Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Vanity Fair - colour blind as ever

Lots of good things in Vanity Fair's 25th anniversary issue though the title turns 95 this year - you'll have to read editor Graydon Carter's letter for the explanation. Not so excellent is the magazine's anniversary picture sampling of its best covers of the past quarter-century: "A sampling [which] shows how many ways this choice bit of media real estate [the cover] reflects the world around it," as the publication puts it rather vulgarly and pompously.

Of the 239 (or so) celebrity and non-celebrity faces that appear in solo or group cover shots, just 14 are black. Even if my count is a little out by one or two, this suggests that the magazine's mind is not as broad as it makes out.


Anonymous said...

I'll be the Devil's advocate. In all fairness, blacks are 10% of the (Western? American?)population and the percentage drops even further when it comes to successful blacks because of the cultural problems they are still to overcome. Do the math and it will come to about that average (Less than 23?). Now if you tell me VF has neglected trying harder to get in their cover blacks with extraordinary achivements (Oprah, richest woman in the US, Tiger Woods in a complete league of his own, or whatever)... that would be another story.

Madame Arcati said...

Of course you can be devil's advocate - bet you're white though. Am I right or am I right?

Let's deal with the stats first. As of 2006 the estimated population of US black Americans was about 41 million or about 13.5% of the overall population of approx 300m. So your assumption is not wildly wrong, but wrong.

"Black" however is a misleading term since ordinarily one thinks this term applies just to African Americans. There is the Asian population which is not termed black or white and it makes up 4.4%. There are many other racial groups but I think you get my drift. The white/black divide is not as clear cut as the stats would have us believe. Many so-called Hispanic and Latino groups are regarded as "white": you may know this is a highly contentious area but once again I am drawing attention to all the grey in this matter.

The non-Hispanic, single-race white population of 199.1 million represented 66 percent of the total population, according to a May 1 2008 US Census Bureau report.

Now let's look at VF and its covers. The figures I give in my piece would suggest a black representation of about 6% - my maths are not great so someone correct me.

What I didn't make clear is that many of the blacks appeared in group shots such as the mag's music issues. Only THREE of the covers selected actually have solo black personalities.

You say that blacks are under-represented because there are fewer successful ones due to cultural barriers. However I really don't think that view holds on these stats - and in any case I can think of a great many successful blacks who have NOT been selected for cover shots who are more or as successful as the many white celebs that have appeared.

The fact is VF is generally staffed with whites talking to a white audience. There is a limited black awareness culturally and socially. Ironically, this mag is based in a city - New York - with the highest black population in the US, of 3.5m. You wouldn't guess it from VF's appearance.

Anonymous said...

I take it you think that people like Michael Roberts are nothing but Aunt Jemimas?

If you are going to get all mathematical on me, then you can’t count all 239 issues in the mix; you better tell me how many issue covers since 2006 have had “blacks” on them (I can’t bare to use that condescending African- (fill in at your leisure) dong; it sounds like they are sending blacks back from where they came), because you know that the emergence of blacks (is it not a beautiful color?) as celebrities has been slow and painful and it is only in recent years their achievements have become too great for the rest of the population to ignore.

So what is the problem in being a magazine that has a target audience and still occasionally (ok, very occasionally) acknowledges the achievements of popular personalities that do not fit the description? How many “black” publications are you are aware of do bother to put in their cover whites that work towards race equality, at least? And I do realise those numbers are really sad (about whites working towards equality, I mean).

You know, running a magazine is a business (as shallow and yes, pompous as VF – I agree about that and I think they rejoice in that fact, actually) and if you are choosing a group of people to talk to and want to get their attention (and money), you have to speak about what that audience is interested in or you loose them (and their money). You do know that VF readers are just as bad about their attitudes and have the same distorted view of themselves as the magazine, right?

By the way, my parentage is European (mostly – there is some moor), but I was born in the WI and raised in South America. I have never been considered white in person nor paper and I live on an everyday basis society’s love for race and class compartmentalization (me not being WASP and all – what about you MA?) so…your assumption is not wildly wrong, but wrong.

This is so fun MA darling, too bad we are having this conversation all by ourselves, because race discrimination is a topic that bores (or is it scares) everyone to death; but since it is just us, does this mean that when we are done we get to have makeup sex? I’ve been told repeatedly I move my hips deliciously (out of bed too), so it may not be an issue if there is not a “black” dong involved… unless you want/can include Michael...

Anonymous said...

sorry for being so longwinded... does this mean I'm full of hot air? or am I full of something else? Loxx

Madame Arcati said...

Thank you for your lovely letter - you write so well and that alone is a value.

Of course my focus was on the selection of covers for the 25th anniversary - I have no idea whether this selection is representative of its colour shades. Nor do I suggest VF is racist in any way: just nglectful and, er, overly overly white aware like its WASP staff. The stats are a useful way of underlining a point: I don't mean to say we must get rigorously scientific and tiresome.

VF has influence, it's elitest, it's liberal, it's atheistic, it's whatever Hitchens says it is. So let it be as broad minded as the mag ethos. I think its anno issue was not as strictly edited as it might have been.

MA x