What were they thinking over at Sports Illustrated when they were going to feature girls in swimsuits on the seven continents? Cover girl Kate Upton got penguins in her Antarctica shot, but models Anne V. and Emily DiDonato got different company, an old Chinese man on a raft and an African warrior in the desert respectively. The buzz coming from these photographs (both only appear online and not in the print issue) is not what SI was expecting; some people find both shots racially insensitive and offensive.
My thought is this in looking at this first photo: Why not just have the girl sitting on the raft in the river? Was it the photographer’s intention to show this man as culturally representative of China? I think not, but that’s the way it comes across. China is a huge country with cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong that rival New York and Chicago with their impressive skylines. Why not choose a river there with a sparkling cityscape in the background? A similar picture with model Jessica Gomes apparently has not rubbed people the wrong way, mostly because she is quoted as saying she is of “Chinese heritage” and found the old Chinese fellow and bird “extremely cool and friendly.”
To be fair, there are other photographs in the “China” section that show mountains, temples, waterfalls, and bamboo forests. These pictures do not include locals and why should they? Besides, I think most guys who buy this issue (I get SI as a subscription, by the way) are more interested in what’s in the foreground than in the background anyway.
In a picture taken in Seville, Spain, model Julie Henderson is depicted in a bullfighting stadium standing next to a toreador in full regalia flapping the red cape, a sword pointed to the ground between them. Here again a “local” adds basically nothing to the shot but seems less offensive, except perhaps to those who find bullfighting to be a barbaric sport. In the same section model Ariel Meredith can be seen with flamenco dancers behind her in the Plaza de Espana. Again, this seems more cultural in theme, although this connection appears infinitely more civilized than an old man wearing a conical straw hat on a raft, which is the whole point the critics are making.
Similar shots can be found that show something cultural or significant to each continent and specific country. The African section is fine with sweeping vistas of the Namibian desert or beaches as backdrops. Unfortunately, the online pictures include the one shot with Ms. DiDonato and the African man dressed like a warrior complete with spear. With so many other shots of desert sands it seems like a gratuitous picture that could be taken the wrong way. Like the shot of the Chinese man, it is unnecessary in the context of the rest of the photographs.
Overall, the concept of “all seven continents” and the tongue-in-cheek tag line “Wonders of the World” should be innocuous; however, I am sure some people find the whole swimsuit issue offensive and exploitative of women. While the editors have taken great pains to include important information with each photo (including who is responsible for hair, makeup, and the make of the swimsuit), it is obvious that what matters to the male reader is the girl on each page. SI finds some of the most beautiful girls around, and the bathing suits (some barely even there) leave basically nothing to the imagination. Let’s just say I wouldn’t leave this edition on the table where my kids can see it.
One could ask why SI even has the swimsuit issue, an edition exclusively dedicated to lovely young women in bathing suits. Of course, it is sort of tradition (dating back to the first edition in 1964), and some men I am sure will argue that this is a “sporting event” in every sense of the word, but it is quite a stretch. I do have to say that seeing pictures of those exotic locations seems rather sporting, even if the girls get in the way.
SI could certainly remove both shots from their online edition, and that would be the easiest fix to be sure, but I doubt it will ever happen. Of course, it is said that there is no bad publicity, and this swimsuit issue remains the magazine’s most popular one of the year. The critics can complain all they like, but that won’t make the swimsuit issue go away now or anytime soon. Sports Illustrated without the swimsuit issue? That just doesn’t seem sporting.