What Role Should Fashion Media Take In Politics?

Editors at 'Teen Vogue,' 'GQ,' 'Elle,' 'Glamour,' 'Marie Claire' and more weigh in.
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Editors at 'Teen Vogue,' 'GQ,' 'Elle,' 'Glamour,' 'Marie Claire' and more weigh in.
fashion media politics teen vogue

Photo: Instagram/@teenvogue

In between signs reading "Dump Trump" and "Women's Rights Are Human Rights" at last month's Women's March on Washington was one that read simply, "Long Live Teen Vogue." 

It might have seemed out of place for those unaware of the way that Teen Vogue has come to symbolize informed political resistance for some readers, but the message was heard loud and clear by Teen Vogue editors, who were sent pictures of the sign by a friend who'd spotted it in the crowd.

"When we were in the crowd marching, people actually stopped us to say that they recognized us from Teen Vogue and appreciated our coverage and what we're doing," says Phil Picardi, the brand's digital editorial director.

While Teen Vogue has garnered some of the loudest praise of late as a publication known for fashion but aggressively pursuing progressive political stories, the truth is that it's not alone. In fact, it's actually a relative newcomer among women's lifestyle magazines that also cover government affairs. Glamour, for example, has had a contributing editor in Washington for over 20 years; Cosmopolitan's scoops include the story on Kellyanne Conway's "Bowling Green massacre" slip-up; and Vogue "has been covering politics for 125 years, and we don't plan to stop," according to spokesperson Hildy Kuryk. The list of women's mags with long histories of political reporting — Elle, Vanity Fair, Marie Claire, Essence — goes on.

All of these publications have received positive feedback from readers for their political coverage, but some editors have also been frustrated to encounter people who seem surprised by or critical of women's media comprehensively covering politics.

Jess Pels, digital director at Marie Claire, wonders if gender may play a role in this. "I think the public perception is that men's interest magazines can and should play in the political space more than women's magazines can," she says. "But it's important that women be viewed as valid voices in the political conversation."

Others would argue that the disconnect comes more from the difficulty some readers have in reconciling that magazines (and the people who read them) can care about seemingly "frivolous" subjects like fashion and beauty and hard-hitting political issues simultaneously.

One tweet — which was actually meant as a compliment to Teen Vogue — highlighted this viewpoint just this week.

Picardi responded with a short screenshotted note thanking the tweeter for his viewpoint, but also defending Elle and Marie Claire. "Writing about fashion or being interested in fashion does not preclude anyone from being concerned or informed about what's going on in our country," he wrote, after noting that Teen Vogue still writes about what's fresh off the runway in addition to covering the White House.

Jon Wilde, editor at GQ.com, notes that the men's mag has borne the brunt of similar critiques when its writers have used their "wit as a weapon" to critique the Trump administration. "We do get plenty of 'stick to suits' comments on social media," he says, adding that increased political coverage is also bringing a different kind of reader to the site. "We're seeing our posts resonate with a new audience and rippling out into conversations across the web. On a recent style-centric post, one Facebook commenter with a beautifully droll sense of humor wrote, 'stick to politics,' which brought a proud little tear to my eye."

As far as Glamour executive Wendy Naugle is concerned, this expectation that media brands should "stick to" only one kind of content is on the way out. "Maybe a decade ago you'd think, 'Oh, I'm going to read my politics and then my fashion news and then my health news,'" she says. "Now, people see how those all go hand-in-hand. Something that's decided in public policy could affect any of those areas."

Many women's brands that have been covering politics for years have begun taking their political coverage to the next level as a result of increased reader interest in the wake of the election. Naugle, who has been with Glamour for 15 years, has had ample time to observe the ways that reader interest in these kinds of stories has changed over time. "There are always natural peaks with a presidential election, and there's more engagement in presidential election years than in mid-term elections," she says. "But in terms of reader interest, we are seeing an unusually high level of engagement. I think that's partly because of the political climate right now."

Pels agrees, adding that in the case of women's lifestyle publications, that might have something to do with the way that this election — with its sexual-assault admissions from the now-President and planned defunding of Planned Parenthood — highlighted issues that affect women more intimately than men. "Women's issues really came to the fore in surprising ways," she says.

Responding to readers' hunger for information about what's happening in Washington is a no-brainer in a digital age where that interest is measurable in likes, shares and clicks, according to Cosmopolitan.com editor Amy Odell. "Things are constantly changing anyway when you're working on the internet, so it's not a hard decision to prioritize this," she says.

Still, it has required many publications to reallocate their resources. Almost every editor interviewed for this piece asserted that their publication has brought on new hires, created new positions or shifted current writers' priorities in order to accommodate the growing appetite for political coverage. A few have also developed intensive social media strategies to create ongoing conversations with their readers. Cosmo, for example, prioritizes creating new content for its Snapchat Discover platform, which reaches 7.26 million people daily.

"It's a younger audience than what we reach on the site, so we put political content in there in a way that feels really engaging on that platform and interesting to that reader," says Odell. Glamour is another publication that has focused heavily on its social channels, launching an initiative called The 51 Million in partnership with Facebook as a dedicated political vertical.

Elle.com site director Leah Chernikoff is quick to assert that reporting on politics is about more than just creating clickbait-y content for the sake of site traffic. Responsible political reporting, she believes, requires more thought than that — especially in light of the new administration.

"We've all seen the danger of breathlessly reporting on everything Trump," she says. "So part of our strategy moving forward is to make a commitment to cover women who are in or running for office. Because I think the media reaction after the election was like, 'What do we do now?' And part of what we want to respond with is, 'Here are women you can support.'"

All in all, political reporting from lifestyle publications is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Sure, they may facilitate luxury-laden escapism through some of their editorial imagery, but if they're really talking about a women's 'lifestyle,' perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that one subject included in that realm is politics. As Picardi asserts, "Politics directly affect your lifestyle."

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