Wednesday, October 7, 2009

WHAT DO YOU THINK?? Sexist!? Misogynistic!? Chauvinistic!?

Jozen Cummings is a former editor at VIBE - asks is it Sexist to have Serena Williams naked on the cover of ESPN? WHAT DO YOU THINK?

I am a man of tradition. I like women. I like sports. So when I saw that my favorite tennis player (admittedly, I only have one), Serena Williams, was one of six athletes photographed naked for ESPN the Magazine’s “Body issue,” and she was clad in nothing more than lipstick, I applauded their brain trust. As a fan of beautiful black women, second as a sports fan, and third as a former editor at the now-defunct King magazine—I’m well aware of both Serena Williams’ appeal and the controversy her cover may cause.

When I was at King, plenty of black women (and men, for that matter) would douse me, and the publication for which I worked, with criticism. Sexist! Misogynistic! Chauvinistic! I heard it all—usually in much harsher and less than polite tones. I heard similar remarks last year when, during my time as an editor at Vibe, we released a controversial cover of R&B singer Ciara wearing no clothes. But what a lot of critics failed to understand is how little the black woman’s body is celebrated in the mainstream. Prior to the success of men’s magazines like King, Black Men and Smooth, the only publication where I could get my beautiful-black-woman fix was reading, or rather looking at, Jet’s Beauty of the Week.

But none of these titles have ever had the mainstream cachet of, say, Sports Illustrated, which didn’t feature a black woman (Tyra Banks) on the cover of their annual swimsuit edition until 1997—30 years after they premiered their first swimsuit edition. Playboy would also wait close to two decades before finally putting black model, Darine Stern on their cover in 1971. Let’s face it, when it comes to the relationship between beautiful women of color and mainstream publications, beautiful women of color get no love—which is why Williams’ ESPN pictorial is a game changer.

ESPN editors are going to hear their fair share of criticism—the roars of those who say the last thing we need is yet another magazine exploiting the black woman and her body are going to be loud, but Saartjie Bartman this is not. Unfortunately, with black publications folding left and right (there is no more King, Jet (and its sister publication, Ebony) looks to be on its last leg, Vibe just received a second wind), the onus is on mainstream publications to celebrate this fact.

I hope other magazines with a largely white, male demographic will follow the lead of ESPN the Magazine and feature more beautiful women of color photographed in ways a man like me can appreciate. For sex to sell in 2009 and beyond (and make no mistake about it, that’s one of the principles the ESPN brass is abiding by with “The Body Issue”), it has to come in more colors than just white.

Jozen Cummings is a former editor at VIBE and lives in Harlem. His new blog is Untiligetmarried.

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