Do You See What I see?: The Black Herstory Month Edition

Updated Post Below:

Vanity Fair is coming under fire for their current edition, that would be the February edition or the one that falls on black history month, due to the editors blatant tunnel vision about who represents “Young Hollywood.” Can you spot what is wrong here?

Still don’t see the problem? How about the inside fold out for a little extra help:

Not only are these images devoid of diversity, but they are also trading on traditional images of N. American-ness (see image one) and gentile/civilized society (see image two). Thus the images tell us a tale of race-class-and-gender that automatically preclude the inclusion of women of color as they are always and forever outside of both constructs. More than that, while Vanity Fair is happy to highlight the cast of Precious in a short piece about the film and its abuse narrative, or to highlight America Ferrerra’s turn as a working class Latina struggling to “over come” the poverty of her community, these stories don’t challenge the belief that women and girls of color inhabit alternate worlds of violence and sex that none of our corn-fed fresh faced Hollywood girls would ever find themselves in. Never mind that Leibovitz eye transforms actresses who play women and girls who are sexually manipulated and manipulative, viciously clique-y and elitest, and self-abusing in the name of absent boyfriends into high society, a role reversal that would never be offered the actresses of color they have so keenly chosen to ignore. For one group, the fiction is taken as truth, for the other it is a sign of their acting chops.

While Vanity Fair and its supporters claim that the problem is not them but Hollywood itself, several break out performances and consistent appearances by actresses of color this year place the onus on both parties. As does this description introducing the first young actress they chose

The Cupid’s-bow lips, the downy-soft cheeks, the button nose: 27-year-old Abbie Cornish has those Ivory-soap-girl features we’re so familiar with, and yet hers is a face it’s hard to stop staring at … (Vanity Fair)

For all the apologists out there it seems none have tackled the eugenicist inspired descriptions that accompany the actresses they chose, precisely because of the ways that underline the racial decision making behind the cover.

To drive the message home, however we need only think of actresses of color with similar or competing credentials to the all white cast of Vanity Fair‘s cover. Here are some the most obvious choices Vanity Fair ignored:

Zoe Saldana alone starred in two of this summer’s biggest blockbuster hits: Star Trek and Avatar.

Gabourey Sidibe just got nominated for an academy award in her role as Precious.

AP Photo

Kristin Kreuk whose film career is off to a rocky start but whose guest appearances on various shows this year has universally boosted their ratings

Devon Aoki has been making a strong splash in edgy and comedic films for some time, working with likes of Frank Miller

Vanessa Hudgens who got her start on High School Musical, just released an album, and has been making the rounds on the Disney Channel launch pad that basically owns the tween market

America Ferrera whose work in film and TV is critically acclaimed & whose tv show cancellation no doubt spells the launch of a serious film career

symons & thompsett/pacific coast news

Sara Ramirez (who granted @ 34 is pushing it for “young hollywood”) is one of the stars of one of the most watched shows on television right now

Mia Maestro who has been one of my personal favorite actresses since her powerful and thought-provoking turn in Secuestro Express; she has been a consistent presence in Latina film for years and is now poised to take on leading roles in English/ N. American film

Granted none of these women appear on the CW, except for Kreuk, or True Blood, which seems to be where Vanity Fair culled most of its list. So let’s look at the young actresses of color who work there but were also all over looked:

Katerina Graham plays part of a family of powerful black female witches/psychics on the Vampire Diaries, one of the hottest new shows in the tween market this year

Jessica Lucas, who is being wasted on Melrose Place, has been in acting since her early childhood, and has co-starred in such summer blockbusters like Covenant and Drag Me to Hell, raved about hipster films like Cloverfield, and groundbreaking tv like the L Word; her Canadian credits include launchpad series like Edgemont, Life as We Know it, and my personal fave 2030 CE

unattributed/LA Confidential Magazine

Stephanie Jacobsen whose turn as Jesse on Terminator SC heated up the screen and the ratings, is now also being wasted on Melrose. She is a scene stealer in both small roles (like her turn on BSG) and large ones, and after an acclaimed career in hit-or-miss Aussie shows she too is set to take on Hollywood

Rutina Wesley, fresh of her starring role in How She Move and up and coming enough for the Screen Actor’s Guild to invite her to present at the award show, she plays the racially problematic but still central character of Tara on True Blood, one of the highest rated shows on HBO

So even on the whitest channel for teens and tweens in N. America (even Disney tries harder than CW lately) and a show that features a Klan rally in its opening credits, there were people of color for Vanity Fair to choose from.

