The annual ickfest known as the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue has hit the stands, and imagine my surprise when I start seeing blog and web forum posts about the racism in these images:
I immediately recognized the background of these pictures as my beautiful Bug’s hometown. The little girls in the first pic are of the Miao (Chinese Hmong) Minority, the ethnic group we suspect Bug belongs to. The second pic is of a traditional fisherman on the Li River, one of the biggest tourist attractions in all of China. The fishermen fish with Cormorants, which you can also see in the background.
Let me give you some background some of the commentators reacting to the shoot obviously lack. Cormorant fishermen on the Li River, as well as pictures of the Li River itself, are some of the most iconic images in all of China. A cormorant fisherman on the River graces the front of numerous guide books. A drawing of the Li River graces the back of the 20 RMB bill. Guilin is renowned as a tourist destination both inside and outside of China, and is widely known by Chinese as the most beautiful and iconic area of China. When we went to China this summer, our guide in Beijing summed it up this way: “Beijing is a testament to what man can make; Guilin is a testament to what god can make.” Here’s a few shots from our trip down the Li River this summer (a boat ride dominated by Chinese, not Western, tourists), including one of a fisherman on a raft who pulled up next to our boat to sell fish to the staff:
Guilin and the surrounding counties are also the home to numerous ethnic minorities, including the Miao, Yao, and Zhuang. Guangxi, the province (or state) in which Guilin sits is actually a minority Autonomous Region, meaning that it is a majority-minority region with more ethnic minorities than Han Chinese. The minority groups have a long, proud heritage but often live in grinding poverty. One of their few thriving sources of income is the tourist trade, which flocks to the Guilin area for the Li River and karst scenery.
Last, though a bare majority of Chinese live in cities now, it’s far from truth that a majority live in glittering, westernized cities like Shanghai and Beijing. The largest city in Guangxi AR is Nanning, a small city by Chinese standards with about 2.5 million people in the urbanized part of the city and 6.6 million in the greater provincial area. The urban core certainly has its share of skyscrapers, Wal-Marts, and KFCs, but even in the urban core you can see the remnants of traditional China, and you get right outside the urban core and you can see the China of years past. The reality is that millions of Chinese live outside of Westernized urban areas. They fish, they farm, they live a subsistence existence. They have little access to transportation. Schoolchildren walk miles to school, and at times even have to supply their own desks.
So imagine my surprise when I read this article on Jezebel. While there are numerous things wrong with the Guilin pictures — and the annual crapfest that is the SI Swimsuit Issue in general — I was taken aback at the rank classism and racism inherent in the depictions of the people and landscape of my daughter’s hometown:
“In another shot from Guilin, Guangxi, model Anne V. reclines as a local man uses a pole to propel a raft. 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. China has tons of skyscrapers and modern cities that make New York look rickety, but this image recreates an age-old narrative in which anything non-Western is quaint, backward and impoverished. This is the image the mag is using to represent Asia. (Maybe the editors didn’t want to shoot swimsuits in a city, but they did take shots on dry land and they didn’t have to use a dude with dental issues on a river raft.) Also: People are not props.”
While I agree with the point the “people are not props,” wow. This is not a recreation of a colonial-era image. This is real life for the Li River fisherman of Guilin. And “dude with dental issues on a river raft”? Wow. How classist. And hateful. And othering.
But the greater issue is the idea that this is not “Real China.” The only “Real China” to Dodai Stewart, the author of the piece, is one that looks like the West. The fixation on things that look Western is in itself racist. Had the author done even the barest research she’d have known this is authentic China just as much as the Westernized parts. Who is she to decide what China is, and that the only acceptable China is the one that looks like the West?
Now I’m not naive. I’ve seen the full galleries from Guilin, and the pictures from Namibia with a native Namibian in loincloth and spear. I don’t know why the minds behind the shoot picked the locations they did, but I suspect in the Namibian case it was because they thought the desert locale and “native with spear” fit their own personal narrative of what Africa is. Perhaps Guilin was the same for the SI braintrust– or perhaps it was picked because it was such a popular and iconic tourist destination. Like I said earlier, there’s a lot wrong with the pictures, and I feel downright icky seeing my daughter’s hometown defiled with these shots, many of which are downright disrespectful to the locations, like the naked women posed sexually in front of a temple.
BUT, and this is a big, screaming neon BUT: one objection shouldn’t be that this isn’t “real China” because it doesn’t look like the West. This is real China, the China of my daughter and her family. Something about may not sit right with Dodai Stewart, who wants to mock the locals, but I’m sorry, these people exist. I see them every day in the face of my daughter.
I do think it’s a complicated issue of how you portray a country or any geopolitical subdivision fairly. That’s an issue we face here in Kentucky. I know I and other Kentuckians cringe when we are portrayed as all Appalachians living in poverty, with little access to dental care (sound familiar, Dodai Stewart?), but the reality is that Appalachia is as much real Kentucky as is Louisville. Is it fair to focus solely on that? It depends on the context. But the poor of Eastern Kentucky exist, and are as much “real Kentucky” as I am.
For another take, I’d recommend this great piece from China Hush. The blogger there, Mitch Blatt, had a reaction similar to mine re the Jezebel piece. And shocker! He’s actually been to Guilin.
Like I said before, the Namibian shoot seems to be problematic, but I wholeheartedly admit that I am less qualified to talk about that. For some thoughts on the Namibian shoot, I’d suggest this blog.