In a world awash with online porn, it is fascinating to see that a mere four pictures in the latest (2013) Swimsuit edition of Sport’s Illustrated, featuring “ethnic”-looking Chinese as their backdrop, can still cause a ruckus making it all the way to the New York Times’ online blogs.

Wanting to write about this issue, starting to have a look over what was photographed and what was written, one immediately stumbles over some oddities: There are four ‘offensive’ China pictures, but only the one or the other is typically the focus, not all of them; there are more models and more locations, and various photographers were involved, but they hardly ever feature in the discussion. Ostensibly, the discussions are concerned about intercultural relations, but they neither ask the “other” nor look critically at their own perspectives.

And so, even as a close reading could well contribute to deepening cultural intelligence, all that happens is that accusations of racism are piled onto accusations of sexism, countered by complaints about unnecessary political correctness.

Before going further, though, take a look:

Now, the first thing to consider (but usually forgotten) is a little bit of contextualization: These four photos are seemingly the offensive ones, the values they transport should be questioned  – but they are four photos (three, if one goes by similarity of subject and scene, since two are nearly the same) of two models, which feature in a total of 60 photos that can be seen online.
Adding the third model also shot in Guilin, China, there are 90 photos from China. Four show Chinese as props, if one wants to go with the way this has now been phrased rather often (and rather correctly, I fear); more than a third of them look like they were shot in front of a greenscreen and the majority of them could have been done just about anywhere there are rocks, water and/or bamboo.

Another 14 models are also featured in various other locations – the Antarctic, Australia, Spain, Chile, and Namibia – and similarly shown (as far as my incomplete analysis has gone) in scenes in which the location has basically zero importance. In “Seville, Spain,” matadors are also shown in a picture, but even Jezebel finds little fault with that because it’s “[c]liché but not that problematic: Matadors are performers themselves, in a way.
It is, to get away from such rather quantitative views to something with more of a cultural background, rather like the wedding pictures offered by Chinese photo studios: using a background that looks rather international and therefore (supposedly) classy to lend a photo shot more interest that would otherwise, in and of itself, not be all that exciting.

(It is particularly funny for me that rice terraces feature in the backdrop of several of these China photos, given that I visited other rice terraces in Guangxi on a very foggy, cold, Spring day and came past a poster of those rice terraces in full sunlight and at the greenest – which was there for photo shots, in case a visitor wanted a photo that was truer than life…)

Let’s not let the editors off that easily, but look at the offending images and the reaction to them.

The Exotic Other as a Prop

Shanghaiist points out that “For Sports Illustrated, China is poverty and ‘ethnic’ clothing, not the world’s second largest economy where the majority of people live in cities rather than the countryside” and quotes Dodai Stewart’s writing at Jezebel, where she states that “this image recreates an age-old narrative in which anything non-Western is quaint, backward and impoverished.

No real disagreement there, but it need be noted that the backgrounds typically matter very little.

The photo shoots were all done in rather natural surroundings (with the exception of some of the China and several of the Seville, Spain, photos, and even those are just for rather stereotypically exotic flair). After all, these were not documentary shots but swimsuit models.
Therefore, it is rather disingenuous to suggest, if implicitly, that images of a strong, urban China would be more appropriate. Admittedly, this may be seen as only reinforcing the “othering” and de-humanization inherent in those much-maligned images of “ethnic” Chinese.

(Notice that I’m only focusing on China, I fully concur with the criticism Jezebel levels at Sports Illustrated regarding Africa – and the entire issue of people as props. Then again, what exactly is such a photo shoot of skimpily clad – if that – women…)

Colonialism: Of Serfs and Swimsuit Models

Dodai Stewart also analyzes the raft picture (of Anne V; she seems aware of only the one – but that hardly matters) as showing this: “A white person relaxing, a person of color working. Tale as old as time. A non-white person in the service of a white person. This photo cements stereotypes, perpetuates an imbalance in the power dynamic, is reminiscent of centuries of colonialism (and indentured servitude) and serves as a good example of both creating a centrality of whiteness and using “exotic” people as fashion props.”

The use as props: yes, absolutely.

However, the same applies to the matadors who, as mentioned before, were not seen as so problematic (because “they are performers“) and the horse carriage drivers in this image which were only pointed out parenthetically – because they aren’t as exotic and poor as the fisherman on the raft, or also because their being white men in the service of a white woman would break the neat story of colonialist attitudes?

