Teen Vogue's Political Coverage Provokes Teens — and Adults
Illustration by Mario Wagner
Alongside political op-eds and truly killer news posts from adult writers, Teen Vogue has published a few pieces of excellent work by and for teenagers lately, both in print and on the internet. "Why the Women's March Is Important for Trans Teens," a recent online article by the sixteen-year-old writer Grace Dolan-Sandrino, is simultaneously a personal essay, a reported journalistic story, and a lighthouse pointing her peers to possible demonstrations of intersectional action and support. Teen Vogue's most recent cover stars and guest editors, Rowan Blanchard and Yara Shahidi, spoke affectingly about misogynoir (through the lens of Disney princesses); the rights of women and girls internationally; and the joys of texting about Beyoncé in gibberish. When teenagers are tasked with representing their own interests instead of having older people narrate what those might be, the resulting coverage can be as progressive, diverse, and reflective of social awareness as many teenage girls are.
Teen Vogue's vigorous political blogging would be all the more impressive if the readership implied by the name were present in most of the magazine's subjects and contributions. Features from the Blanchard/Shahidi issue tended to focus on the finances and careers of women well into their twenties — one story, "How to Negotiate Your Salary," asserts, "We get it: Your credit card bills are piling up, and your student loans statements are sitting on the table unopened," which isn't true for most teenagers (...yet). So it makes sense that the majority of Teen Vogue's readership — 65 percent — are women eighteen and older. This statistic is per Teen Vogue's media kit, a PR resource that magazines use to attract advertisers and whose copy asserts that the brand's purpose is to "educate, enlighten, and empower young women." In order to speak resonantly to girls, why not assume that they might be capable of those actions without interference, then give them the editorial room to execute as much?
Though the outlet includes features centering on teenage perspectives, more often, professionally established adult women write first-person essays and editorials for Teen Vogue — stories that would be more striking if placed in Vogue itself. There, they'd signal further comprehension on the part of its publisher that women want to read work that addresses their lives meaningfully, instead of co-opting a demographic already inclined toward social change. When Teen Vogue is so woke, what does it say that its elder relative — the magazine whose audience Teen Vogue's will ostensibly evolve into — is less keen to take hard stances on political issues? (Though the writer Marjon Carlos covers fashion and identity brilliantly, Vogue's political offerings are typified by "Inside Ivanka's Wardrobe" features, plus an Inauguration Day diary from...Blaine Trump, Donald's ex-sister-in-law.) If Vogue isn't feeling pressured to appeal to its advertisers and market by including political content, it won't. The same would be true of Teen Vogue — if young women hadn't demonstrated that they care — deeply, critically — about discussing politics.
I am wary of any product, editorial or otherwise, marketing "empowerment" as something girls — and the women they become — can access only if they buy whatever thing is promising it. Certain foundational aspects of any publication directed at young women should be expected, like the inclusion of girls of many races, identities, and sizes, features on activism and academics, and an eye toward whether its stories truly speak — and listen — to those it hopes to reach. None of this should be treated as astounding, which signals to girls that it's unusual that they might care about or be capable of dissecting the world. Indicating that it's normal for girls to think about politics — not novel or exceptional, as many publishers and commentators seem to believe is true of Teen Vogue's attention to current events — will generate a wave of better-equipped voters and leaders. More important, it would affirm to girls (right now, rather than in the credit-card-debt-laden future of their twenties) that they and their peers are astute thinkers and allies.
Teen Vogue has an opportunity to become a direct conduit for (and to further capitalize on) politically weaponized teenagers. This is evinced by the Blanchard/Shahidi feature: The former says, "I sometimes get worried that my feminism is, like, too American. We can get lost in Taylor Swift fighting Kanye West instead of being like, there are so many Syrian refugees!" I love this thought: It's intersectional, un-preachy, and conversational in a way that young women can recognize as belonging to someone like them. Having Blanchard and Shahidi guest-edit the magazine was a move that resulted in trenchant, digestible explorations of difficult topics.
When I worked as a story editor at a teenagers' publication, the rewards of allowing young people to speak about their experiences and perspectives were obvious. I began that job at 23, and it was an ongoing course on broader approaches to activism, inclusivity, and the mechanics of striving, every day, to move forward together with respect, love, and intelligence. Teenage writers covered the strains of misogyny that black girls face, the experience of losing a parent to mental illness, the need to prioritize self-care as an activist. In the comments section, young women educated themselves and their peers (and me!) by respectfully listening to one another about issues many adult feminists have trouble discussing.
When I think of how timorous many adult feminists can be about opening up their politics and movements to women of color and trans women, citing concerns that it'll scare off the masses that would otherwise feel welcomed to a more common cause, I think of how teenagers invite one another forward. Feminism is worthwhile if it continually morphs and expands to promote all women's rights and livelihoods; positioning older people at its vanguard (even if they're only a little older!) is retrograde. Instead of becoming fearful and angry about what they don't know when someone is trying to help them understand it — as were many white women when black and brown women added their beliefs to conversations leading up to the Women's March on Washington — teenagers are likelier to operate under the idea that there's always more to learn. Young women are already equipped to "educate, enlighten, and empower" themselves — and the rest of us — because they spend every day doing exactly that. Teenage girls consider one another smart and informed enough to speak for themselves. They're right about that, as usual.
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