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  • Writer's pictureMarsaili Mainz

Redefining Maternity: Vogue's Portrayal of Intersectional Femininity

In the early 2020s, Vogue pivoted, with its glossy pages reflecting a seismic cultural shift. This era, marked by intensified calls for diversity, saw the magazine embrace various powerful voices and images that challenged the status quo. Let's delve into this transformative period and unravel the nuances behind these evocative Vogue covers.

The Rise of Authentic Representation

From 2020 to 2023, icons like Naomi Campbell, Rihanna, and Lizzo didn't just pose; they spoke volumes. Their appearances on Vogue's front covers weren't merely aesthetic triumphs but declarations of authenticity, activism, and a celebration of personal narratives that resonated with broader societal movements (Hallstein-O'Brien, 2015). These covers weren't just glossy fronts but mirrors reflecting the zeitgeist's complexity, where themes of motherhood and the raw power of femininity began to take centre stage.

A New Narrative of Motherhood

During this time, motherhood, a nuanced theme, was reimagined on Vogue's canvas. The portrayal of women of colour like Rihanna, Gigi Hadid and Ashley Graham boldly celebrating their pregnancies heralded a new era. The conspicuous absence of white expectant mothers from these covers struck a chord, pointing to a significant shift in the magazine's visual narrative and possibly the beginning of a new trend in media portrayal of motherhood.

The Vogue Ethnographic "Punctum"

The term "punctum," coined by Barthes to describe the poignant detail that punctuates a photograph, aptly applies to the visual ethnography of Vogue between 2020 and 2023 and the featured celebrities. Rhianna to Kamala Harris were not random selections. Their portrayal engaged with intersectional identities within a tapestry woven with threads of feminism and social discourse. Each image, a punctum, prodded at the fabric of societal norms, asking viewers to contemplate the layered meanings of these representations.

The Dialectic of Diversity and Idealised Beauty

Yet, as Vogue's steps towards more inclusive representations are laudable, a deeper look reveals the magazine's historical penchant for idealised beauty standards. Traditional narratives of fashion and beauty regimes linger, suggesting that despite the forward stride, the long-standing "pursuit of perfection" still casts a shadow over these progressive images (Vogue, 1990; McRobbie, 2015).

Vogue's Evolution in a Time of Change

Therefore, as we observe Vogue's journey through these pivotal years, we're reminded that magazines are more than trendsetters; they're cultural barometers. Vogue's recent covers have showcased a willingness to evolve, yet they also question how far we've come and where we're headed. In juxtaposing new voices against traditional aesthetics, we find an ongoing dialogue that continues to shape our understanding of femininity, race, and identity in an ever-changing world.

Pregnancy in Vogue: A Glance at History and Change

Pregnancy, once a taboo or controversial topic in media, has seen its portrayal shift from the contentious to the celebrated, particularly in Vogue's portrayal of women of colour. The iconic 1991 Vanity Fair photograph of Demi Moore, captured by Annie Leibovitz, broke ground for how pregnant bodies could be represented with empowerment and elegance—Fast-forward from the early 2000s of white mothers holding babies or referring to their motherly prowess. However, we see a shift between 2010-2023 with covers featuring pregnant women of colour. Vogue seems to be rewriting the script on maternity (Musial, 2014). Yet, this shift isn't without its complexities and contradictions.

The Pregnancy Paradox and Feminist Tensions

While the depiction of maternity has indeed become more glamorous and inclusive on the surface, some argue it still grapples with historical feminist tensions (McRobbie, 2007). Caryn Franklin's commentary in Vogue (2020) succinctly captures this dichotomy, pointing out how the celebration of pregnancy can also serve as a powerful statement against the objectification and sexualisation that women have long been subjected to in media. With so many images normalising the objectification of a woman’s

passive and perfected sexualised body for the male gaze, a pregnant body reminds us that female sexuality is a raw, uncontrollable, and magnificent power in and of itself” (Franklin, 2020).

Moreover, as we analyse Vogue's journey through the portrayal of pregnancy, we encounter a fascinating intersection of progress, empowerment, and the enduring weight of societal norms. The magazine's covers, featuring pregnant celebrities of diverse backgrounds, invite us to consider whether they signify a true celebration of womanhood or if they inadvertently uphold the very stereotypes they aim to dismantle. By chronicling the visual evolution of maternity in Vogue, we navigate the delicate balance between representation and objectification, between pushing boundaries and preserving the status quo. As readers and critical observers, we must ponder whether Vogue's portrayal is a mirror of our society's strides towards inclusivity or a glossy depiction that requires deeper scrutiny.

Empowerment or Objectification: A Continuing Debate

Vogue's portrayal of women, especially during pregnancy, continues to stir debate. Is the magazine breaking new ground by showcasing the raw power of female sexuality, as Caryn Franklin suggests? Or is it perpetuating a commercialised, sexualised portrayal of women under the guise of "cool," as McRobbie criticises? Therefore, as we view Vogue's glossy images, we find ourselves amid a complex discourse on feminism, representation, and societal standards. The magazine has made strides toward showcasing a diverse array of women, yet it's essential to scrutinise the depth of this diversity. Are these empowered portrayals or refined versions of objectification? Vogue's editorial decisions reflect a broader societal struggle with these concepts, reminding us that the journey towards genuine empowerment is ongoing and multifaceted.

The Dichotomy of Vogue's Maternity Covers

In the glossy world of fashion magazines, the line between objectification and empowerment is as fine as the pages they're printed on. Vogue, a beacon of high fashion and culture, finds itself navigating this delicate balance, often with mixed results. For example, Vogue's maternity covers have become a battleground where objectification versus empowerment plays out vividly. Take, for instance, Rihanna's 2022 cover. She stands confidently dressed in bright, skin-tight clothes, celebrating the pregnant form in all its glory. Yet, one cannot help but wonder, is this empowerment or a sophisticated form of objectification?

