Vogue’s February issue featuring Vice President-elect Kamala Harris sparked immediate controversy post social media release. The cover intended for the print issue shows Harris in a casual outfit with Converse sneakers, hands clasped in front of her, as she stands in front of a backdrop of fabrics. Criticism poured in pointing out multiple issues. Accusations range from Harris’s skin tone being “washed-out”, the cover being of “poor quality” and “unreflective” of Vogue’s customarily glamorous covers, to the “disrespectfulness” in using a photo of Harris in casual attire.
Journalist Yashar Ali’s tweet claimed that Harris’s team was blindsided by Vogue, having allegedly approved another photo for the digital cover, this picture being more formal with Harris’s arms crossed in front of her as she wears a powder blue suit. However, editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, stated that “there was no formal agreement about what the choice of the cover would be”. Harris has yet to make an official statement.
Context is essential to understand the significance of this cover. Harris is the first woman and woman of colour, to be elected Vice President of the United States. This is a huge leap forward. Furthermore, given Vogue’s history of covers featuring prominent political figures such as Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton, the cover appearance is an act that carries with it a sense of ‘hallmark representation’.
Wintour defended the choice of the cover, describing the less formal photo as “very, very accessible and approachable and real” and said, “all of us [at Vogue] felt very, very strongly that the less formal portrait of the Vice President-elect really reflected the moment that we were living in.” However, Wintour admitted recently that Vogue’s racist history has “made mistakes” like “publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant” to the Black community which she took “full responsibility for”. This explains the distrust of Vogue’s intention in using an unflatteringly casual photo to represent Harris.
Opposition to this criticism retaliated that this is a ‘non-issue’ in the face of ‘bigger’ issues America is currently facing. Becket Adams from Washington Examiner calling it the “stupidest controversy since the last stupid controversy”. However, the constructive thing to do now is not to criticise people’s sensitivity, but rather seek to understand the underlying causes that led to the rise of emotions that shaped opinions.
Ultimately, the issue is not really about the photo, the outfit or the backdrop. It is about gender, race, power and the fragile state of the United States, being more divisive than ever. Emotions are high after a difficult year with Black Lives Matter protests, highly polarising Presidential elections, a President who refused to concede his loss, the recent Capitol riot, and a pandemic carrying the burden of living in a country with the highest Covid-19 death count.
Harris being the first Black, South Asian American woman as Vice President-elect holds significance to many. It is the manifestation of hope for a better, more equal future, and the fruit of the audacity to dream and work towards that dream. By extension, so is the first magazine cover she did in this official capacity. Depiction of powerful women matters: the impression created from this cover shapes people’s perception about Harris and the movement she represents.
If people are let down by perceived “whitewashing”, “poor quality” or “disrespect”, no matter Vogue’s claimed intentions, they should rightfully be able to voice their disappointment. Rather than criticising and outrightly dismissing the backlash, it would do us better to contextualise concerns. It is this information which permits us to work towards a less polarised, and more empathetic world.
Illustration: Eve Miller