Is Vogue’s Kamala Harris Cover Disrespectful?

The first female, black, South Asian vice president is depicted in street clothes and converse shoes.

Three steps forward, two steps back.

That was the feeling many had when Vogue’s latest cover leaked over the weekend. The photo is taken by Tyler Mitchell, still the only black photographer to have shot a Vogue cover, and shows the Vice President dressed in a dark blazer and ankle-length trousers, as well as her signature Converse sneakers. It’s the sort of outfit she would wear out on the street, in a casual meet and greet with voters, and her face, too, shows an expression of slight surprise, as though she didn’t know someone was taking a photo of her.

The cover sparked controversy on social media, with many feeling like it lacked respect and reverence for a formidable woman who has made history: the US’ first woman, Black and South-Asian vice-president. The cover design was received with even more bewilderment as it was released at the same time as a digital-only cover showing Harris in a pale blue Michael Kors pantsuit against a golden backdrop. AP and CNN report that Harris’ team had thought that she would appear in the Kors suit, and were “blindsided” by the last-minute swap. “Delete the chucks picture and change the cover to the blue suit MVP agreed to…this is disrespectful,” wrote one person on Twitter. Users also criticised the lighting which washed out Harris’ skin tone. “Kamala Harris is about as light-skinned as women of color come and Vogue still fucked up her lighting … WTF is this washed out mess of a cover?” another Twitter user wrote.

For many, the choice was a seen as way of undermining Harris and the power she fought hard to obtain. “Vogue’s Kamala Harris cover shows that diminishing powerful Black women is still in fashion” writes columnist Karen Attiah in Washington Post.

Editor-in-chief Anna Wintour argued that the picture was chosen for portraying Harris as “accessible” and “approachable.” “All of us felt very, very strongly that the less formal portrait of the Vice-President-elect really reflected the moment we were living in” and that “a much less formal picture, something that was very, very accessible, and approachable, and real, really reflected the hallmark of the Biden-Harris campaign.”

But even if Vogue’s aim wasn’t to be disrespectful or undermine Harris, this decision to show her as “accessible” at all costs is still problematic. It stems directly from the mandate on powerful women to appear “likeable”, especially for women of color who already have to fight against the “angry black woman” stereotype. Harris should not have to be likeable or approachable or accessible. She is powerful. That should be enough.

We are right to feel angry about this, and to call it out. But still, whatever obstacles they throw at women of color they cannot take this victory away.

Three steps forward, two steps back, is still one step forward.

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