Originally written as an academic web-journal entry.
On November 9, 2016, the day following the 2016 presidential election, Cosmopolitan columnist Prachi Gupta tweeted, “Just now setting in that POTUS-elect has called me ‘non intelligent’ & has insulted literally hundreds of others.” Gupta was referring to Donald Trump’s comments in response to an interview she conducted with now first daughter, Ivanka Trump, on September 14, 2016. During the phone interview, Gupta asked Trump about her father’s 2004 comments regarding the “inconvenience” pregnancy creates for businesses, to which the Trump heiress replied with disdain and denial. Trump abruptly ended the interview shortly after. Speaking to Fox Business Network about the incident, Donald Trump not only insulted Gupta but also claimed that Cosmopolitan was a “dying magazine.” Audience response to the incident was mixed, but the majority of Cosmopolitan readers praised the magazine for its bravery and leadership in encouraging young women to join the discussion about politics (Gupta later interviewed Chelsea Clinton as well). Quite notably for the writer and the publication (given its emphasis on entertainment), celebrities like Chrissy Teigen publicly shared their support. And unsurprisingly, following his inauguration as president, Donald Trump, his administration and its policies have continued to capture the attention of media outlets across the country. Perhaps, what is most striking is the upsurge of political interest this has sparked in traditionally apolitical forums; Cosmopolitan may have led the way among women’s magazines but Teen Vogue, targeted to a slightly younger audience, certainly has picked up the baton. In fact, both of these publications have since added a “Politics” section to their online platforms, posting daily, related content. If knowingly, the magazines run the risk of alienating at least half of their readers by 1) even discussing politics and 2) promoting an obviously leftist agenda, what do they stand to gain and how might the audience (particularly a supportive one) understand or rationalize such choices?
Firstly, in opposition to post-feminist views (sexual agency, personal choice, individual empowerment) that assert the progression beyond gender inequalities owing mostly to a perceived increase in women’s purchasing power, these magazines seem to suggest that there is still a battle to be fought. A quick overview of Twitter comments reveals that, for the most part, longstanding readers support a shift in content while dissenters remain those who relegate only so-called non-substantial issues to the realm of women’s magazines; these are the people who believe, as is suggested in the below image, that caring about politics and caring about make-up are indeed mutually exclusive.
Of course, this is not the first time such an argument has been made against women’s magazines, but the pushback from these publications, their writers and their readers seems more aflame than ever before. Cosmopolitan political writer, Jill Filipovic, laments,
It’s hard to see the disdain for women’s magazines and the (usually) female journalists who write for them as anything but sexism. Is ‘Celeb Bikini Bodies’ an example of serious journalism at its finest? Of course not. But neither is a rundown of Katy Perry’s hottest summer moments, and few would dispute that excellent journalists write for Esquire (also a Hearst publication) or suggest that celebrity photos on its homepage taint an unrelated politics feature. While fashion coverage is often written off as shallow and pointless, sports enjoys journalistic legitimacy so thorough that anchors like Keith Olbermann can go from sports broadcasting at ESPN to hosting political shows on MSNBC and back again.
For Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief, Joanna Coles, the very conscious decision to start covering politics was based on two things. First, with a predominantly female audience, she argues that issues like reproductive rights and equal pay affect young collegiettes and female college graduates deeply enough that they should be and are interested in knowing more. While these are recognizably post-feminist ideals, what she hopes to inspire is the sense of collectivism and activism that the movement might be lacking. Secondly, she believes that the intersection of popular culture and politics reflects a similar intersectionality within the generation of millennials.
Teen Vogue’s editor, the youngest ever, 30-year-old Elaine Welteroth agrees on both points. Speaking with NPR’s David Folkenflik about a recent article by Lauren Duca that has been viewed more than 1.2 million times, titled “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America,” Welteroth and Phillip Picardi, Teen Vogue’s digital editorial director, describe their young audience as “woke,” a term used online and in text messages to refer to someone who is aware of political, social and cultural affairs and is generally an advocate for social justice. Unlike being classed a “social justice warrior,” being woke is understood in online communities to be positive. Teen Vogue readers, like Cosmopolitan readers, are young but conscious. And, as Coles notes, they do not always recognize themselves or their interests in a predominantly much older, white, male administration. Coles explains, “I think millennial readers—men and women, Republican and Democrat, look at politicians like that and think, ‘We’re not on the same planet. I don’t understand.’” Elaine Welteroth is an African-American woman. Phillip Picardi, only 25, is a gay man.
Notwithstanding all its seemingly honest goals of educating and engaging a young and diverse audience, it is still important to recognize one final factor involved here—one that often lies at the center of most media conglomerates and one that often provides (some) rationale for legislation against media collusion (Cosmopolitan is owned by Hearst Communications and Teen Vogue is owned by Condé Nast). Educated, engaged readers are still consumers. And in an election period as tumultuous as that of 2016, it is economically beneficial to capitalize on what online platforms reveal to be a concerned majority. Welteroth explains the shift at Teen Vogue as an effort to find some greater meaning in their work, whereas Folkenflik very matter-of-factly says, “The need to compete digitally led them to add politics to the mix.” Picardi goes so far as to cite the latter as his suggestion during his job interview to increase readership from two million to 10 million users per month. This logic begs the question of authenticity and sincerity; are young readers (female or not) genuinely interested or is political engagement simply a trend that media outlets are capitalizing on (regardless of where they land on the political spectrum)? Still, it is not enough to negate the work being done by unassuming publications like Cosmopolitan and Teen Vogue, which have managed to commandeer what may be characterized as a millennial, political revolution; here, the transfer of power is not necessarily from one political party or leader to another, but rather from traditional modes of mass media (gendered stereotypes of women’s publications included) to ones that are more intersectional and interactive, if only on the surface.