To say I have a love-hate relationship with Vanity Fair would be sort of putting it baldly, and imprecisely. It’s more of a respect-recoil connection that we share.
What do I respect, and from what do I recoil?
Well, I don’t want to rush this, so what I’ll do is take each aspect one at a time, over the course of today and tomorrow, saving the best for last.
What makes me recoil from Vanity Fair is that the magazine, based on both its content and writing staff, seems to tightly embrace a dated form of racial near-sightedness. I call it anachronistic achromatism. It’s a magazine, Sly Stone be damned, about white people, for white people, and, especially, by white people. This is the norm in American media, but VF makes a deference to whiteness that seems, on this small, brown, post-9/11 planet, not just brazenly out-of-touch, but, even more, recklessly hopeful.
In this context, then, the rather insistent pallor of Annie Leibovitz’s 15th Hollywood Issue cover last month, above, becomes remarkable only in that this is VF‘s par. Previous editions of the cover quickly reveal that a Black male has appeared in front of the Hollywood issue—that is, on the left-hand side of the trifold gate—only twice, Chris Rock and Djimon Hounsou in 2007 and 1998. Only one Black female—Thandie Newton—has graced that space, in 1999. (Even Samuel L. Jackson and Don Cheadle sat in the middle of the bus in 2003.)
Maybe those three solitary Black cover placings came about through a quiet but firm peer protest, organized by white co-cover subjects, struck indignant by the injustice of their privilege. But it doesn’t look that way. It looks like none of the white subjects ever risked the benefits their pricey photo arrangements mutually endowed them, and none ever effectively called it into question, racially.
Try this: Think of each chair or place to stand in a VF cover shoot, as a house in a small neighborhood, one where the extant question is, “Are we letting Blacks move in here? If so, which ones?” The analogy works almost too well. Could this be, in part, why magazine covers are often called real estate?
Every year, Hollywood has a cause for which it requires that good, conscientious people do something…”or become part of the problem.” This theorem, this expression of social mathematics, is readily and commonly understood by many.
Applied here, on this topic, it means that those who do not dissect, then utterly mutilate, their, perhaps, tiny role in keeping racial effects strong actually sustain those effects. That is, they either do something, or become part of the race problem. Being the beneficiary of a race system, as its participants work out the details of a glossy mag photo shoot, eventually means that the images Leibovitz’s crisp lenses record are not only documents in time, but portraits of white power.
It is a form of the same, perhaps, more genteel than the one usually so-called. But it shares, with its more ill-tempered and loutish relative, basic goals. Agreement on these can be proved by the existing, soul-poisonous arrangement between white and non-white people all over this planet, including the way this array is expressed by elements deftly or daintily arranged on the cover of Vanity Fair.