- Interview by
- David Palumbo-Liu
Could Condé Nast be publishing the best mainstream forum for progressive views?
Since 2016, bolstered by the contributions of radicals like Kim Kelly, Teen Vogue has made a curious transformation into a venue that mixes standard fare culture writing with political primers like “Everything You Need to Know About General Strikes” and “Who Is Karl Marx: Meet the Anti-Capitalist Scholar.”
It hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rest of the media, with Quartz going as far as to say that the publication was “terrifying men like Donald Trump.”
We’re not so certain about that. However, it’s certainly an important sign of the times and the growing influence of anticapitalism that its politics editor and author of some of the publication’s best pieces, Lucy Diavolo, spoke at this July’s Socialism Conference in Chicago. And it’s not just the left echo chamber that’s reading these articles — Teen Vogue receives around ten million monthly page views and has over twelve million social media followers, many of them young women.
Reaching a segmented market with radical views isn’t exactly revolutionary in and of itself, but at the very least the coverage is pissing off the right people. The far-right Federalist noted that a Teen Vogue tweet linked to a “poorly-written diatribe that reads like a B student’s Marxism 101 paper and gets key historical facts wrong.” The article instructed Teen Vogue to “shut up about politics” because, after all, the magazine “owes its existence to the tremendous wealth capitalism has created.”
What the Federalist is concerned about, and what socialists and others should celebrate, is that Teen Vogue recognizes the artificiality of separating the public, the private, and the political, and its political writing fuses all three. As the publication warns: “the relentless politicization of all spaces in public and private life is exhausting and dangerous.”
But how dangerous is Teen Vogue?
The New Statesman has just declared Teen Vogue to be a “champion of democratic socialism,” and editor in chief Elaine Welteroth refers to the magazine as “a movement.” However, a realistic appraisal shows that Teen Vogue presents a range of liberal to left materials, and despite the earnest political convictions of so many of its authors, as an institution its pivot may just be a rebranding exercise.
After all, Teen Vogue is owned by Condé Nast — a 108-year-old global media company with more than one billion consumers in thirty-two markets — and the magazine must toe its corporate publisher’s line. But what it can do, and what it has been doing so successfully, is to educate its readership on issues that they might not have ever been exposed to. Think of what the average American high school, or even college, puts before the eyes of its students — it is mind-numbingly bland and hardly the material that provokes political thought.
And timing is everything — the interest in the new Teen Vogue is attributable to a sense of urgency in the air and also the growing awareness of the bankruptcy of neoliberalism. People want to know new things, and socialism is more and more one of the things people want to know more about, for it seems the only humane response to economic violence.
For precisely this reason it is crucial to chart the emergence of young, smart, politically astute writers into mainstream media, where they can have the kind of effect Teen Vogue has had. To understand things a bit better, I sat down with Samhita Mukhopadhyay, the magazine’s executive editor.
Could you say a little bit about yourself and how you got to Teen Vogue, and what are some of the things you want to do there?
My background is fairly varied. I’m a little bit older than the rest of the team here. Before I was at Teen Vogue, I had written a book called Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America. I used to work at an organization called Mic, which was another kind of millennial media outlet — I was building out their social justice, culture, and identities work, building reporting teams around Black Lives Matter and the pipeline, climate change, indigenous issues, the Muslim ban, those types of things. Before that, I was the executive editor of a website called Feministing, which was very popular in the mid-2000s.
I started there in 2005. And I was there until 2012 or ’13. And for the last four years of it, when I was the executive editor we were very much on the front lines, holding mainstream media accountable for the way they were depicting women and wanting to diversify narratives around the way that women in other disenfranchised communities were being represented in the media. And it’s an interesting time because I think many of the people you’ll see who are working in positions like myself — a lot of us did start in blogging.
We created this intervention, and now we are at this moment where mainstream publications have realized they need people who understand social justice. They need people who understand feminism and many of the issues that young people are invested in.
That’s exactly where I was going to go. So, now you are in effect mainstream media. So, what’s the transition been like — certainly, you are under another set of constraints and another set of demands.
I would say the biggest difference between working for a blog that has no funding and working for a media empire with a budget is the level at which we can do things at Teen Vogue, having the kind of resources we have to tell the stories that we are really invested in. And also, to remind my team when they take it for granted that — not to be like that auntie that says, “I walked uphill both ways to school.”
A lot of us were trying to just be heard in the media, to be included in any of these conversations. And things have changed. They’re not perfect, but things really have changed. And you are seeing more women and people of color and women of color in leadership positions in these newsrooms. And I think that’s a really good change.
You mentioned before that several media venues have the aspiration to do something like what Teen Vogue is doing. Say more about that — what kind of mediascape are we looking at now?
I think many publications are recognizing the importance of hiring people with expertise in feminism and covering women and women of color. Historically, people like me were always on the outside criticizing women’s magazines — they did not reflect the diversity of women’s experiences. And they were not necessarily explicitly feminist. There are very few magazine editors now who don’t openly identify as feminists, but they aren’t always looking for a story that elevates an unheard voice.
I do think that those efforts are being made. I think that Teen Vogue has been the most explicitly political in terms of us being very open about the fact that we are representing a generation that’s much more comfortable with being political.
Of the political writing that’s been done recently the last couple of years, could you name a couple of articles that show the variety and trajectory of the kinds of things Teen Vogue wants to do.
