nine?

This is exactly why we shouldn't wait until we see incontrovertible evidence of deliberate discrimination before we cry foul. Because the problem in cases like this is probably not that anyone at Vanity Fair is actively, openly hostile toward people of color, or even that it all comes down to the magazine industry maxim that covers featuring white people sell better, which we're supposed to believe makes it a morally pure decision because it's unabashedly capitalist, and magazines can't be held responsible for the market's racism, whatever. (That hasn't stopped them from at least tucking people of color inside a foldout like this before.) More likely, the problem is that nobody thought even a hint of diversity on the "new Hollywood" cover was really important enough to bother with -- or, possibly, that nobody thought about it at all.

Not thinking about realistic representation is incredibly easy for white people to do -- and I absolutely include myself in that -- but you know what helps? People pointing it out. People saying, hey, in America in 2010, putting nine white people on a cover meant to represent the future of our film industry is backward and unreasonable. You don't even need to go as far as "offensive," a word that sends some people into such a "Gah, the p.c. police are after me!" tailspin, it's hardly worth saying even when it's true. In this case, we can just go with "illogical" or "nonsensical" or "utterly divorced from reality." Like, what planet are you living on, where white people are the only ones worth mentioning?

Oh, hey, speaking of which! Back to those comments on Douglas' article. At some point, they graduated from "Let's not get carried away here!" to the sort of vile, blatantly racist vomit that too many people think of as the beginning and end of racism. For instance:

The transition period from the 1960s until now has provided multitudes of drastic changes, including "diversity", "affirmative action", and so on. The transition led quickly to the Black folks being allowed to "speak". Since then, they haven't stopped bitching.

And then there's this:

So, so stupid. All of it. Whites are sick to death of all this political correctness in today's society. Blacks and whites will always be at odds because we are different! We don't look alike, we don't sound alike, our DNA is completely opposite and here's the honest to God truth about both races..the majority of us want to live with our own kind. Hell yes! There it is.

I won't subject you to any more of that, but I'll tell you two things. 1) The other comments include a lot more of the same -- plus some unapologetic racists posing as angry, hateful people of color before switching sockpuppets to refute their own points, a lot of blather about how black people get their own dedicated media outlets with zero apparent awareness that that's because white people get everything else, and liberal use of animal analogies and the word "savages." 2) There are over 18,000 of these comments. That is enough to make you wonder whether it was an organized attack by some Aryan pride group that thought it was worth relentlessly harassing someone for saying, "Hey, what the hell, Vanity Fair? It's 2010, and your vision of 'a new Hollywood' is all white?"

That right there should be motivation enough for white people who aren't that kind of racist to quit saying "Let's not jump to conclusions" when they observe a total lack of diversity, or whining about the p.c. police beating down their doors. Racists are cheering this cover ("You can have your 'all black' colleges, your all black magazines ... We want to celebrate our own race too") and going after a writer who merely suggested that in this day and age, it really ought to have at least one -- just one -- person of color on it. Do you really need a better reason to join Team Saldana?

Maybe you don't think one magazine cover has much to do with changing a culture where there are so few roles for actors of color that in a lot of years, it's a struggle to think of even one non-white breakout star, or where the market is so resistant to covers with dark faces that white girls are used to sell brown girls' stories. Maybe you really don't think it's hurtful or thoughtless or unrealistic, or that the accretion of a thousand little things like this sends a clear message about who is wanted and worthy in this society. If that's the case, I think you're wrong, but we don't even need to agree on that to agree on this: Featuring people of color alongside their white peers on a cover like this would be worth it just to piss those hateful sickos off.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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