WHY FASHION MEDIA'S ELECTION RESPONSE WAS TONE-DEAF
In the days following the carnage known as the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, journalists of all stripes have given their assessment of the results, what they mean, and what the future of the United States looks like. In the fashion industry, the dialogue around politics is less straightforward than other journalistic beats; straight political commentary is generally off-brand, and gets substituted for pieces about how the impacts relate to topics already addressed by the publication – pop culture, lifestyle, health, and economics come to mind. Things can get even more challenging when complicated subjects – such as the unprecedented, fearful reaction to Trump’s election – get translated into stories that directly concern topics like fashion and beauty, which are very often coated with superficiality. For one, many publications responded to the stress induced by Tuesday’s results with stories about how to practice ‘self-care.’ Self-care is a totally valid and oftentimes necessary step to easing anxiety, and for some people, a spa night or shopping trip can provide said feelings of comfort. For others, it might be exercise or a cup of tea to strive for a more peaceful state of mind. Self-care doesn’t come without important caveats however, especially when considering the sizeable stakes of the election results and the very real danger that they pose to minorities in particular – a danger that won’t be quelled by trying a new facemask recipe. So yes, take whatever necessary steps to make yourself feel loved and to cherish your body, but also understand that for many people, caring for oneself whilst others advocate for the suspension of your human rights has serious limitations. Given the fear that many people of colour, Muslims, Latnix folk, LGBTQ+ folk, and women are coping with, it is naive to suggest that an evening of pampering is going to cure what many feel is a violation of their security. Secondly, self-care – as modelled by many media brands in their election reactions – seems to have become deeply tied to capitalist, profit-driven interests. Many articles offered the opportunity to practice self-care in the distressing post-election climate by buying a new lotion, bath bomb, or serum. While none of these posts were explicitly flagged as native advertising or sponsorships, it is not unreasonable to consider the vested interest that media brands have in pushing products and promoting certain brand partners. Exploiting people’s fear and anxiety in order to sell product is not only devious, it is unapologetically insensitive. Sure, advertisers mobilize emotional manipulation everydayy, but there is an ethical line that they often flirts with, and in this case, have traversed altogether. When a large community is in fear for their safety and civil rights, it is audacious to attempt to influence them into buying something that they don’t need. Media brands should know better, especially those that chose to align themselves with progressive and feminist points of view. Consequently, the uncomfortable reaction caused by the sales-focused conversation around self-care shows a growing scepticism and distrust of publications. If they are willing to put profits before the mental wellness of their readers, whose interests they really have at heart – their followers, or their advertiser? For some, the answer is obviously (and always has been) the latter, but for other brands, especially those where ‘authenticity’ or ‘reader empowerment’ are often buzzwords, exploitative native advertising or profit-seeking should be very unwelcome. Similarly, fashion media brands have also rubbed some the wrong way with their attempts to use the election in marketing their own content. In a tweet promoting a story about Kendall Jenner’s campaign for La Perla, W Magazine incited controversy by claiming that, “Kendall Jenner in lingerie will take your mind off the election.”
The tweet casually dismissed the seriousness of the political climate and was tone-deaf on several planes. For one, the scopophilic tenor of the tweet surely didn’t do much to ‘distract’ grieving women from how disrespected we collectively feel, considering that the President Elect has been accused of sexual harassment almost a dozen times, is going on trial for child rape, and bragged about committing sexual assault. It certainly seems offbeat to exhibit a young woman in tantalizing lingerie as an antidote to the election’s sexist implications. Furthermore, the assertion that something as trite as a fashion campaign could ameliorate the fear of minorities – who have already been targeted by an uptick in hate crimes nationwide – is irresponsible and ignorant. Fashion is an industry bound to many forms of privilege; more specifically, upper class, predominantly white individuals make up the vast majority of its governing voices. As a result, there is a certain sense of detachment from the realities of everyday people that come along with the rhetoric perpetuated by fashion journalists and industry leaders. It can be easy for fashion enthusiasts to get swept up by the artistry and glamour of a new collection or a groundbreaking campaign, but at the end of the day, most people are still conscious of the fact that these events are part of an elite world that is oftentimes exclusionary. In recent years, a greater effort has been made by fashion magazines to engage in conversations about these strains of privilege – be it racial representation on the runway, body positivity, or gender identity. These commentaries have not managed to be perfectly sensitive or intersectional 100% of the time, but in the case of many publications and blogs, a serious effort has been made to recognize areas where privilege has historically made fashion elites prone to discriminatory practices. And so if some of these publications – such as W, Teen Vogue, or Refinery29 – want to make space in their content to support messages about representation and privilege (which they should), then this needs to translate to all of their messaging. Otherwise, it becomes evident that all of the commentary on ‘diversity’ is just a superficial attempt to appear topical and to cash in on clickbait, rather than a genuine effort to advance visibility for minorities. Assuming that this week’s post-election mourning is ostensible, temporary, or superficial, clearly demonstrates the level of unchecked privilege that many in the industry continue to operate on, even those who claim to call themselves allies or liberals. It is easy to single out one tweet or article. Maybe whoever wrote it was distracted themselves, and didn’t put the necessary consideration into it. Especially in the days immediately following the election, I personally had a very challenging time concentrating on my work and getting deeply invested in it. At the same time, the post election context is arguably the most important time to be conscious of our words and what implications they could have on those who feel wounded by the results. Knowing that racism in particular has reared its head and been legitimized by the winning candidate’s rhetoric, it is up to those with more privilege – whether that be an extension of one’s socioeconomic status, race, gender, or influence – to counter the hurtful dialogue coming from divisive politics, with words that express inclusivity and sensitivity. As fashion journalists, words are our medium and now more than ever, they have incredible power. Let’s not forget this.