Why Photograph A Black Woman In A Cage?S

Amber Rose's photo shoot for the latest issue of Complex magazine has some wondering about fashion's ongoing fixation on the idea that black women are animals.

Why Photograph A Black Woman In A Cage?S

Most of Amber Rose's Complex shoot, which was photographed by Matt Doyle, refers to iconic shots of Grace Jones. The image of Amber with jewelry in her mouth, for example, is a recreation of this picture of Grace eating diamonds, as photographed by Gordon Munro for Interview in the '80s:

Why Photograph A Black Woman In A Cage?S

There's Amber smoking in a tux…

Why Photograph A Black Woman In A Cage?S

And Grace smoking in a tux, on the cover of her 1981 album, Nightclubbing.

Why Photograph A Black Woman In A Cage?S

There's Amber in a cropped grey tee, with boxing hand wraps…

Why Photograph A Black Woman In A Cage?S

And Grace, on the cover of her '82 single "Pull Up To The Bumper," wearing a cropped grey tee and boxing tape.

Why Photograph A Black Woman In A Cage?S

There's Amber, her naked body covered in oil, posing with a whip…

Why Photograph A Black Woman In A Cage?S

And Grace, her naked body covered in oil, with a whip.

Why Photograph A Black Woman In A Cage?S

Perhaps most offensively, there's Amber in a cage.

Why Photograph A Black Woman In A Cage?S

And Grace in a cage.

The French artist Jean-Paul Goude shot that last image of Jones; the two were involved in a tempestuous and sometimes violent relationship. The objectification and exoticization of black women isn't incidental to Goude's art: it's the whole point. "Blacks are the premise of my work," the artist told People in 1979, "I have jungle fever."

In case anyone thought that was a joke, Jungle Fever was also the title of Goude's 1982 book. The shot of a caged Jones made the cover.

So it's no surprise that Goude shot Jones surrounded by raw meat, under a sign that reads "DO NOT FEED THE ANIMAL." But why would Complex choose to emulate images, some of which come across as not just dated, but riven with deep and troubling statements about black women as animalistic, primitive, and uncivilized creatures? Latoya Peterson has noted of such pictures that the women are always "looking like they are ready to fly off the page and attack." Claire Sulmers of The Fashion Bomb says of the Complex photos the message is that "these women are so wild they must be caged–they're sultry, snarling sex beasts."

Modeling opportunities for women of color in general are slim; as we know, far too many designers consider diversity on the runway and in their advertising to be entirely optional. The industry's slowness in even inviting black models to the metaphorical table is probably why, thirty years on, Grace Jones remains the most easily identifiable short-haired black model, and therefore a ready subject with which for Complex to associate the close-cropped, bi-racial Amber Rose. (Imagine if Jerry Hall were still considered the only and ultimate blonde model, or Paulina Porizkova were still the touchstone brunette, and white models starting their careers were constantly booked on jobs that recreated exclusively those women's old spreads.)

The industry's general unwillingness to embrace models of color as anything besides the exoticized "other" is thwarting the development and popularization of other kinds of black beauty. Even Alek Wek, the Sudanese supermodel, noted that she was often asked to pose in spreads that she felt fitted into a wider and more troubling tradition of black people's representation in the mainstream media, particularly with regard to a Lavazza calendar where she posed inside a coffee cup, her skin intended to represent the espresso. As Wek wrote in her memoir, "I can't help but compare them to all the images of black people that have been used in marketing over the decades. There was the big-lipped jungle-dweller on the blackamoor ceramic mugs sold in the '40s; the golliwog badges given away with jam; Little Black Sambo, who decorated the walls of an American restaurant chain in the 1960s; and Uncle Ben, whose apparently benign image still sells rice."

It's worth noting that in re-creating these pictures, Complex did tone them down; gone are the chains from the whip photo, and so too is the raw meat and the sign explicitly referring to the model as an animal in the cage photo. The choices the Complex art director made are almost certainly intended to mitigate the offense of the original images; we've come at least some way as a society since Jean-Paul Goude's day. But how long will it be before we automatically recognize any picture of a black woman caged up like an animal as offensive?

Amber Rose [Complex]
Caged Black Women: Amber Rose & Grace Jones [The Fashion Bomb]
When Disco Queen Grace Jones Lamented 'I Need a Man,' Artist Jean-Paul Goude Prowled Too Near Her Cage [People]
Darker Skinned Glamour Girls [Racialicious]
Bitter Coffee [NY Post]

Earlier:
How Did New York Fashion Week's 116 Shows Treat Models Of Color?