If a media company like Condé Nast is capable of political action, then it is only what it hasn’t done that counts. Vogue has not put the sitting first lady on the cover or inside a print issue of the American edition—the first time in 90 years it has declined to do so. Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of the magazine and the artistic director of the company, has deflected when asked, saying instead that she believes Vogue is meant to support women who are “leading change in this country.”
Yet this is a noticeable departure in its coverage of powerful people. The Trumps have long been staples of Condé Nast’s fashion and society magazines. In 2005, Melania Trump was on the cover of Vogue for a story detailing her wedding to Donald Trump. A team of Vogue editors accompanied her to Couture Fashion Week in Paris, and she was photographed in a dress the editors selected. Teen Vogue, the magazine intended to cultivate young readers and turn them into lifelong subscribers, used to feature Ivanka Trump regularly as well. A 2004 profile called “The Apprentice” described the outfits she wore on her days off (Lacoste polos, Delman flats—it was 2004, after all) and the Manolo Blahnik heels and Alberta Ferretti evening gowns that her famous surname afforded her.
Times have changed. In the more recently memorialized past, a former weekend editor for Teen Vogue recalls preparing a post to run the day after the 2016 elections. “We Just Elected Our First Female President,” the intended headline read. “Here’s Why That Matters.” Her editor on the story assured her that she would still get paid even if the site couldn’t run it. “Oh GOD, don’t jinx us,” the weekend editor e-mailed back.
About a month later, Lauren Duca, the weekend editor in question, published something else: “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America.” The piece was simple and direct, providing a list of examples of Trump’s self-serving lies—his denial of verified news stories, his lies about immigration, and his support of the Iraq War among them—and asking her readers to remember that the then-president-elect’s version of reality should not be confused with the truth. The piece was viewed millions of times and widely shared by Teen Vogue’s intended readers (teenagers or their parents), along with many journalists, public figures, and celebrities.
Duca has since become a public figure herself. She has appeared on many television shows, panels, and podcasts. In December 2016, she was on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, where the host aggressively questioned her political analysis and suggested that she stick to “thigh-high boots”—a reference to a recent post she had written on Ariana Grande. In the wake of their contentious on-air encounter, Duca named her (since discontinued) Teen Vogue column “Thigh-High Politics,” and was profiled by The New York Times and Today.
In the weeks after the election, commentators were quick to either mock or compliment what seemed like a newly political Teen Vogue. Under the editorial direction of print editor Elaine Welteroth and online editor Philip Picardi, the magazine and its website regularly published pieces like the one Duca wrote: columns, essays, news stories, and social media posts about the impending Trump administration that encouraged teens not to despair or panic but to consider themselves capable of being activists and organizers. The idea that young women would want to read about politics as well as fashion and pop stars was considered visionary, with some people expressing surprise and others saying such surprise was condescending.
Now Duca has published her first book, How to Start a Revolution: Young People and the Future of American Politics, in the vein of her Teen Vogue writings, looking at the ways that her generation (millennials) has moved from political alienation to political participation in the wake of 2016. The book attempts many forms: a memoir about a family—her own—divided by Trump, a series of interviews and profiles of famous political figures (which, for Duca, means brief interactions at public speeches by people like Al Gore and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), an excavation into the cultural conditions that led to our political moment, and a practical guide for young people on how to discover and act on their political consciousness. Part self-help manual, part cultural criticism, and part ahistorical analysis of previous social movements, Duca’s book never quite coheres into a single kind of nonfiction work.
Instead, How to Start a Revolution is best read as an artifact produced by a certain kind of media specimen, one that’s easy to recognize but perhaps much harder to define. By this I mean it’s difficult to decide if Duca is an indicator of a turning point in journalism—a contemporary columnist who made good use of the moment she found herself in—or if she represents a continuum still arcing toward an impression of influence. There are many public figures who say writing is their profession yet whose ideas are more notable for their quantity than their quality. That’s a long way of saying they have a lot of Twitter followers.
Raised in suburban New Jersey, Duca writes of her childhood as though it never ended. The daughter of a physical therapist and a vice president in a waste management company, she is quick to describe her family as upper middle class but makes clear that its roots are in the working class. Her paternal grandfather lost a finger while working in a Scholastic factory—an event she refers to as “some serious Upton Sinclair shit.” She describes her neighborhood as a place somewhat hostile to politics, but says that an undercurrent of conservativism shaped her home life.
