There has been quite the international controversy over the March edition of the Philippines’ version of FHM, a men’s magazine. Here’s the original cover:
The cover shows actor Bela Padilla, who is of British and Filipina descent and has light colouring, in the centre, wearing a pink swimsuit. She is in the middle of dark-skinned models in black swimsuits who are partially obscured by writing advertising the contents of the issue. At the bottom are the words ‘Bela Padilla: stepping out of the shadows’.
It practically smacks you in the face, from the figuring of the dark-skinned people as shadows for the light-skinned person to escape or go ahead from, right through to the individuality of the “shadows” being obscured by text and black bikinis, just to reinforce the symbolism. I think the shadow problem goes beyond that, however. It’s a matter of opposing light and dark, but also figuring who gets to be real and apparent, and who gets to be an insubstantial prop. Shadows might be in the background, but the hit this image gives is front and centre.
It gets worse! Some of the models of African descent and some of them, according to Padilla, are ‘actually Filipinas painted in black, not to represent Africans, but we were really doing that to portray shadows’. I’ll just leave that without comment.
The cover has since been pulled and replaced with a new image of Padilla by herself and a new tagline, ‘I want to emerge with my own name,’ pictured. The uproar has been about the magazine cover, but I hope they’ve changed more than just that, because inside was the following image. In it, Padilla, in a yellow swimsuit, is brightly lit at the front of the image, while dark-skinned models in black bikinis splash in water and obscurity at the back.
Now, you’ll have noticed that I’ve been talking a lot more about Padilla’s involvement than FHM’s. Well, that’s what the media has been doing, holding her to account in ways the magazine is not being held. Partly that’s because the magazine released an apology and replaced the magazine, and Padilla keeps playing into the problem with statements like the one above, which is from a BBC interview quoted in a New York Times article. At the end of the day, though, it’s easy to pin it all on one person, and she didn’t design the shoot or pick the caption. Let’s talk about why these kinds of racist shoots are so common in the magazine world. Padilla also didn’t invent the manipulation of women’s bodies in men’s magazines. Let’s talk about how this proliferates, especially in racialised forms. And let’s talk about the (internalised) racism and rampant presence of white supremacism that facilitate an environment in which these kinds of images can actually make it to print.