‘Vogue’s Scarlett Johansson Cover & the Issue with Including Diversity in White Narratives

Vogue
Photo: Shutterstock.

When I came across an article on how 14 global superstars were chosen to be on Vogue U.S.’s April covers, I immediately clicked to see for myself. The issue was supposed to be about “transcending borders,” which is why stars from India to South Korea were chosen to be the covers’ stars. But upon seeing the covers, I realized that the theme and its execution may have been the actual issue. The pictures prominently featured white women between women of color, who seemed rather unceremoniously squeezed into the sides. On a cover with South Korea’s Doona Bae and India’s Deepika Padukone, Scarlett Johansson, meant to represent the U.S., was front and center as the obvious star. Though the intention of featuring global superstars seemed good on paper, the execution was questionable and all wrong.

Vogue, who has had a long history of problematic covers (like Kendall Jenner’s afro in 2018 or Karlie Kloss’s Japan shoot in 2017), has raised eyebrows for the wrong reasons. According to Fashionista, there’s been a 17 percent increase in people of color featured on the U.S.’s leading magazines from 2017 to 2018. There’s no doubt that the media industry is progressing toward diversity and inclusivity, but how many of these campaigns are mere covers for a system that, beneath the surface, is actually much slower to change? Despite the progress, the white narrative is still alive. It’s only become sneakier in how it presents itself in the face of diversity. Vogue just wasn’t sneaky enough

Under the guise of celebrating “global talent,” Vogue placed the beauty of white stars—American and not—front and center. (While Johansson was in the center of her cover, French actress Léa Seydoux and Australian star Elizabeth Debicki were the center of theirs.) The diversity that usually stands out was used to frame the white actresses, who were featured in a more prominent light. The irony of choosing Johansson as the American representative wasn’t missed either. The actress faced backlash in 2017 for taking on a role in Ghost in the Shell, an action film based on a Japanese Manga, that many believed should have gone to an Asian actress.

It could be argue that, as Hollywood’s highest paid actress in 2018, Johansson was featured for her success and recognizability. There’s no doubt she’s a global superstar. However, if she was chosen on the argument of esteem, the question could also be raised: Will any woman of color ever be held in as high a regard? After all, the odds are stacked against them. Though not impossible, Hollywood has proven how much harder it would be for a Black actress, for example, to reach the level of esteem and fame that actresses like Johansson have received.

Could a Black woman ever become the highest paid actress of the year, especially when Black women are already paid less than white women in general? The issue of eminence is, in itself, another problem that is highlighted here. Vogue’s latest cover suggests that the default race to represent the U.S. continues to be white.

Vogue’s failed attempt at diversity amplifies the question of whether the publication is truly embracing diversity or merely flaunting it to keep up with the times.

Vogue could have chosen from many minority actresses, who represent a new age in Hollywood. Regina King won an Oscar this year for her performance in If Beale Street Could Talk. Constance Wu has been taking Hollywood by storm, especially after the success of Crazy Rich Asians. They would be more than recognizable enough for Vogue U.S.’s demographic (the American audience)—not to mention in par with the theme Vogue is going for. Even the movies just mentioned are more relevant today than Lost in Translation, a 2003 Johansson film that Vogue tried to fit in to explain her presence. There were also other ways to position the models. Why couldn’t Johansson be put on the side? Why couldn’t a woman of color be in the center of the second cover—or better yet, both?

The fact that no one at Vogue seemed to notice (or cared to change) how the actresses were positioned on the cover follows a recent interview with Ellen Pompeo for Net a Porter, who criticized the same magazine she was interviewing at for not having enough diversity behind the scenes. “I didn’t see enough color when I walked in the room today,” Pompeo said. The worst part: Net A Porter’s issue was supposed to be about empowerment and equality. Was this the same case with Vogue? If so, then how much is the cover really a facade for the public eye? Vogue’s failed attempt at diversity amplifies the question of whether the publication—and perhaps others—is truly embracing diversity or merely flaunting it to keep up with the times.

The latest Vogue covers are notable examples of this issue, but they don’t stand alone. The white narrative permeates the entire media industry, including the Oscars, which was another example of how diversity is still being used to tell a white narrative. No stranger to backlash for its lack of diversity, the Oscars promises change every year, only to take a step back with this year’s Best Picture winner. How can a story about Black people be profound yet relatable for a mostly white Oscars panel, a tricky balance for those eying the golden statue? The New York Times critic, Wesley Morris, pointed out the parallel between the Oscars in 1990 and 2019 in podcast, The Daily. Both times, the “racial reconciliation fantasy” appears, as Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book won Best Picture over Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (which wasn’t even nominated in 1990) and BlacKkKlansman.

While all four movies are about racism, the first two are shown from a white character’s perspective and how they come to understand their racism through a close relationship with a Black person. They’re essentially supposed to be feel-good movies, where the racism is gone by the time the credits roll. On the flip side, Lee’s films dive more into the gritty details of racism from the point of view of the victim. Any guilt or call to action is there for the audience to confront face-to-face. It’s uncomfortable and something audiences often don’t want to do. Perhaps that’s why white narrative movies with diverse casts often prevail—and fail to have much effect otherwise. They deny that racism is still as a big a problem today, nor do they really apologize for past prejudices.

It goes to show that maybe the primary interest of some is not in greater representation but in self-preservation.

Remember another Oscar-nominated film, The Help? In this case, the viewpoints of all the Black help were seen through the lens of aspiring journalist, Skeeter, played by Emma Stone. This is the only reason their stories are even told and listened to. Instead of changing on their own, the film shows the Black characters becoming empowered through white character development. It’s a classic example of the white savior complex, also seen in other critically critically acclaimed films, like The Blind Side and Freedom Writers.

Even TV shows are featuring more diverse casts, while still focusing primarily on the white narrative. I love The Good Place and am enjoying ABC’s ridiculous but entertaining Whiskey Cavalier. I am awaiting the next season of Lucifer on Netflix. All of these shows feature diverse casts, but the focus is very much on two white characters. The first shows the changing nature of Ted Danson and Kristen Bell’s characters, the second has Scott Foley and Lauren Cohan as the leaders of a team, and the last has Lauren German and Tom Ellis as the will-they-won’t-they cop-consultant duo. Even Hawaii 5-0, a show about the only state in which white people are not the majority, focused entirely on two white men played by Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan. Is this a trend or is this a trend?

All in all, it’s clear things are getting better. There are many campaigns out there that are featuring diversity in an authentic way, like#AerieREAL and L’Oreal’s True Match Campaign. In contrast to Vogue U.S., Vogue U.K. actually had a great cover with diverse models, earning Ghanaian-British editor-in-chief, Edward Enninful, praise. I am excited for the movie Hustlers, starring Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B, Constance Wu, and more. I will take any representation I can get. Celebrate these steps, for sure, but it is important to also take notice when diversity is being forced into a white narrative for the sake of comfort or relatability. Vogue keeps getting it wrong. The Oscars, even almost 30 years later, remains oblivious to what the deeper problems are. TV shows seem to relegate their diverse cast to secondary roles a good chunk of the time. It goes to show that maybe the primary interest of some is not in greater representation but in self-preservation.

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