The true story of how Teen Vogue got mad, got woke, and began terrifying men like Donald Trump

We really need to give teenage girls more credit.
We really need to give teenage girls more credit.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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“A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs,” Samuel Johnson said back in 1791. “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Over two centuries later, denigrating women who dare to express their thoughts remains a popular cultural pastime. This is especially true when women speak publicly about “serious” topics like religion, business, and politics. And there is no better example of this phenomenon than the condescension with which Teen Vogue’s political coverage has been greeted in 2016.

When Lauren Duca’s excellent Teen Vogue op-ed on Donald Trump’s psychological manipulation of America went viral last Saturday, social media exploded with praise—and with baffled reactions. The piece, one Twitter user noted, had “big words for a magazine about hairstyles and celebrity gossip.” Another user expressed pure astonishment: “Who would have guessed @TeenVogue might be the future of political news. Unreal coverage of the election.” Others were less kind, and a lot less subtle: “Go back to acne treatments,” one man snapped.

Teen Vogue deserves credit not just for Duca’s op-ed but for the entirety of its political coverage, which has provided sharp, impassioned coverage of everything from gun control to Black Lives Matter in 2016. Much of this is due to Teen Vogue’s editor, Elaine Welteroth, who graduated to the position last May, and Phil Picardi, the magazine’s digital editorial director. Just two years ago, the site’s most-read articles were comprised almost entirely of light celebrity and beauty news (an expose of Taylor Swift’s secret past as an Abercrombie & Fitch model performed particularly well). Today, a quick scan of its Twitter feed reveals pieces about the Dylann Roof verdict and Ohio’s recent abortion ban interspersed with galleries of “2016’s Cutest Celebrity Couples” and a review of Miranda Kerr’s skincare routine. (I clicked; my passion for gender equality is matched only by my abiding interest in dry oils.)

But while Teen Vogue’s coverage is praiseworthy, it is not all that exceptional. Women’s publications have been offering substantive, worthwhile political takes for years now. That we still find this development remarkable is a measure of how our culture has segregated “women’s issues” from politics at large.

A brief history of women’s news

Once upon a time, there was news, and there was women’s news. Your local paper—let’s assume you subscribed; this would have been several decades ago—came to you every day packed with meaty, manly sections such as “Business” or “Politics.” Then, perhaps on the weekend, you would get an extra section, containing—oh, happy day—news that even your wife could read.

This was the “Lifestyle” section, and it covered all topics deemed feminine: cooking, fashion and beauty, parenting, maybe even a little celebrity news. (“Arts and Literature,” a Very Serious Section, still belonged to the boys.) The magazine world more or less followed the same format, with seriousness invariably reserved for men and masculine topics. People understood that a men’s magazine like Playboy could still feature hard-hitting articles and interviews, but Cosmopolitan was strictly for learning how to eat a donut off your man’s penis.

This dichotomy is simplistic and sexist. And it never entirely held water—even back in the 1960s, Cosmopolitan published daring-for-the-time coverage of birth control. But it’s what we’ve been taught to expect from the media. Men cover and read Real News; women cover and read … well, woman stuff.

This bias is still reflected in how journalists are assigned stories. Women have been attending and graduating journalism school more often than men since the 1970s; by 2010, 64% of J-school graduates were female. Yet as of 2015, 65% of political journalists, 67% of criminal justice reporters, and 62% of reporters covering “business and economics” were male. Even in the lifestyle section, women can only pull even; the gender split there is precisely 50-50.

Thus it is that, when liberal pundit Keith Olbermann takes a job at GQ, no one blinks an eye; but when Teen Vogue turns out a solid explainer on vice president-to-be Mike Pence’s stance on reproductive and LGBTQ rights, minds are blown.

The rise of the feminist blogosphere

But over the course of the past decade or two, the underlying paradigm of women’s media has changed. Magazines for women and girls, ranging from Teen Vogue to Elle and Cosmopolitan, understand that political advocacy and more traditional lifestyle or entertainment coverage are not mutually exclusive. That shift is largely thanks to the rise of the feminist blogosphere.

Throughout the 2000s, a combination of loathing for former US president George W. Bush and the increased accessibility of blogging platforms led to the emergence of feminist blogs. Some, like Feministe, launched as early as 2001. By 2004, major players like Feministing and Shakesville had joined the scene. And by 2008, “feminist blogging” had become a large and noisy subculture, one which has since launched New York Times bestsellers (by my count, there were two this year alone), created a launchpad for several writing careers (mine included), and arguably helped to create an entirely new genre of mainstream media.

