Why Essence, Ebony (and Islandista) matter

Just picked up my September 2010 issue of Essence magazine and I was struck by the cover.

Featured are three of the biggest black supermodels to ever do it – Iman, Naomi Campbell and Liya Kebede – some serious star power there and all in one place to boot -fitting for the cover of Essence’s commemorative 40th anniversary issue.

But what really struck me is that these genuine supermodels could be anywhere else – they are that big in the world of fashion.

But as big as they all have been in their respective careers, they all took the time for Essence.

Why?

Because even in the age of Obama, magazines like Essence and the struggling Ebony still matter. Many like to twist it these publications’ dedication to women of colour as ‘reverse racism’.

The recent outcry over Essence’s controversial appointment of a white fashion editor has brought these views bubbling back up the surface.

The jist of the general argument is that  magazines like Essence and Ebony or even Latina are not needed ‘anymore’ and that highlighting only women of colour is racist and exclusionary.

But we’re going to call bullshit on that. The truth is, this month’s edition of Essence (and Ebony for that matter with President Obama on the front) are the exception rather than the rule in that they feature black stars who don’t usually get shine anywhere else.

Take for instance the ‘fashion bible’ Vogue – we have hammered on about the under-representation of black women or any women of colour on its covers for a while now.

But pure numbers don’t tell the tale – let us look at it in terms of another, more powerful currency – star power. Black stars can be humongous and still never make a (US) Vogue cover.

Whitney Houston has never been on the cover of US Vogue, even at her height when she held the record for the best-ever debut album by a female artist.

Janet Jackson has never been on the cover of Vogue either. Diana Ross never made the cover.

Even Mariah Carey has never made a Vogue cover (though she has covered Spanish Vogue), even though she has the most number ones of any solo artist ever. She has more number ones than Elvis! But no Vogue cover, not even when she made her huge comeback in 2005. And Mariah isn’t even that black!

It’s not just limited to black women. It wasn’t until 2005 (and with much rumoured arm-twisting) that Jennifer Lopez finally made the cover of Vogue, even though she was the biggest star in the world and held down both the number one movie and the number one album in the United States in the summer of 2001.

I mean, what’s a girl gotta do? Well, if you’re not a celeb of colour, not much.  The bar for ‘cover status’  is way, way, way lower for white women than it is for black women. Take this month’s September Vogue which actually does feature a black woman on the front in the fabulous, Oscar-winning Halle Berry – for the biggest issue of the year. A huge accomplishment, no doubt as it has been 22 years (1989) since a black woman was featured on the cover of the September issue.

But consider also that Sienna Miller made the September cover of Vogue just three years ago.

In what world is Sienna Miller as a big a star as Halle Berry? Name one Sienna Miller movie off the top of your head – I dare you. But no-one gawked and commented how remarkable it was that she was on the cover. Because the bar for cover status is so low if you are not a female celeb of colour that you would have to limbo under it.

Because that’s still the world we live in. Women of colour are still not represented by ‘mainstream’ magazines (though the InStyles and Elles of this world do a much better job ironically enough) in proportion to either their numbers in the population or importantly, their cultural impact.

Hence the Alicia Keys, Lauryn Hills, Mary J Bliges and Zoe Saldanas of this world need not apply. Far less beloved Essence cover girls like Jill Scott, Mo’Nique or Jada Pinkett-Smith. However Scarlett Johansson, Kate Bosworth and Jessica Biel are welcome.

I mean… Jessica Biel? But no Mariah? Or Janet?

Which is why Essence, Ebony, Latina, Honey and all such magazines still matter.

But there is more to this for these magazines do not escape the stain of underrepresentation either. It’s been years that I have been waiting on Essence to act as if there are other black people in the world besides African-Americans.

To act as if the Caribbean is more than just a vacation spot to be examined in its travel pages and Africa a disaster to be covered in terms of misery and disease.

If  “black women come first” and Essence sees it fit to sell magazines in nearly every newstand in the Caribbean, then why can’t our issues and heck, even our celebs get some shine?

It is especially galling when you consider that Essence’s influential editrix of many years, Susan L. Taylor, is the daughter of a Trini and a Kittitian. So she knows our story and continuing my line of argument about the currency of star power, she knows our impact on African-American culture. The fact that so many famous African-Americans were actually born in the West Indies or have parents from the Caribbean is not an accident.

So, I say all that to say this – as long as a significant portion of people is still largely ignored by the mainstream, we still need Essence. And Ebony. And Islandista. 🙂

7 comments for “Why Essence, Ebony (and Islandista) matter

  1. bajangyal
    August 25, 2010 at 1:27 am

    Amen!

  2. August 25, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Islandista:

    “Essence” and “Ebony” are definitely still relevant (or shall I say needed), but “Essence” needs to go back to its old formula of its heyday (AKA before it was bought by Time Warner). The content has gotten tabloid-ish and the fashion and beauty features leave a lot to be desired (lacks creativity, support of designers and companies owned and operated by those of color, and the price points they tout aren’t realistic to a majority of it’s readership). Once they do that, I may consider renewing an Essence subscription, but yes, they are very much needed but the content needs to come better.

  3. Ronnie
    August 25, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    Bravo Islandista! Bravo!
    Well said. Do people seriously think these mainstream mags cater to all races? Get real!!!!!!
    I cannot get beauty tips for my black hair and skin from these mags. And they certainly do not touch on life issues that affect black women. I cannot relate to publications that focus on Caucasian women, and every two months or so I may see a bi- racial model representing black hair care. That’s why I canceled my subscription to Cosmo a long time ago after having it for just a year. And I NEVER subscribe to Vogue, Elle, and the like. It didn’t make sense.

    And while I love Essence and Ebony, they can stand to improve their scope on the African/Black diaspora, which is ever present right here in America.
    Thank you Islandista for presenting such a strong case for ethnic media.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *