Kamala Harris’ cover picture in the February issue of Vogue magazine puts you at ease with her. She poses in a blazer designed by her friend Donald Deal and in black and white Converse sneakers, hallmarks of her campaign days. The pink satin background shows off the colors of its historically African-American sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha. Tyler Mitchell – the first black person to make a cover of Vogue – photographed Harris. The first black female vice president-elect of the United States of America looks warm, approachable, and even a little wacky on the cover, to match the image she cultivated during the election campaign.
Still, the cover bombed – and how. From internet commentators to Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critics, the opinion was clear: Vogue’s coverage did not give the Vice President-elect the respect she deserves. Vogue, long a bastion of power and glamor – made the deliberate decision to take that power away from Harris. Like Robin givhan written for The Washington Post, “It was a cover image that, in fact, called Harris by his first name without an invitation.”
Here, Vogue tried to do everything right, but failed anyway. It didn’t intentionally create bad coverage for Harris, although Vogue’s terrible story with black cultural figures led many people to make such a claim. The Vogue team isn’t incompetent either – everything from the importance of the set design to the choice of the photographer indicates a team effort that was meant to do right by Harris. The problem is the story of power presented in fashion magazines – so rigid in its glamor, that magazines cannot show a relaxed and friendly individual without inadvertently communicate a rejection of power.
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The cover of a fashion magazine – Vogue’s in particular, but also others – is more than just a glamorous photo; it has always been a cultural marker for women in a position of power to display their acceptance in elitist spaces and their public influence. This is why Donald Trump complained that his wife, Melania, was never photographed by Vogue as first lady during her tenure as president, while other first ladies, such as Michelle Obama, received several covers of Vogue. Fashion magazine covers like Vogue’s are almost a slice of history as their function is to portray the powerful and glamorous at the height of their dignity.
But traditional representations of fashion, glamor and power no longer hold water with the main target audience of magazines. Women’s magazines are dying due to a growing shortage of print advertising funds. Additionally, the vast majority of female readers ditch glossy catalogs for the eye-catching, socio-politically relevant cover of feminist online publication – offering insider views into the lives of famous and powerful figures without them. put on a pedestal like a fad. the magazine would. As a last ditch attempt to stay relevant, magazines needed a quick change in their content strategy – they needed to become more politically opinionated.
Women’s magazines have a long history of covering important political conversations around women’s rights (Cosmopolitan covered birth control in the 1960s), but their positions have always been neutral. But, in the 2010s, to survive, these magazines began to take strong positions on issues that excited and enraged women. For example, Cosmopolitan covered Ivanka Trump’s policies on child care; Vogue officially endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton as President and Teen Vogue explained how Donald Trump was gas lighting United States. Yet their covers continued to remain a showcase of glamor or glamorous power – only Teen Vogue making the rare choice to forgo standards of glamor and beauty and give Hillary Clinton a December 2017 cover that meant pure power, no different from what a political magazine would look like.
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Here, Vogue tried something new by rejecting power and glamor to come up with an accessible human leader. While something like this might have worked with a much younger, younger post like Teen Vogue (started 2003), or a more relaxed Cosmopolitan, it doesn’t work for the more traditionalist Vogue. Given Vogue’s decades of experience in creating powerful women like Clinton and Obama look in a very specific way, his portrayal of Harris seems disrespectful and callous.
Harris’s cover shows how mainstream fashion magazines increasingly find themselves at the crossroads between their traditional elitism and their modern progressive values - with their history of elitism often hampering their progress. Giving Harris a traditional cover wouldn’t have made Vogue stand out among the sea of magazines clamoring to do the same, but how Vogue currently stands out is in its obvious mistake. Meanwhile, the more traditional Elle magazine cover of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was widely appreciated by the public.
In an increasingly complex socio-political environment, representations of women leaders engaged in positive change must appear powerful and accessible both in order to convince people that they embody both power and embrace the values of their campaign. Women politicians on magazine covers have frequently drawn criticism for the gap between a popular leader and a glamorous image. Yet the unattractive images disrespect women politicians and spark controversial discussions about the power they wield – a dangerous path to follow if the woman in question made history as the first black female vice-president. President-elect of the United States. The challenge of finding the right balance between the two, it remains to be seen whether traditional arbiters of glamor and elegance like fashion magazines can still follow.