Are We The New Kudzu of Content?

More Black women celebrities graced the covers of major fashion publications this September than ever before. In this five-part series, I explore what that means for us.

In a 1998 cover story for the Columbia Journalism Review, Joseph S. Coyle asks if it is “possible to maintain editorial integrity in an increasingly market-driven industry.” He offers a useful snapshot of newspapers and magazines at a time when “honest and well-intentioned journalists [were] choosing one of three basic positions.” Some were accepting that this tension between markets and reporting had always existed. Purists were rejecting anything coated with the slightest stench of money. Pragmatists were “getting real”. Selling papers was (and still is) marketing. How different could selling advertising be?

“For newspapers and magazines, soft coverage — life-style, celebrity, service has become the kudzu of content. Some call it benign marketing; others aren’t so sure.”

Kudzu is a vine. It is perennial. It endures. Perhaps my favourite fact is its “ability to climb over trees or shrubs, killing them by heavy shading”. It is considered a pest by some and described as an aggressive weed in several agricultural publications. It climbs, and coils, and trails. Kudzu survives, against the odds.

Bill Finch is a naturalist who grew up in the Deep South fearing kudzu, “America’s most infamous weed”. In the Smithsonian, Finch narrates his reckoning with how deeply he’d misunderstood the species and offers, “The True Story of Kudzu, the Vine That Never Truly Ate the South”. This myth-dismantling realisation is an apt analogy; “I found it odd that kudzu had become a global symbol for the dangers of invasive species, yet somehow rarely posed a serious threat to the rich Southern landscapes I was trying to protect as a conservationist.”

Herein lies the tension between content and content creators. Content creation is natural; some would see it transformed into a realm of conservation. And the conservation of print media, much like the rich Southern landscapes Finch was a ward of, reveal content’s place in the “popular imagination” and “the power of American mythmaking” when it comes to what constitutes good content.

Soft coverage was the kudzu of content when magazines were “new news”. Coyle presents this as a hugely contentious issue; some editors evidence that without lifestyle articles, publications like Time and Newsweek would not have survived. Concerns about self-censorship and getting into bed with corporate overlords who would force writers to churn out service journalism are constant. Professor Kathleen Valley offers a welcome break from complaints about Los Angeles Times publisher Mark Willes’ vision for the paper. He wanted to introduce changes which would remove the wall between advertisers and editors. Valley’s study of newsrooms exposed that the concerns of mostly male and mostly white journalists were not in line with what was happening day-to-day. Section editors were not as easily swayed by advertisers as they were by “simple social interaction between editors and reporters water cooler chats, informal lunches [were] the best predictor of whose feature stories land on page one.” Purists feared that if editorial and business became too close, business would win; having unfettered access over what was published. 30 years later, that fear has been fully realised.

In this August 2018 job listing for a Senior Content Strategist for Bustle Digital Media Group, “sale”, “advertising”, “product”, “consumer” help demonstrate the commercial focus of online content. New media publications look for content producers who know how to sell products through visual and written mediums.

Journalists and editors have to manage often competing expectations of owners and audience. It is hard to imagine or describe the fourth estate without this tension. Writing for publications (newspapers and even “new news” magazines) has never been neutral. What follows is not a debate about journalistic objectivity. Nor is it a minimisation of the importance of mainstream exposure for marginalised groups. It is an investigation into how the online marriage of advertisers and press publications has brought about specific kinds of exposure for Black women. It is also an intervention; representation is neither the end nor the beginning, without equity, it is a seductive yet pacifying distraction. In the context of fashion magazines and the beauty industry at large, how do Black women seek representation without being exploited? Is there space in an industry instituted on the mythology of objective beauty for varied and complex portrayals of Black womanhood?

Climbing: Black Women as “Product”

A pop-up on advertises The September issue. In the background, an advert for luxury brand Fendi can be seen.
“When I first started, 21 years ago, I was told that it was hard for me to get onto covers of magazines because black people did not sell. Clearly that has been proven a myth. Not only is an African American on the cover of the most important month for Vogue, this is the first ever Vogue cover shot by an African American photographer.”
— Beyoncé

Black women make good “products”. In her September 2018 Vogue cover feature, Beyoncé reminisces about the lack of exposure she was granted early in her career due to the mistaken assumption that “Black people did not sell”. Not too long ago, industries also thought that women did not sell. In 2009, Harvard Business Review boldly proclaimed that this had changed and that “women drive the world economy”. Black women, sitting patiently at the intersection of race and gender, have had to wait a long time for audiences and owners alike to recognise our commercial potential and value.