Furthermore, the very view of who is working and who is relaxing (and who is performing, but we’ll return there) should perhaps be put into question.
After all, the swimsuit models would probably take offense to being told they are just relaxing (which does not, of course, break the appearance of her/them in the images, though at least the one picture of Jessica Gomes on her knees, on the raft, does not translate into “relaxing” for me).
The fisher, likewise, may be working – or enjoying a leisurely cruise with the strange catch he’s made. Is guiding such a raft and fishing with cormorants work or relaxation? Or do those criteria matter less or differently in conditions other than those of wage labor?
(My – Chinese – wife tells me that the photo reminds her of Liu Zongyuan’s poem River Snow – only that the silly [my word] woman disturbs the nice image. The interaction also looks rather nicer than the altercation between a raft guide and a dissatisfied customer I witnessed…)

The Performance of Ethnic Otherness

A particular problem arises with the interpretations that see the poor “ethnic” Chinese as exploited, almost colonial, subjects, especially when juxtaposed to the Spanish matadors as performers.

In fact, many a Chinese ethnic minority is, for one, an exotic/exoticized “other” to the majority Han Chinese, with a presentation of their backwardness, friendliness/openness to strangers and/or naiveté, and colorful customs and costumes, supposed to be a natural part of their lives and perhaps even a fancy allowed and enjoyed as part of the majority support for minority cultural identities.

The interaction between “living objects” and visitors in Beijing’s Ethnic Minority Culture Park certainly attests to that…

"Ethnic" Dancing in Beijing's Minority Cultures Park

“Ethnic” Dancing in Beijing’s Minority Cultures Park

Of course, that “they” (the majority Chinese) “do that, too” doesn’t release us from the responsibility of considering what we ourselves want to be doing, especially when power relations come into (or continue to be in) play.

Having to speak for the poor colonized, exoticized people continues another (post-)colonial tradition, the (new) white man’s burden of bringing light and freedom to the poor, marginalized and downtrodden, however. There is also quite some agency “they” have for themselves, though, and one should assume that the “ethnic props” in those pictures were not dragged screaming and kicking into a situation they haven’t encountered before, didn’t want to be in, and didn’t profit from.

In fact, the very exoticization, as questionable as it is and remains to the “critical observer” concerned with cultural authenticity and tradition – and all too often, with the foreign as museum specimen to freeze in time – is an asset to people who would otherwise only be seen as backwards and be impoverished, opening up new avenues for progress, profit, and perhaps even greater future confidence and self-determination. I have my problems with the Disneyland-like presentations that often arise, but would rather refrain from any judgments.

The Power of Image

Talking of power relations and thinking of image – and how could a discussion drawing close to Chinese culture go without a mention of “face”? – I wonder what the Chinese view of these issues would be.

It has become de rigueur to report the view on Weibo or similar Chinese social media – and I would not be surprised if people there commented along the lines of “now even curvy Western women crawl in front of Chinese fishermen, see how powerful we have become,” went to various NSFW comments, saw their views of Western decadence justified yet again (or would you want your women to undress in public like that?) – not to forget that models e.g for lingerie and to be put in risqué poses in advertisements in China are typically Western models like the ones in those images (for several reasons), so that it might not even be as noteworthy, let alone debate-worthy, to many a Chinese.
(This is now my conjecture, though, and actually asking would be considerably more interesting than navel-gazing like this.)

Maybe it’s my European civility (though that this should beat American prudishness…), but I find myself less concerned about the girls in ethnic costume, for example, than about the Western woman – she, too, is “othered,” and into an image of sexual objectification at that. (It would be worth asking Jessica Gomes if she sees herself as an exploited sexual object or a strong woman herself deciding how to present herself and how to make a living, though.)

Erik Bont, a renowned Austrian photographer with a critical mind and a foible for putting his models into rather more erotically charged situations than one finds in the Swimsuit edition, certainly had a very different take: in his opinion, the real racism would be to present nothing but a whole and wholesome world without the poor with “dental issues” (quote: Jezebel). If photography is showing the world as it is, and if every person is worth the same, there should be no discussion about whether or not it should be allowed to show the different people in juxtaposition, as they are.

Sports Illustrated certainly could join the 21st century and avoid using people as props. (What is a model other than a prop for male fantasies, according to many a feminist analysis, though?)

Our thinking about “others,” whether in terms of gender or culture/ethnicity, could do well with an upgrade from ideology towards closer work with reality, however. After all, power relations will always be in play and interpretations will always differ, so that code and perspective switching will be essential skills. Absolutist analyses that want a world perfectly conforming to their views will continue to be good only for ideological battles, finding imperfections everywhere but choosing their battles badly.

Ask the others, at least, and choose wisely what to confront. The Swimsuit edition may be a symptom, but hardly the most important lever to address a lack of cultural sensitivity – unless you think men buy the Playboy to read the articles…