Much of Revolution relies on the domestic for drama. The kitchen table conversations with the bumbling dad, the long-suffering mom, the petulant siblings and racist relatives, they all serve a purpose: to make a small family unit seem representative of the world. And Duca, as the youngest and most politically activated member of her family, is meant as a stand-in for her millennial readers. She frequently rates her parents’ political views as being both benign and rooted in financial self-interest and misinformation rather than malice. At the same time, she casually jokes that they believe in Vince Foster conspiracy theories. Somehow it is not until 2016 that she really sees the dark side of her familial life.
Duca’s relationship with her parents and childhood is, to her, unremarkable; the presumption is that her readership will be able to relate to it. Indeed, her family life is basic to her theory of activism, one that encourages young people to think of the structures they were born into or otherwise inherit as being capable of good, if anyone would bother to listen to their suggestions.
Less relatable for the average 14-year-old is likely to be how quickly Duca began to distinguish herself as a public figure. She was 25 when the “Gaslighting” post went viral, and has many of the markers we associate with having achieved moderate fame. Yet her reputation remains uncertain. Neither a celebrity nor a household name, Duca is one of many writers resting somewhat unsteadily at the level of tacit acknowledgment. Her media peers mostly know who she is. Elsewhere, her name circulates as she reaches toward recognition.
Two profiles in particular have tried to get at these incongruities. In March, Jezebel’s Anna Merlan looked at some well-known industry gossip: that while employed by The Huffington Post (since rebranded as HuffPost), Duca was at the center of some workplace disputes about unprofessional conduct. The story begins with Duca, at a company Halloween party, accusing a colleague of unfollowing her on Twitter and then goes downhill from there. Merlan explained that Duca allegedly used the company’s website to send insulting e-mails about several coworkers, mainly criticizing their appearance; Duca denied it, claiming the sender was another person using her e-mail address.
As Duca’s profile grew, her reputation became something unrecognizable to former colleagues. Her hypocrisy was genuinely hurtful to the people she knew, a pettiness that veered into cruelty, but the ambiguity around what happened makes it impossible to say how much it matters. Like so many self-proclaimed generational prophets before her, Merlan wrote, “[Duca has] been able to position herself as wiser, more ethically coherent, and more professionally skilled than she is.”
Duca has been given many chances to share the insights she claims to have about our times and her generation. When those opportunities occur, she sometimes displays competency. At other times, she is demonstratively hostile. Right before Duca’s book was released, she was profiled again by Scaachi Koul for BuzzFeed, breaking the news that her students at NYU were lodging a complaint about her teaching style, saying, among other things, that they found her more concerned with promoting How to Start a Revolution than their education. One student told Koul that they thought Duca was like a conservative caricature of a young liberal. When criticized—even the question or hint of it—Duca defended herself, using what could be called woke politics as a weapon. “You’re being so fucking hard on me, Scaachi, and I really, really, really, really would ask you if you would be grilling a man in this same way. It’s amazing,” Koul quotes her as saying. “The shit that I have endured to continue to sustain a voice where I’m just fighting every inch for the same thing that I think you want, which is public power and equality, and I’m trying my goddam best, okay?”
Duca uses much the same tactic in Revolution, relying on preemptive cuteness to conflate ignorance with youth. If you’re always learning, she suggests, no one can fault you for your mistakes. At one point, she mentions that she was once assigned a review of four young adult books on women’s history and was “jarred” by what she discovered. “In pages intended for children ages eight to twelve,” she writes, “I found a more complex representation of female historical figures than anything I had encountered across my academic career.” This recalls the critic Richard Chase’s point about how, in the 19th century, “one of the careers open to women was perpetual childhood.” For millennial women and the media conglomerates that underpay and overwork them, a career of endless infancy has become a lucrative source of interest, though not an entirely profitable business strategy.
Teen Vogue was founded in 2003, several years after many of the most popular magazines for adults had introduced their adolescent versions. Most of these are now defunct. ElleGirl, CosmoGirl, and Teen People were just a few of the other publications, and like the magazines intended for grown women, they ran a mix of articles: aspirational commerce pieces, inspirational narratives, celebrity coverage, and current events told with just enough editorializing to let readers know what they were supposed to do with the information. Some of the publications, in their pop feminism particularly, were attempting to duplicate the impact that Sassy had on newsstands less than a decade before. From 1988 to 1996, with Jane Pratt as editor, Sassy contributors wrote about sex, politics, culture, and fashion in an affable house tone, making the names in the bylines seem like real people.
