On Jan. 10, 2021, just 10 days before Vice President Kamala Harris would officially be the first Madam Vice President of the United States, Vogue announced that they had chosen Harris to be featured on the cover of the February 2021 issue. The fashion and lifestyle magazine released two cover photos of Harris on social media. Many insisted that the first photo, which shows Harris with her arms crossed and wearing a dark pantsuit, white t-shirt and her signature Converse sneakers, was too informal. Although the pink and green backdrop honors her college sorority affiliation, Alpha Kappa Alpha, the issue many had with this photograph was that it did not project Harris as an authoritative figure in a traditional way. Since she would soon become the second highest ranking executive in the country, chaos ensued.
Critics took aim at the lighting and the styling of the photo, calling the print cover “washed out” and asserting that the casual outfit was not appropriate for a historic magazine cover of the first woman and woman of color elected as Vice President of the United States. Social media users then pointed out the second image, the digital cover, which features Harris wearing a powder blue suit and standing in front of a gold fabric-draped backdrop. To their dismay, it seemed that the publication was whitewashing Harris’ skin. Also, when comparing this cover with past Vogue covers featuring powerful women in government, like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former First Lady Michelle Obama, many considered Vice President Harris’ cover to be too casual.
The reaction to both of the Vogue covers has evolved from disappointment and exasperation to resentment. To my understanding, the feelings of disappointment are rooted in all that is going on in American society: racial injustice, a global pandemic and partisan division. People looking at the Vogue cover expected to feel a great deal of pride, joy and celebration, but that was not their reality. But even when disappointment has settled in, frustration enters. When one finally gets a seat at the head of the table and arrives to see a folding chair waiting for them, we then question why they have been stripped away of all the formality, the authority and the background that distinguishes this position. Why are they presenting her like the nice lady next door with the pink and green backdrop in the print cover, when she is holding a position in government?
The Biden-Harris campaign was an organization that ran on the ideas of commonality, accessibility and teamwork. Thus, one would believe that the idea of an informal picture is legitimate. However, I wonder whether Vogue, a highly esteemed fashion and lifestyle magazine, will ever take a step back to listen and understand the feelings of distress coming from a place that is rooted in history. Throughout history, Black women were not given the kind of respect that white women were. There is a familiarity that people would have with black women that was not about friendship or equality, but about being condescending. I think understanding the complicated nature of that would provide perspective on how to respectfully portray the first female, woman of color Vice President of the United States. If the magazine would truly like to present diversity and inclusivity, they must regard multiculturalism by reaching out to people from different backgrounds. It does get complicated and it requires deep, honest conversations.
Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, defended her magazine’s choice of cover for the Vice President. According to Wintour, she felt very strongly that the less-formal portrait of Harris reflected the times that we are living in: a pandemic “that is taking lives by the minute.” Wintour deemed a less-formal picture to be more accessible, approachable and real, all elements of the Biden-Harris campaign and their vision for a better future. However, since the original print cover photo was overwhelmingly criticized for appearing casual and “washed out,” Vogue has decided to publish the widely-preferred digital cover in a limited print edition for its February 2021 issue.
As a woman of color with a Southeast Asian background myself, I must congratulate Madam Vice President Kamala Harris for making history. She is an inspiration to millions of young girls and women across the world. As she has frequently reminded them, while she may be the first, she will not be the last. Madam Vice President Kamala Harris deserves to be portrayed on the cover not only for her strength, competence and sharp mind, but she also deserves respect as a woman of color.
By Hannah Taib, Staff Writer