One of the actresses highlighted by Vanity Fair’s Young Hollywood edition came from the influential Twilight series, and while she is getting the critical attention she deserves for her varied acting career, she was not alone in garnering that attention for her role in the films.

Christian Serratos plays Angela in Twilight and got her start on such career launching shows as Hannah Montana and the critically acclaimed 7th Heaven

Nikki Reed (who is 1/2 Native American) won accolades for writing and co-starring in the critically acclaimed Thirteen (a film which highlighted the acting talent of one of Vanity Fair‘s actual choices, Evan Rachel Wood), also had a recurring role on an immensely popular WB show, the OC, and has been a source of much discussion amongst Twilight Fans

Worse, Vanity Fair felt more comfortable choosing up and coming white actresses from outside the U.S. rather than highlight a few actresses of color from inside it (note there is at least one woc on this list who is not N. American but does make her home here and has for some time). And while these actresses may be on the move to the U.S. they have very little if any Hollywood credentials compared to some of the women Vanity Fair left out. More importantly, the issue is less about what acting credentials qualifies the women that Vanity Fair ultimately chose and instead what seems to be the critical deciding factor in who they decided did not count.

While one needs only look at the difference in career trajectories between the white women highlighted by Vanity Fair and the women of color listed here to see how Hollywood shapes careers launched on the same shows or by the same studios differently based on race, the fact remains that there are women of color in Hollywood with the same or similar credentials to that of the white women chosen. Clearly, Hollywood is notoriously white and the tween market is often littered with white actresses/singers who have engaged in racial or homophobic “mistakes” during their careers (Miley, I am talking to you), however the fact that Vanity Fair overlooked not only an Oscar nominee but the handful of young woc on the channel and movie that seemed to dominate the workplaces, or former workplaces, of the actresses they did choose leaves little doubt that the problem was also theirs. Equally important, many of the faces on their list are not nearly as recognizable as Nikki Reed, who spent most of her recent acting career in Anglo disguise, and Zoe Saldana, who spent her biggest role covered in blue paint. Don’t tell me Vanity Fair actually thinks Saldana is blue because if responses to Avatar are any indication it is easier for mainstream audiences to embrace the struggles of oppressed “minorities” when they are blue as opposed to Afra-Latina.

In closing, this behavior is hardly new or shocking. It is what it is in a post-racial aka still racist N. America. However the decision to help whitewash Hollywood during black history month was just one of those things I didn’t think we should let go, especially not in a year when young black women are making huge strides in Hollywood.

(If you are unclear on what those strides are this year, I have outlined them in the comment section, but have also cut and pasted that piece of my comment below:

  • a young black actress was nominated for both best actress @ both the SAGs and the Oscars
  • a young black actress starred in the 2nd highest grossing film of all time
  • a young black actress had starring roles in 2 of the highest grossing films this year
  • a young black actress plays one of 4 main characters on one of the highest rated new shows this year
  • a young black actress plays one of 4 main characters on The People’s Choice Award for Best New Show

and

  • a film about a young black girl was nominated for best film at both the SAGs and Oscars)

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13 thoughts on “Do You See What I see?: The Black Herstory Month Edition

  1. Professor Susurro, this is an excellent analysis, thank you. I will certainly be sharing this piece with my students as part of our ongoing analysis this year of issues of race and the American dream vs. the lived experience. Some of the high school students I work with want to believe we are post-racial, even with examples to the contrary. Your analysis will allow our conversations to go even further. Many thanks.

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  3. ZOMG, the whiteness, it kills! it kills! lolololol. seriously, that second foto hurt my eyes it was so pale and colorless. this whole vanity fair fetish with pale and colorless (they did a couple of other foto spreads like this, didn’t they?) is just sorta–I don’t get it.

    • lol. yeah it seems many of their photo shoots go this way, it’s why I buy my magazines in the international section these days.