African-American Women: Her Science, Our Magic, a Nielsen report, “offers data and insights to Black women’s ability to drive product categories and shift culture — and make it look like magic.” A part of this 2017 report engages with the uses of Black Twitter and how Black women (in America) are engaging with social media — hence the emphasis on #BlackGirlMagic. Granted, the material is aimed at largely non-Black marketers, retailers and manufacturers hoping to capture a slice of the African-American community’s $1.2 trillion in spending power. However, it does well to reinforce Beyonce’s point about the mythology of Black people not selling. Now, it seems, Black content has mainstream appeal; the pervasiveness of influence across several popular culture categories has been fuelled by streaming services and viral sharing online. This is coupled with the rise of “Black” shows; “Programs such as NBC’s “This is Us,” ABC’s “Black-ish” and HBO’s “Insecure” each had more than 60% non-Black viewers during the 2016- 2017 TV season.”

What follows is a case study in the productisation of Black womanhood. The Nielsen report, part of their Diverse Intelligence Series, reveals that African-American women are prime markets; “increasingly the heads of households, Black women are core decision makers for a lion share of African-Americans’ enormous spending power.” It also shows, looking at mainstream consumption, that African-American women (along with Black men) are able to successfully appeal to non-white audiences. This appeal is specific. It is measurable. It is profitable. It is a calculation in consumption.

Black women can climb towards consumption.
The Neilson report summarises market intelligence on US Black Women.

As product, Black women can be consumed. As stewards of African-American wealth, the Neilson report claims, Black women are empowered consumers with envious purchasing power, “they are the sole decision makers for not only purchases for themselves, but also for purchases for the majority of Black children and almost half of Black families.” African-American women have recently been recognised as a target market for companies selling products. It is also true, that as a result of mainstream consumption, these same companies are learning how to sell Black womanhood as a product to their non-Black consumers.

Fashion magazines are lifestyle publications. Unlike most of the publications in Coyle’s review, they sit firmly in the bosom of benign marketing. Fashion is art and writing about fashion is akin to writing about art. Fashion is also business, but different to the way art is business. The fluidity and ease of purchase from a larger audience cements this difference. To say that fashion is only business would rob it of its overwhelming contribution to culture, especially through the internet. Yet, to deny the business of fashion would be naive; profit motives drive decisions. Magazine covers, then, occupy a unique archival space. They tell us not only what is en vogue, but also, what will sell. They are cultural snapshots and product highlights. Celebrities featured on magazine covers are cultural significant products.

“Mine is not a magazine that can be accused of not using black girls.” — Franca Sozzani

Ten years ago Franca Sozzani, then Editor-in-Chief of Italian Vogue, published “The Black Issue”. In the documentary Franca: Chaos and Creation, we see a clip of Arianna Huffington interviewing Sozzani. Huffington asks Sozzani what she hopes her legacy will be and what she considers her proudest contribution to the industry. A montage of Black Issue covers is introduced with the subtlety of Powerpoint-esque transitions as Flashing Lights by Kanye West plays in the background. We’re ushered through various interview clips from fashion pundits including historian Valerie Steele who asserts that “Franca took all the excuses away”. Naomi Campbell’s cosigns this; she acknowledges that even though some discussions about race in the fashion industry were happening, no one had been brave enough to do anything. No one but Franca.

The Black Issue was reprinted three times. It, by many accounts, was a success. The issue sells on eBay for hundreds of dollars. It became as a pundit in Chaos and Creation predicted, a collectors item. The product was everywhere. And it sold. In Jezebel, Dodai Stewart explores whether this was a success or a failure:

Does Italian Vogue solve the problem? No. But every little bit helps. A dialogue helps. And the next wall to break through just might be weight: With the exception of Toccara, all of the models in the “all-black” issue held to the slim standard.

Despite what was then described by Sarah Mower in The Observer as a “cultural watershed in fashion”, substantively very little changed. Granted, over the last ten years, we have witnessed an increase in representation. Reports that “the tide has changed” are premature. What has changed, much like Bill Finch’s relationship with kudzu, is perception.

Black women’s bodies can sell product(s). Black women’s bodies are more visible on shelves than ever before. And Black women’s bodies are product. Who pays the price?

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It takes nothing to cite people. I cite billions of people constantly in my writing. And yet, this is what happens to black women over and over again as we try to do this work. We get devalued or wiped out.

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