The writers of these sites—nearly all women, and nearly all amateurs—annihilated the boundaries of traditional women’s media. Not only was their writing “political” by definition, the subculture rewarded an assertive, opinionated style and the ability to tackle a wide variety of topics. Essays about abortion rights belonged on a feminist blog, but so did posts about wage discrimination, Ben Roethlisberger’s rape charges, and the latest Judd Apatow movie. On the blogosphere, the traditional division of subjects under newspaper sections was collapsed. The only real criteria when it came to determining coverage was that the subject had to affect women—which, upon close examination, turned out to be true of literally everything.

Almost by accident, the feminist blog movement was training an army of female journalists and editors. Feministe’s Jill Filipovic now writes for outlets like Cosmopolitan and the New York Times; Ann Friedman, who once wrote for Feministing, is now a regular columnist at New York Magazine. The executive editor of Feministing, Samhita Mukhopadhyay, is now senior editorial director of culture and identities at Mic. Kate Harding blogged at Shakesville and founded her own blog, Shapely Prose, in 2007. All of these women made their names while covering beats they might have been barred from in more traditional newsrooms. They were also creating a substantial readership for politically engaged coverage done in a female voice.

The first mainstream publication to successfully adopt the feminist-blog approach was also one of the best. In 2008, Anna Holmes’ Jezebel made the then-risky move of combining politics coverage and traditionally feminist op-eds with fashion and celebrity gossip, betting that the same woman could plausibly enjoy reading both Megan Carpentier on Hillary Clinton and Sadie Stein on bandage dresses. Jezebel’s traffic soon outstripped its more dudely counterpart Gawker, and created a model for women’s media that is still the norm today. In 2011, Tavi Gevinson significantly expanded that model to cover teen girls, launching the largely teen-written Rookie Magazine. This month alone, Rookie has published both a “get the look” makeup tutorial for Donyale Luna (known as the first black supermodel) and an activist’s guide to fighting Islamophobia. (I was, full disclosure, a staff writer for Rookie for its first two years, and a contributor to the Holmes-edited Book of Jezebel.)

In 2008, Jezebel presented itself as an adversarial counterpart to the “ladymags” like Cosmopolitan or Vogue, exposing egregious examples of photoshopping and cringe-inducing racist “trend” coverage. (“Navajo” was evidently big for white ladies in 2011.) But at the same time, Jezebel’s success pushed establishment magazines to change the way they operated. Now there was incontrovertible evidence that women enjoyed being spoken to like intelligent human beings, rather than clothing-obsessed toddlers. Before long, the ladymags and the ladyblogs were not adversaries so much as cousins. They now draw on an increasingly shared strategy and talent pool.

So: Teen Vogue publishes stronger, more adversarial Trump coverage than Time or Newsweek? Teen Vogue contains both skincare tips and Native American history lessons? Of course it does. Teen Vogue, unlike Time or Newsweek, is drawing explicitly from a rich tradition of aggressive, opinionated, adversarial coverage of sexist white men.

That same tradition spearheaded by the early feminist blogosphere holds that femininity is not a form of stupidity. Call it Dworkin’s Curse: For decades, feminists struggled to overcome the perception that they were sexless, grim bra-burners, uninterested in pleasure or aesthetics. Now that feminists are finally willing to talk about makeup and Beyonce, we get stereotyped as fluffy.

Yet just as it has long been widely understood that Playboy readers could be interested in both modern short fiction and looking at women’s breasts, in the 2010s, only the most dour or dismissive of bros could conclude that serious political engagement is incompatible with an interest in rainbow highlighters. Everyone loves rainbow highlighters. They make you look like a beautiful pixie who fronts a glam-rock band. Also, white nationalism is a cancer on our democracy. Women are capable of holding both of these truths in their minds, and prioritizing them accordingly.

Under the incoming Trump administration, it’s crucial that we banish the idea that there is a boundary between “women’s journalism” and “serious journalism” once and for all. When the president of the United States has admitted to committing sexual assault on tape; when an architect of GamerGate sits in the White House; when states start passing “heartbeat bills” designed to effectively overturn Roe v. Wade, those aren’t “women’s issues”—they’re national news. A failure to treat them as such will leave us unprepared to adequately oppose Trump and Trumpism.

The feminist-blog movement, and the women’s media revolution that followed, has trained the exact press corps we need for this moment in history. Now we need to stop feigning shock at the women and girls who are running circles around mainstream publications’ political coverage, and start listening to what they have to tell us.