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Why was Kamala Harris Expected to Perform for Vogue?

Fashion magazines have long played a role in producing the aura of the pop culture's icons, designers, and brands. In a time where some claim the print medium’s loss of relevancy, a popular magazine’s front page still retains an incredible ability to attract fashion’s greatest currency: attention. Although most will not consume this media in print form, the covers are circulated everywhere online and stir conversation about who is featured, what they wear, and what this says about the industry. This said, recently Vogue magazine attracted lots of attention for their February issue featuring America's Vice President-elect, Kamala Harris. I think the criticism of the front-page raised important discussions surrounding gendered performance in fashion media, and highlight the systematic and restrictive binary gender norms that dominate the fashion industry as a whole.

A Word on Magazine Covers

Fashion magazines are their own type of spectacle, especially considering the use of these elaborate covers to essentially grab reader attention for the entire issue. A crucial form of advertising, they set the tone for the rest of a publication’s work, regardless of whether it is viewed in print or online. Due to their attention-grabbing nature, there are a few aspects that should be considered in order to properly understand how a magazine cover is performative.

A performance is defined in its construction as certain actions, behaviours, and events are learned and then intentionally repeated in a way that ultimately shapes social circumstances. Here, it is important to highlight this notion of learnt reproduction. Of course, the fashion industry is fundamentally one of performance, mostly repeating narratives that will please its consumers. In the specific context of magazine covers, there is certainly a culture that both producers and consumers have and continue to follow.

Particularly with Vogue, one does not need extensive knowledge to recognize some of the recurrences in the format of their covers. The publication has long provided its readers with front pages that feature famed individuals. So, there is always a notion of recognizability in their work, as Vogue harnesses culturally relevant faces and names to heighten interest amongst the general public. Although these figures are not necessarily directly involved in fashion, another recurrence in Vogue’s work is that their featured individuals are always thrown into fashion discourse via glamorous styling, dramatic imagery, and of course, the incorporation of the iconic Vogue font plastered somewhere in the frame. In other words, when someone is featured on the cover of this magazine, their identity and story is in many ways rendered invisible, as they are transformed into a fashion spectacle. This practice is decades old, and should it be noted that it is not one exclusive to Vogue magazine alone. Still, decades of consistency have risen this publication to the top of the industry, and its persistent ability to frame a notable figure of their choosing into a fashion magazine cover has contributed to their dominance.

In terms of Vogue magazine, the possibility of having a mundane photoshoot, person, or clothing on the front page is unimaginable. The standards that have been created through their front-page performances simply do not allow for mediocracy in any sense of the term. Vogue audiences expect conventional beauty, celebrity comfort, and provocative dress because that is the culture that Vogue has enabled over time through their brand behaviours. The desire to reproduce dominant narratives is one which Vogue has always and still aims to achieve, as they ultimately serve to advertise products to an upper-class fashion consumer. Insert Kamal Harris' February Vogue magazine cover.

Inserting Kamala Harris

Firstly, I should say that I am by no means trying to comment on or influence anyone about Harris' political endeavours or personal life. I'm trying to approach this magazine feature without the political baggage it carries as much as I can, especially considering for as much as Harris should be celebrated for being the first female and woman of colour to be elected Vice President of the United Sates, she also stands alongside many acts of political violence. I hope that I can instead turn this conversation specifically towards the representation of women in fashion media.

This said, on January 19th, 2021, Vogue magazine presented us "Madam Vice-President" Kamala Harris on the front-page of the issue. The context for this story was of course, the recent United States presidential elections in which Harris was elected as both the first female and woman of colour Vice President in the country’s history. But, Harris’ Vogue cover was predominantly met with disapproval. She stands before us wearing a black Donald Deal sport jacket, some slim black bottoms, and a pair of converse sneakers against a background meant to represent her university sorority. Harris’ feature was not discussed for its bold, provocative, or extraordinary elements, but rather for its contrasting lack thereof. The conversation surrounding this issue was not in reaction to what was explicitly proposed by the performance itself, but instead to what was deemed to be missing from the portrayal of the Vice President-elect on the front-page of Vogue magazine.

Many of the vocal criticisms found on social media included notions of disappointment, merit, and justice. The overarching reaction to this portrayal of Harris was that the representational significance of her position as the first female and woman of colour Vice President deserved more. In other words, Vogue had not adequately captured the importance of this moment in their cover. This public disappointment leaves room to ponder what exactly could or should have been done in order to do the symbol of Kamal Harris justice. Regardless of whether Vogue has intentionally disrespected Harris with their mundane portrayal, the general criticism of this event highlights particular expectations regarding individuals featured on a fashion magazine cover. In this case, it highlights standards set particularly for female-identifying figures that grace the front-page.

Admittedly, it can be argued that she is presented in a passive manor because of the mundane essence of this image. Though, she is certainly not typically sexualized, nor is her image exaggerated in anyway. Still, as previously mentioned, this deemed lacklustre performance is precisely where the criticism is being aimed at. It can be said that this criticism is comparable to that of overly sexualized, exaggerated, or passive female portrayals, because in this case, there is a call to dramatize Vogue’s depiction of Kamala Harris simply because she is a woman.

Whilst it is difficult to uncover what the publication’s intentions were when presenting this January issue meant to highlight the achievement of becoming the first madam Vice President, the audience’s reaction is clear. In a podcast discussing the conversation surrounding this event, fashion critic Luke Meagher and fashion historian Darnell Jamal highlight the underlying meaning of criticizing Harris’ unimpressive Vogue feature, stating that it stems from unfair expectations imposed onto a woman to perform within this particular context. They note that American society is not familiar with the reality of a female Vice President, and that this negative reaction suggests that one of the expectations for Kamala Harris is to be aesthetically provocative in her media ventures. So, we are again faced with the concept of gendered performance, as both Kamala Harris and Vogue are criticized for failing to reproduce the conventional portrayal of a female figure. What this suggests for gendered discourse is that femininity does not necessarily require the acknowledgement of typical feminine qualities. Or, on the contrary, hegemonic standards of femininity do not include a woman standing with an ordinary black sport jacket, some slim black bottoms, and a pair of converse sneakers.

Are we entitled to such expectations?

I'm left thinking about what lies in the future. This Vogue cover will likely not be the last media venture that she partakes in. How will the reaction to this shoot influence Harris' future stylistic choices? Here, I'm not just talking about magazine covers, because to be fair, I don't expect her to do too regular stories for a fashion magazine like Vogue. Still, in her public showings, press conferences, and other appearances, will what she wears continue be analyzed? Let's not forget, this is a Vice-President, not a first-lady. Of course, she is required to look presentable, and thus fashionable to a certain degree. But, how much should we actually expect of her regarding what she wears? Is it fair to demand that the clothing she's presented in 'does justice' to her representational significance? Regarding these demands, where do they come from? Must every female-identifying figure come through with looks to please the fashion community? I'm not sure that is so fair, especially considering no one cares when her male counterpart, Joe Biden, shows up in a standard suit and tie.


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