A tale of two covers: Why the difference between Kamala Harris and Cori Bush matters
By Patrice Peck, MSNBC Opinion Columnist
How did Teen Vogue magazine get its cover so right while Vogue's failed on every level?
On Wednesday, the nation watches the inauguration of the first woman, first Black person and first South Asian person elected to the position of vice president.
The day before, Teen Vogue kicked off the new year with an inspired January cover featuring U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, the registered nurse and Ferguson activist who recently became the first Black woman elected to represent Missouri in Congress. One week earlier, the magazine’s big sister publication Vogue had revealed its latest print cover, which spotlights Vice President Kamala Harris — but there’s a striking difference.
Both images feature a Black woman who has successfully scaled seemingly insurmountable barriers to become a “first." But only one reflects the magnitude of this moment.
Centered against a simple, seamless backdrop, poised and picturesque, Bush commands the striking black-and-white Teen Vogue cover, while the Vogue cover seems more like a test shot of Harris taken to check lighting levels and depth of field before the actual photoshoot begins. Both images feature a Black woman politician who has successfully scaled seemingly insurmountable barriers to become a “first." But only one reflects the magnitude of this moment in American politics, American media and American history.
Across social media and within fashion media circles, much has been said about exactly how Vogue fumbled the Harris cover and why this even matters in the grand scheme of things like violent riots that overtook the Capitol — particularly to Black women. “The selected photo is determinedly unfancy. Kind of messy. The lighting is unflattering. The effect is pretty un-Vogue,” New York Times fashion director and chief fashion critic Vanessa Friedman wrote in a recent article.
Washington Post senior critic-at-large and former Vogue editor Robin Givhan broke down the disrespect of it all: “Nothing about the cover said, ‘Wow.' And sometimes, that’s all Black women want, an admiring and celebratory ‘wow’ over what they have accomplished.”
The Bush cover, on the other hand, had major “wow” factor, judging from the overwhelmingly positive responses on social media, and I’d have to agree.
So, how did Teen Vogue magazine get its cover so right, while Vogue's failed on every level? The Black creatives behind the Harris cover aren’t to blame. Photographer Tyler Mitchell has proven his talents and range with previous cover photographs, like his image of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for Vanity Fair and his 2018 September issue image of Beyoncé, which made him the first Black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover. Mitchell also photographed the better-received digital cover of Harris, which the magazine ultimately made available for sale as a special inauguration print issue this week. As for the sitting editor Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, sis has a sterling track record of creating innovative covers for a wide range of celebrities, with an obvious passion for portraying pioneering Black artists in an inventive, ever-changing light. That leaves the decisionmakers, the editor-in-chief and top editors and directors who ultimately decide on the cover. This tale of two covers proves why diversity, equity, and inclusion matters in the workplace, especially among top leadership.
At the top of Vogue’s masthead, there are nine top leadership roles, including Anna Wintour who has been editor-in-chief since 1988, yet all but one are held by a white person (Chioma Nnadi, the editor of Vogue.com as of September 2020, is Black.)
The Teen Vogue team is much smaller and more racially diverse, led by Lindsay Peoples Wagner, the publication’s second Black editor-in-chief, and executive editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay, the first Indian American to hold the title. Wagner and Mukhopadhyay are women of color who’ve consistently demonstrated a commitment to creating content that prioritizes intersectionality and challenges white supremacist standards in media and culture.
That’s not to say that race alone determines diversity of experience or perspective. But this is Vogue we’re talking about, the same publication accused of fostering a toxic, racist workplace by current and former Black employees both during and prior to last summer’s Black Lives Matter uprisings. It’s clear that throughout the publication’s 128 years of existence, the white people responsible for leading the publication have relegated and excluded the Black people on their team and on (and behind) their covers. And as proven with the Harris cover, racism and discrimination impact not only the people on the receiving end, but also the white perpetrators whose imagination for what could be drastically diminishes to match their narrow, one-dimensional perspective. “I think that what’s amazing about the February cover, to me, is that it is just so joyful and optimistic,” Wintour told Kara Swisher, host of the New York Times podcast Sway, before the cover arrived on newsstands. “And I cannot imagine that there’s anyone that really is going to find this cover anything but that, and positive, and an image of a woman in control of her life who’s going to bring us where the president-elect, the leadership, that we so need.”
Vogue isn’t going to change overnight. Wintour and her fellow editorial leaders clearly have a long way to go if they truly intend to dismantle the systemic white supremacy deeply embedded in the publication to create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive work environment.
But, as much as Wintour professes to be listening to her Black colleagues in light of the recent reckoning of racism at Vogue, this bungled Harris print cover and the subsequent release of a digital cover-turned-special inauguration print cover suggests that her echo chamber remains tightly sealed.