The Athlete as Specimen

May 25, 2011 § 2 Comments

Just yesterday I covered the topic of fantasy and ethnographic film in Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.  The students and I discussed some of the similarities between the various cinematic versions of King Kong (the first was released in 1933), Nanook of the North (1922), and the (Black) athlete.  We began the class noting some of the parallels between fantasy, horror, and ethnographic films.  The common presence of a strange creatures, a story of discovery–often scientific–and the desire to control the object of discovery occurs in stories such as Frankenstein, King Kong, Jurassic Park, and I am Legend.  In addition, we have retold these tales since the 19th Century, though each articulation reflects contemporary culture’s preoccupations and notions of truth.

King Kong James

While many of us claim to recognize fiction for what it is, I found reason to question this idea when I came across a recent cover of Vogue with Lebron James and Giselle Bundchen.  When I first saw the image, I assumed that the basketball star and the supermodel were being playful.  Sure, I noted the contrasting colors, size, and style.  But it wasn’t until later that I found the image in a diptych alongside King Kong and his object of desire.  Although the photographer may not have done so purposefully, he evoked long-standing notions of racial difference, feminine vulnerability, and fantasy that have been central to countless fictional stories in our popular media.

One of my students suggested that the magazine’s portrayal of Lebron was not akin to that of the monsters of horror films.  After all, the magazine was glorifying and offering the bodies of the models as commodities for which readers would strive to replicate in the gym and with thoughtful diet.  But I disagreed.  The protagonists who found King Kong did not only see horror in the beast.  Their relationship was also defined by attraction.  Similarly, the scientists in Jurassic park showed some affinity to the creatures they had discovered. And many of us certainly express some desire for figures like “King James.”  To be clear, I am not suggesting that Lebron James is a sub-human beast.  However, he (even more than most elite athletes we watch on TV) is regularly considered a “specimen.”  As such, there are a few ways that our fascination with athletes (professional, collegiate, and more) reflects the stories of discovery and containment from our favorite fantasy films.  I’ll give a few quick examples.

Athletes like Lebron are especially fun to watch because their performances are spectacles.  This is not a bad thing–I do not care to watch an athlete who is limited to the physical abilities I have or had at any point in my lifetime.  I want to see sporting events with performers who are stronger, faster, and more athletic than I could dream to be.  If most of us were interested in anything else, we would watch more games at the local YMCA, and stop bothering with the playoffs.  These spectacles are not only about great games, but we have consistently found ways to quantify athletic performance through skills tests and even in-game analysis.  We have become increasingly interested in discovering new potential stars by measuring talent. (If you’re interested in seeing an analyzed human body, check out sport science’s piece on Rajon Rondo.  It’s an Ishi’s Brain type of experience.)

Many basketball fans remember the excitement surrounding Lebron James as a high school player.  His dominating play was televised nationally on ESPN.  Every year there are amazing players at the high school level, but Lebron James was the first to turn us all into spectators in the process of discovery.  Let’s not forget that many people criticized this national attention on the talented teen, as it would take his innocence and hasten his transition into professional sports and from care-free youthful play.

The assumption that amateur play ought to be enjoyed by elite athletes as long as possible (NCAA, anyone?) parallels attempts to keep the cinematic monster in it’s hidden place of origin.  How often have you heard the social and economic mobility experienced by professional athletes mourned by critics?  I’ve heard it far too often.  It’s especially troublesome because the myth of “progress” is closely tied to the popular discourse of rights in America.  If personhood in the US is linked to this freedom, what does this say about young, physically talented athletes.  Lets not forget that many young Black men in America see athletics as one of very few opportunities for mobility.

So, after interpreting the Vogue cover, who/what does Lebron look like?

And this doesn’t touch issues of gender or sex!


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§ 2 Responses to The Athlete as Specimen

  • Odis Cartaya says:

    I hear alot about how annoying the “Miami big three” were celebrating and counting championships before they ever played a game together. What amazes me is the number of people that think it is ok for them to do that as long as they back it up. I for one would not want my child to follow them as an example of professionalism or sportsmanship.

  • irene says:

    The interesting thing about that image in particular (the Vogue cover) is that it WAS based on an image of an ape. “Destroy this Mad Brute” is an early World War I propaganda poster, in which a black ape carrying the club of “kultur” in one hand and a white blond Lady Liberty in the other is used to incite young men to enlist. The green dress, the styling of Giselle’s hair, the color of Lebron’s uniform and shoes, their stance and position relative to one another, the position of the basketball in place of the club – all bear resemblance to the coloring and composition of the poster. It is a bit ironic that a figure Liebovitz associates here with black masculinity was originally intended to embody a white nation, but I think it is clear Liebovitz modeled these two just so because their respective colors allow her to act out this racial trope, which is troubling.

    Liebovitz actually has a pattern of modeling her compositions after classical images; one of her previous covers was very clearly modeled after Irving Penn’s “Ballet Society,” though I would not say her choice in that case carried any political implication. That she would model an image of a light-skinned woman and a dark-skinned man after an image of a woman and an ape probably speaks to her privilege and her pretensions as an artist more than anything. She views these incendiary images and sees them as a playground, to be experimented with, not thinking she had to concern herself with the emotional or historical implications of their association. More charitably, I think the image could be read as a commentary on the the myth of progress-the black animal figure is transformed into a beloved athlete, the club is replaced with a basketball, the woman is smiling and happy-but it’s unclear what Liebovitz means to say, if anything. Does she believe in the myth? This is a very celebratory image. Does she think we are post-racial because some of our athletic stars are black? While our most popular beauty icons remain more or less white (to touch on the issue of gender)?

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