Women’s magazines, like the print business overall, have a notoriously poor history of foregrounding people of color, whether inside their pages, as subjects of their features, or of course, on their covers. Progress creeps along at the most marginal pace. Are the issues through the first half of 2016 any indication of what to look forward to for the rest of the year?
In a 2015 cover analysis, Fashionista revealed a dearth of color across the front of all women’s glossies; Fusion’s analytics, similarly, found that fashion mag covers featured only 14 percent women of color in 2014.
While some titles carried the status quo into 2016—mags tend to use their white readership demographic as an excuse to remain stagnant, from what I’ve noticed—others seem more committed to diversifying and shifting course. It could be that covers, generally, are now starting to reflect a moderately increased level of diversity in pop culture. Or it could be that a handful of magazines and cover stars are just doing the work.
Instead of waiting until the end of the year to tabulate cover stats, let’s examine the numbers in a midterm breakdown of 2016's women’s mag covers thus far.
In its January issue, Vogue overlord Anna Wintour announced efforts to join the real world and make the magazine’s coverage more inclusive, writing in her editorial: “All of the many progressive societal changes that we have experienced recently are pointing us to a place of far greater inclusiveness, tolerance and diversity.”
Seems like it would’ve been a perfect opportunity to put a person of color on the cover along with this diversity initiative. Instead, the issue features a considerably tanned Alicia Vikander. Vogue has since featured Penelope Cruz (she’s from Spain and thus considered white) on its February cover (she had to share it with Zoolander, a fake model from a terrible movie) and Rihanna on the April issue.
That is already a slight uptick—Vogue’s non-white covers went up from three in 2014 to four in 2015—and there’s time left in 2016. But one-and-a-half out of six covers so far in a year that started with a diversity letter is a pretty poor effort. Unlike some of its international counterparts—a la Vogue Espana, which had a black woman with cornrows on its March cover—Vogue still has no idea how to be a progressive face of fashion.
Vogue’s cooler young sibling is doing an incredible job of diversifying, with four young women of color in its first six covers of the year, including Asian supermodel Fernanda Ly, Amandla Stenberg and Willow Smith. This means the magazine is mostly not white so far, a feat that is incredibly rare in the publishing biz, and representative of what seems to be an internal editorial trend. Teen Vogue went from one person of color on the cover in 2014 to four last year (three in 2013).
This could, of course, be attributed to the assorted and realistic tastes of its millennial fan base, on top of leadership. In May, Teen Vogue appointed its first-ever black Editor-in-Chief, Elaine Welteroth, who formerly served as their health and beauty director and had a hand in writing/editing the Willow and Amandla cover stories. Welteroth is also only the second black EIC in Conde Nast history (and the youngest).
Teen Vogue’s approach looks especially impressive when you compare the magazine to its competition. Seventeen’s 2016 covers include Tori Kelly and Fifth Harmony, a decent effort at inclusion, and they do get points for putting Michelle Obama on the May issue—but get a major deduction for making her split it with my nemesis Meghan Trainor.
Not only does Harper’s Bazaar have 100 percent white faces on its covers, there’s also little variation from one image to the next. Kate Hudson (top far left) could easily be swapped with Jennifer Aniston (bottom far left) and you’d hardly know the difference. The sameness is to be expected from a magazine that had just one person of color on its cover in 2015—Rihanna.
The sex-position bible Cosmo has featured Jessica Alba and Shay Mitchell on its alarmingly bright covers this year, but no black faces. Could it be that only white women have sex? Certainly something to think about. Nicki Minaj and Demi Lovato were the sole cover minorities in 2015, an honor that went to Chrissy Teigen in 2014.
The inclusion of Latina women on their covers seems to correspond with the digital expansion and presence of Cosmopolitan Latina, which transitioned to a solely online publication in late 2015 after three years in print.
W is another outlier in the game, with Zendaya and Willow Smith both appearing on a cover together, in addition to separate issues featuring Selena Gomez and Jennifer Lopez. Tabulating stats here is slightly unusual, though, since the February Movie Issue covers were split between a bunch of white faces: Alicia Vikander, Brie Larson, Carey Mulligan, Eddie Redmayne, Rooney Mara and Saoirse Ronan. And W went from four non-white covers in 2014 to two in 2015. Still, this year is a good look so far.
Making up for the whiteness of its first few issues of the year, Marie Claire crammed its minority cover stars on the June 2016 cover, which Selena Gomez splits with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Zendaya. I hope the second half of 2016 keeps with it, but my hopes aren’t up.
Elle has a whopping four black women on its first-half-of-2016 covers, which is sadly considered trailblazing. This rare fête of inclusion involves Taraji P. Henson for their Women in TV issue, which also featured Viola Davis and Priyanka Chopra on separate covers, so five women of color altogether.
Besides putting Viola Davis, Lupita Nyong’o and Jennifer Lopez on covers this year, InStyle has taken a wild leap recently; they went from one person of color on the cover in 2014, to five in 2015. Maybe the controversy over their whitewashing of Kerry Washington on last year’s March cover sparked a change of heart.
Through the first half of 2016–which reveals that Allure likes to only show the top halves of women—the mag gave Demi Lovato and, impressively, FKA twigs a cover look. Three of its 12 covers in the past two years have gone to women of color, so this year is on trend for them so far, maybe even an improvement.
No doubt, it helps to have a woman of color at the head. Former Nylon editor Michelle Lee was hired as EIC after Allure founder Linda Wells’ exit in 2015 following a 24-year tenure.
UPDATE: The March 2016 cover is split with Naomi Campbell. Allure’s grade has been updated from B- to A-.
After naming Lupita Woman of the Year in 2014, Glamour appears to have no plans on being anything but homogenous.
Chrissy Teigen appeared on the April issue of Self, if you can even tell that’s her face. The remaining covers are otherwise white in what’s become a predictable, troubling trend among health and fitness publications that can’t seem to locate healthy minorities.
Yep, fitness mags continue to be far behind reality. Women’s Health has attempted something resembling an ethnic mixture, if we count Christina Aguilera and Cameron Diaz as Latina, to go with their Gina Rodriguez and Olivia Munn covers. No black or brown. Shape, meanwhile, is just clueless.
Midway through the year, 6 of the 15 magazines highlighted above have a B grade or higher. These numbers will oscillate from year to year, but it’s clear that these print magazines have discernible stances on the spectrum from conservative to progressive, and it’s easy to watch them regress or move forward. But the goal is simple: Do better. As in other industries, diversity is a strange, mysterious concept in the print world, but women’s magazines know aspiration, and a parade of white faces on the covers sends a message that no longer flies. Some publications (Redbook, Shape) seem content to stick with the aesthetic discrimination that is recent tradition, and they will surely be rewarded with irrelevance in the end.
Those with more youthful, aware readerships (Teen Vogue), and those more cutting edge publications like Elle and W generally seem to realize the importance of representing the world at large in a meaningful, interesting way. And a final note, for now: Publishers should also recognize the benefit of placing women of color in top positions and giving them the power to make these magazines look way more inclusive, and way more real.
*This post has been updated to clarify that Penelope Cruz is from Spain.