  4. Some *very* minor notes:

    Zoe Saldana and America Ferrera were on the cover (albeit behind the fold) of VF’s Young Hollywood /”Fresh Faces” issue in March of 2008. This is probably why they didn’t consider them for the cover this year. Hard to be “fresh” the second time around.

    You have definitely mistaken Devon Aoki for someone else. Girl hasn’t worked in a minute… and she NEVER worked with Tarentino.

    You called out Blake Lively’s lack of screen credits as compared to Ferrera’s… but Lively didn’t make the cover either.

    But yeah… lilly white. Its VF. No one is surprised.

    [additional comments by this comment maker were kept private by the blog owner as per the author’s request]

    • I’m sure there are any number of reasons that Vanity Fair and their apologists can come up with for why none of the 13 young women I chose or any other young actresses of color out there were chosen, but do you really believe those reasons are any more valid than the one glaring reason available?

      Let me put it another way: This year young black actresses and stories about young black women have made huge strides in Hollywood that have not been paralleled in the past. This year alone:

      • a young black actress was nominated for best actress @ both the SAGs and the Oscars
      • a young black actress starred in the 2nd highest grossing film of all time
      • a young black actress had starring roles in 2 of the highest grossing films this year
      • a young black actress plays one of 4 main characters on one of the highest rated new shows this year
      • a young black actress plays one of 4 main characters on The People’s Choice Award for Best New Show

      and

      • a film about a young black girl was nominated for best film at both the SAGs and Oscars

      And yet, not one young black actress ended up on the cover of Vanity Fair’s Young Hollywood cover. NOT ONE BLACK ACTRESS.

      Add to that, that Mo’nique, who aged out of young black Hollywood, is also nominated for an Oscar and has already won a SAG for her role as the mother of a young black girl, and that a film about a young black man is also in the running for Best Film of the Year at the Oscars, and the absence of a single black person on the cover moves from ludicrous to inexcusably offensive. No amount of nit picking or apology changes that.

      I’ve already explained my choices but to address your distractions:

      • Access Holywood, E! Entertainment, & WaPo were some of the established print media who also questioned Saldana’s absence; most of us are in agreement it is a glaring oversight
      • Thank you for alerting me to the mistake on Devon Aoki; I wrote down the wrong Director not the wrong actress.
      • Aoki has been in at least one film every year since her first major credit in 2003 including this past year, more than can be said for some of Vanity Fair‘s choices; so your supposition that “Girl hasn’t worked in a minute” is simply untrue.
      • Thank you for the Lively reference also. While I don’t find Asian actresses interchangeable, I am apparently guilty of thinking long-legged, pale, blue-eyed, actresses with ratty-long blonde hair are less distinguishable from one another than they should be. I have corrected the reference

      (as to the comments you asked me not to post:

      1. Jessica Alba also identified as white prior to having her first child, her self-id did not however change her heritage. And while your point about access to Native American identity is well-taken, as multiracial person whose race and ethnicity have been questioned to my face and behind my back far too often, I am not in the habit of questioning people’s ethnic or racial identity without proof
      2. All of the academics who have linked here so far have been people of color, not white as you asserted. The one’s I know personally all teach in racially diverse universities or high schools &/or in ES programs, some in school districts that are majority poc. So I would caution you about the assumption of whiteness in your analysis – both in terms of our pedagogy and identities.
      3. )

        Let me just conclude by saying, I’ve taken a considerable amount of time to address your comments, both posted & those you asked not be posted, not only b/c they came from you but also to pre-empt others who might use them as prime fodder for derailing the point of this post. I remain deeply concerned that even people writing articles (blog posts and journalistic pieces) abt this issue have taken an apologist’s tone and that the comment sections include so much minimization &/or woc shrugging it off. Perhaps the lesson of post-racial N. America is that now instead of confronting racism what we do is nit-pick it to death while keeping on keepin’ on.

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    • her parts in Hollywood have been a little small in comparison but still definitely someone to watch. thanks for the addition.

  6. This is very sad. We should be at a point where race/ethnicity is no longer a consideration. Much like the way we do not give eye colour, for example, a second thought. Yet covers like this only end up prompting the discussions that focus on which person is which ethnicity. Don’t get me wrong. Wherever there is an unjustified bias, we should push to bring attention to it. And that is what this article does so well. Perhaps one day soon we won’t need to have this debate.

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