On Saturday morning, Teen Vogue published a sharp piece by the writer Lauren Duca entitled “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America.” Described in the tagline as a “scorched-earth op-ed,” Duca laid out a clear and airtight argument about the way the president-elect used classic gaslighting tactics to secure his voter base and the way he continues to use them to undermine our democracy. Pegged to the CIA revelation that Russian hackers sought to sway our election in Trump’s favor, Duca measuredly interpreted what that meant to her audience—which is to say, teen girls who do not need to be spoken down to, just because they are teen girls.
Twitter was in disbelief that a publication for teen girls could be so intelligent and so political at once, though much of the shock came from older, established male journalists whose low expectations for teens, girls, and fashion magazines were on full, embarrassing display. This is despite the fact that many consider themselves media reporters (or at least present as having knowledge of the industry they’re in), and should know better:
Anyone who has followed the work of both Duca and Teen Vogue—particularly the publication’s coverage around and after the election—was not surprised that a piece of this political fortitude and caliber was published by the juniors’ companion to Vogue. Since Teen Vogue’s inception in 2004, it has been a fascinating experiment to watch, with its staffers and writers consistently slipping feminist ideologies among its backpage pieces on teen socialites and innovative fashion spreads. And since Elaine Welteroth was promoted from Beauty and Health Director to Editor in May 2016—the magazine’s first black top editor, and at present one of two black top editors at Condé Nast, along with Bride’s Keija Minor—that slant has been more explicit than ever. (Welteroth runs the Teen Vogue brand along with Digital Editorial Director Phillip Picardi, under whose auspices Duca’s Trump piece ran.)
Teen Vogue’s most recent issue, for instance, was guest edited by Black-ish’s Yara Shahidi (age 16) and her best friend, Girl Meets World’s Rowan Blanchard (15), two young Hollywood stars among several who’ve been open and resolute about their commitment to activism and intersectional feminism.(Welteroth also appeared in a recent episode of Black-ish devoted to the topic of nepotism.) In their cover story, they discussed being young girls in a time that’s been incrementally more inclusive, and their own roles in media representation. For instance, Shahidi:
Some of my childhood modeling jobs were with Mattel and Disney, so I’d go into the Disney store and literally see me. My family was cleaning up the garage, and I found these life-size cutouts of 6-year-old me as the black Tinkerbell, black Cinderella, you name it, which is hilarious. But being the black version of so many characters brought up problems. I was happy to be black, but at the same time there were moments of, “Why is this a separate collection?” There was this realization that being black meant I was the “off-brand” version because Cinderella wasn’t made to look like me.
The issue also included an interview with Michelle Obama conducted by Zendaya, and Shahidi and Janelle Monáe in a Hidden Figures-pegged conversation about young women, particularly of color, working in STEM. Accompanying these are the publication’s typically beautiful fashion spreads, because aesthetics are not divorced from intellect.
Teen girls have historically been underestimated, but having been one in the 1990s (gulp), I’d venture to say the current generation is even moreso—because on the whole they’re smarter, more educated, and more sensitive thanks to a lifetime with the internet. Yet the same old stereotypes about young girls perpetuate apace. Anyone who’s paying attention, though, to the fierce intelligence and outspokenness of young, public women like Shahidi and Blanchard—and Amandla Stenberg, and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, and my occasional boss Tavi Gevinson—knows that a new generation of leaders is emerging in the entertainment world in a way that we’ve always hoped, and even better that they reflect the surge of non-famous teen girls who are doing the same.
In The Guardian, Hannah Jane Parkinson posits that some of the surprise at Duca’s op-ed comes from the fact that Teen Vogue’s big sister, Vogue, has been more wishy-washy on the matter of a Trump presidency, despite Anna Wintour campaigned vociferously for Hillary Clinton. She writes:
Over the weekend, Anna Wintour, the formidable editor-in-chief of US Vogue, was compelled to issue an apology after being overheard on a train panning Donald Trump, saying his foundation had achieved nothing, and that he would use his presidency to further his personal brand. “I immediately regretted my comments,” she told the Sunday Mirror, “and I apologise. I hope he’ll be a successful president for us all.”
It’s a fair point, and perhaps factors in, though I would also posit that those expressing such shock at Teen Vogue’s acuity aren’t necessarily up on Vogue’s, either—it’s all part of the collective male media hegemony that puts women’s magazines, no matter how serious, in the pink ghetto, as it were. But it’s also that Teen Vogue is a sovereign entity from Vogue, and necessarily reflects the energy and curiosity that young women have as a rule. I wondered how many of those diminishing Teen Vogue had ever read Gevinson’s Rookie, to which I have contributed but is geared towards and mostly written by teen girls, and too regularly publishes pieces about politics. (Just this week, for instance, Sarah Gouda wrote a guide for Muslim girls on fighting Islamophobia in Trump’s America.)
On Twitter, Gevinson offered a sage analysis of this landscape, the idea that publications and companies in general aimed at young women are becoming more specifically progressive because that’s what young women demand. And she wrote, “Why should it be shocking that mainstream pubs reckoning with accountability culture & the rising currency of feminism are suddenly feminist?”
It’s certainly the question of the year. As an administration that wants to strip women of our rights is set in place, feminists must must urgently and explicitly break through the murk of commodity feminism to reinvigorate our direct-action tactics. And so when young women—or adults like Duca—reflect this reality, it should never be surprising. They, and we, know what’s at stake.
Correction: A prior version of this piece referred to Elaine Welteroth as the only black EIC at Condé Nast, inadvertently omitting Keija Minor. Additionally, changes were made to reflect Welteroth’s title, alongside the inclusion of Philip Picardi.