I think one of the things I’m really proud of that we did last month was we did an entire package on fat bodies. I actually wrote a personal essay for that, about being a public person who’s fat, and my evolution of growing up in public — being this public person where people will comment on your body all the time. For a fashion magazine with Vogue in the title to explicitly do something that really criticizes the industry and elevates this unique point of view — we shot a size twenty-four model for one of the main features.
I was very excited about everything we did for Covering Climate Now. We were part of that initiative. We put Greta on the cover, which I thought was fantastic. And we did that cover in literally fifteen minutes. She’s a very, very busy young woman. We got a very small amount of time with her. Lucy Diavolo, who you’ve already talked to, did a great job writing the feature for that.
We also started two columns that I really love this year. One is about masculinity and kind of how young men are engaging with ideas of masculinity. And that’s by writer Thomas Page McBee, who’s a phenomenal kind of trans writer, just really, really talented writer. And then we also have a sex column called, “Down to Find Out,” which is a play on DTF. I think one of the things that we get criticized for a lot is that we’re very open about recognizing that young people are going to try and have sex.
I’d be interested in some of the readers’ reactions that you’ve had that have impressed you, either really good ones or really disappointing ones. What’s the feedback been like?
The feedback in my experience is overwhelmingly positive. People are so impressed and excited that we’re doing global journalism. It’s not just in our politics section, right? All of our verticals reflect in some way the values of this new generation, for example, inclusion and diversity. It’s an awareness of class difference. And it’s an awareness of sustainability and climate change. You’ll see that in our fashion vertical. You’ll see that in our culture vertical. And you’ll see that in identity and in politics.
People have said, “We come to Teen Vogue because we know we’re going to get a more balanced opinion than the New York Times.” These are exaggerations, right? Obviously, we are not the New York Times, but I think the sentiment is really that in a moment when people are trying to figure out both sides and how do you kind of cover these issues.
We’re not afraid to just have a point of view and say, “Hey, Trump is bullshit.” We’re not afraid to say it.
Well, to begin with, I’ll say thank god you’re not the New York Times. And second, that you are super trustworthy. I think that the excitement about what Teen Vogue is doing is that you’re doing high-quality journalism and that you’re presenting it to an entirely new demographic that’s not going to read the New York Times. And then as we all know from doing political work, it’s better to get people on board earlier than hope that they read something later on in life, right?
But what do you do with the charge — “Teen Vogue is not a political magazine. Why are you doing this? What qualifies you to do political pieces? And you’re polluting people’s minds.” What do you say to that?
That the criticism has come from the Right. Tucker Carlson is obsessed with us. He is upset that we have a labor columnist. He’s upset that we do the sex content. And he really doubles down on this idea of what is appropriate for teen girls, even though I’d say to him, “Stop thinking about teen girls so much.” Nobody wants that. Nobody wants your opinion on this.
The right wing thinks we are brainwashing a new generation. I put one such quote from a right-winger on my Twitter bio, “The most insidious form of teen communist propaganda,” or something like that.
That’s nice. I like that.
Communist propaganda. I was like, “Thanks, guys. Thanks for writing the bio for me.” And there is an elitism around who has the right to kind of cover and talk about politics. And I think that is laughable to me because personally I’m a totally serious journalist. I have won fifty Hillman awards. I have won ASME awards. I’m a serious journalist. I was brought in to help build up a new perspective and help build up a team — and it’s been really refreshing to work with people who aren’t primarily imbued in the values of traditional media.
They are young. They are diverse. They are just hungry to learn and to really be writing about the world in a new and unique way. That’s what our audience wants. Our audience wants — they want the balance of both Justin and Hailey’s surprise wedding over the weekend. They also want to know about Greta’s UN speech. And they also want to know about whatever Trump is doing badly this week.
They want that information and want it all in one place. That falls into the tradition of a lot of kinds of general interest publications. We don’t have a huge team. So, we have to be really strategic and think about what we do and don’t cover. It became very clear that it would almost be tone-deaf for us to not be covering the fact that four million young people took to the streets two Fridays ago for climate change.
One of the things that we are really looking at for the rest of the year is youth activism. Youth activism is one of the defining things of this generation and especially Gen Z. So, it behooves us as a publication that caters to that demographic to be covering those issues.
What has been Condé Nast’s reaction? What kind of feedback have you gotten from them about what you are doing?
This is the most creative and political freedom that I’ve ever had. And part of it is there’s a newness to it where people are like, “Yeah, sure. Give it a try. Whatever.” Anna Wintour [editor in chief of Vogue] has a very strong point of view. I think she’s very comfortable with all of her teams having really strong points of view.
She elevates people — she elevates people like myself and our editor in chief Lindsey Peoples Wagner, because she wants people that kind of make — are provocative and tell good stories. And so, we had nothing but support from Condé on the political front. I mean I think there’s been — there have been little moments where, of course, like with anything there are legal battles or fact-checking battles. I have to make a lot of really tough decisions in terms of what are the things that are worth going after.
How many investigative pieces do we want to do? We are a little bit more at risk because we are a big media company. And I think things that I didn’t have to worry about when I worked in kind of smaller, independent media. And so, there are bigger battles. But I’ve never had somebody tell me I can’t do something.
There might be arguments around how I do it or some disagreement around that. But it’s always — and that’s one of the things that I really value about working with Condé Nast is they really value their editors’ point of view. We are empowered to fully have a kind of oversight.