We’ve all seen the ape-to-man series charting Darwin’s theory of evolution. Someone at New York Magazine must have thought it oh-so-clever to mirror the familiar ladder in a story criticizing the president for his “evolving” views on same-sex marriage — Obama figuratively “evolving” from monkey to rainbow-flag-waving human. Get it?
But how could the magazine miss the subtext the illustration conveyed, that the humanity of an African American president rests on his support of same-sex marriage?
For those linking the gay rights struggle to historical civil rights battles, this might not have been the smartest way to make a point.
Last week, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit struck down the California ban on same-sex marriage, White House press secretary Jay Carney said, “The president has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to discriminate against same-sex couples.”
Then, in New York Magazine, Dan Amira’s Feb. 7 “Obama’s Gay Marriage Evolution Watch: Day 468” chided President Obama’s stand: “Is it divisive to deny gay people the same marriage rights as straight people? Yes. Is it discriminatory? Yes. Does Obama support gay marriage? Still no. Obama’s contradictory, utterly unconvincing ‘evolution’ continues.”
In the illustration’s determination to be provocative and edgy, the moral high ground Amira strives for is muddled in an image that recalls the old reliable slur against African Americans, that we are closer to ape than human on the evolutionary scale and thus less deserving of equal treatment and respect. It’s a sentiment that has persisted, recently applied to President Obama, his wife and family, launching millions of derisive e-mails — followed by a mere handful of apologies — and selling much merchandise to people seemingly unaware of how unoriginal the insult is.
The historical throwback has gained considerably more traction than the sometimes simian slurs against President George W. Bush.
President Obama supported the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that kept gay men and women from serving openly. He has said he supports civil unions but has stopped short of endorsing same-sex marriage. Although the president is open to criticism from Amira and anyone else for his views, it’s distracting that a story urging consideration for a group that’s been discriminated against would, in its illustration, tread uncomfortably close to a stereotype about another.
The editorial staff at New York could say it didn’t make the connection, sort of the educated person’s “we’re very, very smart about some things and real dumb about others” defense. (In a less-egregious category, I place the New Yorker’s wide-eyed surprise awhile back that its “satirical” cover of President and first lady Michelle Obama as militant and Muslim might offend a few folks who got the joke and just didn’t find it funny.)
Or, more believably, it could say the illustration was meant to be an attention-grabber, nothing more.
The magazine industry has been criticized for the lack of diversity in its pages; I do wonder who’s in the room when these decisions are made at New York and other magazines that profess to be diverse in their thinking but may not show it on their mastheads.
I remember when New York Magazine’s then-film critic David Denby predicted a racial uprising in his 1989 review of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”: “The end of this movie is a shambles, and if some audiences go wild, he’s partly responsible.” In a city where later that summer, a teenager would be killed by a white mob for walking while black through a Brooklyn neighborhood, Denby figured black audiences would be too wild to distinguish between a cinematic depiction of righteous anger and a literal call to arms? I shook my head at the cluelessness of that observation back then.
In 2012, the magazine depicts President Obama crawling one step at a time up to an enlightened position on the evolutionary ladder.
In some ways, I suppose, New York Magazine is still evolving, but it has a ways to go.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at the New York Times and the Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.