The Vogue cover image dividing America

“Blindsided”: Vogue’s choice of the photo on the left has baffled Kamala Harris.

Should we portray politicians with more respect? The cover of American Vogue has been attacked for its portrayal of the US vice-president elect, raising tensions over race and gender.

Hands clasped in front of her, wearing a black jacket and trousers, Kamala Harris greets readers of American Vogue’s February issue with a smile. But many readers are not smiling back. This historic cover of the first woman elected as vice-president has failed to impress.

It is not Harris readers are unhappy with, but the photograph. The hands are awkward, the clothing nondescript. There are creases at the knee of the slimfit trousers. A cascade of pink satin bunches messily beneath the trademark Chuck Taylors. Some critics even point out that the lighting makes the vice-president-elect appear “washed out”.

The informality of the photograph has angered many of Harris’ supporters, who feel that the cover fails to take the vice-president-elect seriously enough.

Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour responded to criticisms, arguing that a photo that was “approachable and real, really reflected the hallmark of the Biden-Harris campaign”.

But critics argue that Harris should be recognised as a woman of historic accomplishments. She was the second African-American woman, and the first woman of South Asian descent, to serve in the senate, as well as the first African-American attorney general of California.

Considering the barriers Harris has overcome, her own accomplishments, and the fact that she enters office at a time when a large minority are likely to reject her legitimacy, the magazine’s critics argue that Vogue should not be undermining her authority.

The cover has also given rise to a debate about the many more ways women’s appearances are policed versus their male counterparts, and about Vogue’s lack of diversity. Only one black photographer has made the cover of Vogue in its history.

When Vogue attempted to reassure readers by showing the inside cover photo —a more formal portrait of the vice-president-elect in a smart light blue suit — a further argument ensued as reports emerged that Harris had expected this to be the cover.

The world’s rulers have attempted to project power and authority through their images for centuries, and – though Vogue may have let her down – Harris participates in the tradition.

In the 17th Century, the English Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, demanded that Samuel Cooper depict him honestly, “warts and all”, perhaps hoping to display his own honesty through the painting. A later portrait, by the Dutch painter Peter Lely, notably makes less of Cromwell’s facial topography.

The great painter, Francisco Goya, was also often accused, though fortunately not by his subject, of lampooning King Charles IV of Spain and his family in his portrait of 1800.

Compared to these works, Harris’ Vogue cover is comparatively unblemished. Its reception does, however, demonstrate that many women still feel that they cannot trust the media to represent them fairly.

Should we portray politicians with more respect?

Unvarnished truth

Some say, yes: Harris is a singularly important figure. She represents the political aspirations of many women, and especially women of colour. She is, by dint of her achievements, worthy of respect and admiration. To treat her disrespectfully is not simply to disrespect a politician, but her constituents who have often been marginalised. They deserve better.

Others say no: politicians are not entitled to any say over how they are portrayed. To insist that a fashion magazine show the correct amount of deference to a public figure is to set a dangerous precedent. Harris may deserve to be taken seriously, but that does not mean that she is owed an apology for a mediocre photograph. Vogue ought to assert its independence from political interference.

You Decide

  1. If someone posts an unflattering photo of you online, should you be able to make them take it down?
  2. Is there a difference between Vogue letting Harris choose a photograph and a newspaper doing the same thing?

Activities

  1. Have a look at the “Equestrian Portrait of Charles V” by Titian, and the “Portrait of Henry VIII” by Hans Holbein. Make a list of differences between them, and then say which King you think looks more powerful, and why.
  2. Write a specification for a portrait of yourself, listing what kind of props and background you want, and explaining what qualities these are meant to convey. Research four royal portraits to draw on for inspiration.

Some People Say...

“Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy.”

Susan Sontag, (1933 – 2004) American critic and author of “On Photography”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that politicians have sought to control their image since time immemorial. The rulers of Lycia, a Mediterranean kingdom, became the first rulers to place their portraits on currency in the 4th Century BC. In the 16th Century, Hans Holbein and Titian revolutionised royal portraits, presenting realistic images of rulers. In recent years, leaders such as Barack Obama have turned to cutting edge artists and photographers to project taste and sophistication.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around the role of fashion in politics. Some female politicians, such as Angela Merkel, refuse to answer questions about their clothes. When progressive US congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez appeared in designer clothes on the cover of Vanity Fair she earned both praise and accusations of hypocrisy. To some, fashion helps politicians connect with people; to others, it is simply another ground on which women can be judged.

Word Watch

Cascade
A waterfall.
Chuck Taylors
Converse All Stars, a style of trainers, are named after an early 20th Century basketball player who asked Converse to design a better shoe. Harris has often been photographed wearing these.
Washed out
This refers to the larger than necessary amount of light used to take the photograph. While the photographer responsible for the Vogue Cover, Tyler Mitchell, is black, this particular criticism implies a racial insensitivity on Vogue’s part. The light allegedly makes Harris’ skin seem lighter, and the criticism suggests either the photographer or editor is ignorant of how best to present darker skin.
Lord Protector
Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector of England, ruling it after he overthrew King Charles I in 1649. Charles himself had a fine taste in portraits, commissioning several from the Flemish master Anthony van Dyck.
Topography
The shape and features of the surface of the land. Here used metaphorically to refer to Cromwell’s face.
Lampooning
To criticise. The word seems to originate from an ironic toast, where people would drink in mockery rather than celebration of someone. One of the reasons Goya’s painting is seen as critical is because it is fairly unflattering.

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