Teen Vogue remains—though in a limited form, and without print issues as of December 2017. Other, more recent teen-focused ventures haven’t fared nearly as well. Last year, Tavi Gevinson announced she was shutting down Rookie, citing the immense financial burden and emotional expectations involved in running a youth publication. A website that had published every week day since September 2011, Rookie was Sassy’s heir in every respect. It, too, made some of its writers recognized and beloved, encouraging readers to think of the publication as a community they could turn to when their parents and teachers couldn’t be trusted.
Duca’s persona relies on this precedent—the times that she found herself in were well served by the young people who had come before her. Many of these magazines offered a model of adult thought beyond what parents said in minivans or across kitchen islands. Yet rather than being a trusted adviser, her cumulative body of work has made her a case study for a certain strand of juvenile corporate feminism. Revolution, in particular, is reminiscent of the signs seen at many of the Women’s Marches across the country (“If Hillary had won, we’d be at brunch right now”). “I often think about what my life would be like under a Hillary presidency,” Duca writes. “My pores would be smaller, maybe I’d have a yoga teacher certification, and I’d be parsing some cultural phenomenon with the dispassionate interest of a scientist peering through the microscope.” A sentiment neither funny nor false, but these sentences carry a meaning far removed from her intentions. The response it elicits is, “Yes, you would be.”
That admission, like many others in the book, shows that Duca’s politics were perhaps briefly challenged by a Trump presidency, but absent any actual introspection, all she can offer a reader are well-known aesthetic clichés. At multiple points in the book, she invokes wealthy old white men playing golf or wearing boat shoes as the dress code for people in politics. “In 1776 they wore wigs. Today they wear Brooks Brothers,” she says. She frequently encourages readers not to believe that these older wealthy white men control or have an inherent right to politics, yet at no point does she also extend this characterization to entrenched power across age, race, class, or gender.
The idea that other kinds of people besides old white men are capable of corruption at worst or ineffectiveness at best is never mentioned. Instead, Duca exemplifies a trend typical in contemporary feminist thinking: the belief that any woman in power must be a good woman. To watch her sidestep any significant engagement with gender as a concept besides the most obvious inclusions is to realize that Duca is out of her depth in a very shallow pool.
Teen Vogue, like many other mainstream publications, did not invent the kind of teen-focused political writing the magazine has recently become known for, though it did popularize the genre at a crucial moment. Welteroth and Picardi have since left the magazine. Welteroth published a memoir of her own and has become a red-carpet host and Project Runway judge. Picardi became the editor in chief of Out. Much of Teen Vogue’s current political coverage is excellent, with deep dives on the history of the labor movement, profiles of activists and politicians, and news updates on politics and culture. But Duca’s repeated assertions in Revolution about this time in her career overstate both the impact of her own work—she says that after appearing on Carlson’s show, she was “catapulted into the spotlight” and that it occurred to her that she should get used to this level of attention rather than expect it to go away—while misrepresenting the context in which Teen Vogue can claim a political dimension at all.
Like its daughter publication, Vogue leans liberal in its interpretation of commerce and politics: mostly, that almost any woman in power is worthy of an Annie Leibovitz photo shoot. Sarah Palin was profiled in February 2008, six months before John McCain announced her as his vice presidential candidate; around the same time, readers could find beautiful photographs of Huma Abedin, one of Hillary Clinton’s most trusted aides, in Oscar de la Renta dresses. Clinton was supposed to be on the cover of Vogue during her 2008 Democratic primary campaign—she had already been profiled numerous times, including for a December 1998 cover while she was the first lady—but at the last minute she canceled. A Vogue spokesperson confirmed that Clinton was supposedly worried that appearing on the cover of the magazine would make her appear too “feminine”—an insult that Wintour would not forget.
In a subsequent editor’s letter, Wintour argued that political campaigns that do not believe femininity is a source of power—and that, as a result, fail to recognize Vogue’s power—are making a mistake. “The notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously as a seeker of power is frankly dismaying,” she wrote. “This is America, not Saudi Arabia.” Two years later, the magazine published a profile of Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, titled “A Rose in the Desert,” which it first defended, then removed from its website and online archives without much further comment. The next year, The Hill reported that an international public relations firm was paid a monthly $5,000 retainer by the Syrian government to arrange and manage the Vogue photo shoot.