Concurrently, the magazine's recent portrayals of women of colour and pregnant bodies have been both lauded and critiqued. Vogue's celebration of figures like Rhianna and Ashley Graham departs from the norm, while Lizzo's feature has sparked conversations. However, critics question the magazine's intentions: Is Vogue genuinely committed to diversity, or are these strategic moves to stay relevant and avoid controversy?

For these reasons, we find ourselves amid a complex discourse on feminism, representation, and societal standards. The magazine has made strides toward showcasing a diverse array of women, yet it's essential to scrutinise the depth of this diversity. Are these empowered portrayals or refined versions of objectification? Vogue's editorial decisions reflect a broader societal struggle with these concepts, reminding us that the journey towards genuine empowerment is ongoing and multifaceted.

The 'Erotic Economy' of Vogue's Imagery

In Vogue's glossy spreads, the "exotic other" has long been a contentious theme, particularly in portraying women of colour. This thematic choice spotlights not only their beauty but also tends to exoticise and eroticise their racial identities, as highlighted by Martinez-Jimenez (2022). Such a portrayal echoes a historical aesthetic trend dating back to iconic figures like Donyale Luna, the trailblazing Black supermodel (Church-Gibson, 2011).

Nevertheless, in Vogue's world, the portrayal of women of colour, including those who are pregnant, often straddles a razor-thin line between appreciation and objectification. The complex and layered image reflects a nuanced reality where empowerment and objectification might intermingle. For instance, Rihanna's pregnancy cover exemplifies this dual nature, presenting a hypersexualised yet empowered vision, raising critical questions about the underlying motives of such representation.

Martinez-Jimenez's concept of an "erotic economy" comes into play here, where the beauty discourse often champions the dominant. Yet, the representation of pregnant women of colour takes on a glamorous and sometimes controversial nuance. Such imagery, while alluring and celebrating diversity, may inadvertently perpetuate stereotypical notions of femininity and racial identity, trapping figures like Lizzo, Rihanna, and Graham within a confining aesthetic paradigm.

Vogue's portrayals, particularly of Black women, evoke a media landscape that cosmetically celebrates diversity yet remains anchored in an 'exotic economy.' This approach to representation might not foster a nuanced understanding of race and identity, as the aesthetic choices can sometimes mask the intricacies of privilege and the authentic self-expression of these women's ethnic identities (Laing, 2017).

Therefore, Vogue's vision, while pioneering in some respects, still often falls within traditional paradigms that overlook the full depth of the subjects they represent. The magazine's intersectional portrayal of celebrities and their experiences, such as pregnancy, prompts a critical analysis of how far they've come and how much further they need to go in truly understanding and representing the complexities of gender, race, and beauty.

In summary, Vogue's recent cover features have sparked a deeper conversation about the thematic representations of pregnancy and black female celebrities. These covers have been pivotal in reflecting the complexity and diversity of Black femininity, weaving together themes of power, sexiness, multiculturalism, and racial discrimination.

The Five Themes of Representation

Furthermore, Rhew and Kim (2009) have identified several recurring themes in the representation of Black women in media that remain significant today. Simone Biles represents 'powerfulness,' encapsulating the strength associated with Black athletes. Rihanna, adorning the covers with her idealised body shape, embodies 'sexiness' and challenges traditional norms with her unapologetic expression of sexuality. Gigi Hadid brings 'multiculturalism' to the forefront, highlighting cultures beyond Western standards. Lizzo offers a 'fantastical' image, presenting a larger-than-life persona that defies easy categorisation. Lastly, 'racial discrimination' is a theme that emerges when these Black icons are metaphorically contrasted with their white peers, as seen with Kamala Harris's achievements in a predominantly white political landscape.

Vogue's Portrayal of Kamala Harris

The portrayal of Kamala Harris on Vogue's cover has been particularly contentious, with debates over her casual depiction's appropriateness. The original cover photo, which featured Harris in a laid-back outfit, ignited a conversation about whether such an image undermined the Vice President's authority and accomplishments. After expressing discontent, a more formal reshoot was published, highlighting the ongoing struggle to balance authenticity with respectability in representations of powerful Black women.

Vogue's Curated Diversity: Sincere or Strategic?

While seemingly diverse, Vogue's celebrity selection pattern prompts questions about the magazine's motivations. Is including figures like Lizzo, who defies traditional beauty standards, a genuine attempt at diversity or a strategic move to stir debate? The magazine's selective portrayal of these women, often without mentioning diet or body issues, suggests a calculated approach to maintaining a progressive image.

A Reflection on Vogue's Visual Ethnography

In summary, Vogue's covers provide a rich tapestry for examining the intersectional representation of Black women. While strides towards inclusivity are evident, these representations often remain bound to established cultural and aesthetic standards. The use of vibrant colours like red and gold in portraying women of colour versus the muted tones for Kamala Harris underscores the different narratives spun around race and femininity.

In dissecting the layers of Vogue's thematic representations, we see a clear pattern: a tension between celebrating diversity and adhering to traditional norms. As we reflect on these patterns, it's clear that the journey to a genuinely inclusive and nuanced portrayal of femininity, particularly for Black women, is ongoing and complex.

Personal Reflection

Reflection is the first step toward understanding. Take a moment to consider how the images in mainstream media have influenced your perception of beauty, race, and femininity. Are there ways you can challenge or broaden these perceptions in your own life and community?"

We've unpacked the layers of Vogue's portrayal of femininity and motherhood, but the conversation shouldn't stop here. Share your thoughts and join the discussion below. How do you perceive these representations? Do they empower or objectify? Your voice matters in shaping the narrative.


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