A little over a decade later, the absence of a Melania Trump profile could be read as a stance in its own right. In recent months, the magazine has profiled Jill Biden and Stacey Abrams, and the August issue included a group profile of Amy Klobuchar, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris under the title “Madam President?” (Marianne Williamson complained about being excluded.) One of the last print editions of Teen Vogue was guest-edited by Clinton. A Vogue editorial is no longer a risk or reward; now it’s an asset.
Attention from Vogue, or the lack thereof, sometimes suggests more than imprimatur. Vogue’s stance on political coverage might depend on public approval rather than private convictions. New York recently reported that in 2017, Wintour invited Ivanka Trump to meet with editors throughout Condé Nast; Wintour told everyone assembled that it was “brave” of Trump to attend. “‘The message was: Be polite,” an editor in the room said.”
In 1978 the writer and critic Kennedy Fraser wrote an essay titled “The Fashionable Mind,” about the influence the fashion industry has had outside of department store clothing racks and glossy magazines. “To the absolutely fashionable mind, an opinion, taste, or enthusiasm is of significance only for a particular, restricted moment,” she wrote, “a moment when it is held in common by some right-seeming group of fellow souls, just before it is adopted by a large group of followers.” Fraser, formerly a frequent contributor to Vogue, became the fashion critic for The New Yorker in 1970, knew that trends are not relegated to runways and that within fashion there are codes that can also explain the evolving politics of polite society: “The rules of politics are rules of fashion. Political minds, like fashionable minds, rarely look hard at themselves or at the real world. Instead, isolated by vanity and celebrity, they search for the latest fashion in issues and slogans, hoping to latch onto it in time to turn it into their own advantage.”
What Revolution does provide is an encapsulation of the fashionable mind that Fraser wrote about decades ago. In one section, Duca writes about the look of the times and how it is the duty of ascending politicians to aestheticize their campaigns accordingly; if candidates don’t look like the businesses vying for young people’s attention, how will these potential voters know whom to select on a ballot? In effect, Duca says political campaigns don’t look enough like an Urban Outfitters. “Assembling the stock crap that my generation is drawn to doesn’t require a marketing genius,” she insists reassuringly. “You get a potted plant, a neon sign, and a nice bold sans serif font, and, boom, you’ve got a subway ad for the latest disruptive millennial brand. If politicians wanted to get young people interested in politics, that stuff would be all over the place. Instead, campaigns have the approximate appeal of a dentist’s office.”
Duca’s theory of attractiveness necessitates a narrow scope. Her own relationship to the moment, aesthetic or otherwise, goes largely unexamined. To look too closely at how her life has aligned with the Trump administration would require an insight that does not serve her arguments as a writer or her profile as a public figure. In a chapter explaining that appearance on Carlson’s show, Duca complains about his “hostile” and “antijournalistic” stance toward her, even as she delights in their antagonistic dynamic. To her, the disapproval of people like Carlson represents the most obvious form of praise—in pretending to dismiss her, he received the satisfaction of showing his viewers his contempt for young liberal writers; in pretending to offend him, Duca believes she secured the cultural cachet of bravely standing up to the parody of the patriarchy she writes about.
Duca is neither an outlier nor an anomaly. Her behavior aligns with many contemporary patterns—a reminder that trends are best understood as units of time. They exist like numbers on a clock or shadows in the afternoon. I have observed many of these recent trends coalesce into corniness and can track them like a calendar: the refrain of “This is not normal,” the earnest hope for a Mueller-backed impeachment, trend stories about sexy New York City socialists, journalists who use a mildly derogatory insult from right-wing television news pundits in their Twitter bios.
Duca is attempting to start a trend by promising an American revolution, and it is, as Fraser promised, a misreading of our current moment based on easy patterns of thought confused for reliable predictions. Today’s fashionable minds are bought and sold by people or brands or publications that offer what they know to be incorporeal classifications—morality, intelligence, beauty. Yet recent moments of political alienation are also historical alienation. Many trends at this moment are better understood as attempts to reconnect with the movements we have inherited rather than a turning point that breaks away into the new. Duca is not wrong when she identifies political alienation as a common feeling among young people today. It is just that she is not interested in anything other than what serves her name and what she can claim.
This book at least resolves its main source of tension—family drama—when Duca delivers a monologue about the power of journalism to her parents. Like every other part of the book, it fails to inspire much feeling. We are left knowing that Duca will be just fine. As Revolution ends, Duca reassures her readers that her relationship with her family has been repaired the best way she knows how: They listen to her opinions, and then everyone agrees to get brunch.