Anna Wintour Isn’t Going To Cancel Herself

“The Empress Wintour, in her power, has disappointed me in her humanity,” he wrote in his book. “Our friendship has layered with thick rust over the years. … I am no longer of value to her.” Following her apology this week, Talley remains unmoved. “She’s part of an environment of colonialism,” he recently told Sandra Bernhard on her Sirius XM show. “She is entitled and I do not think she will ever let anything get in the way of her white privilege.”

None of Wintour’s elitism, her refusal to feature different body types or skin colors in the magazine, or her harshness with her employees was a secret. After all, it wasn’t until 2018, when Beyoncé graced the September issue of Vogue, that Tyler Mitchell became the first Black person to shoot the cover — a request from Beyoncé herself. (To get a Black person to shoot the cover of Vogue, you apparently have to be one of the most powerful Black women in the world.)

The 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada, adapted from the novel by the same name, which was based in part on Lauren Weisberger’s experience working for Wintour, earned positive reviews in part because it humanizes a Wintour-type boss — a woman who stomps on everyone, who dismisses those with a different opinion, who needs to win at all costs. She has no friends, but she has her work. And yet, she is admirable, played by American icon Meryl Streep, who even got an Oscar nomination for the role, and whose infamous cerulean speech has been both praised and now thoroughly debunked.

Wintour has built her entire career on the foundation of fetishizing white-woman meanness. This isn’t to say she’s untalented or unworthy of the job, but it does speak to the culture she brings to a brand like Vogue, or frankly, to Condé Nast as a company at large. Wintour’s persona isn’t just of a boss that’s tough to please, but of a woman boss who’s just as awful as a man could be. It’s an earlier, less PR-optimized incarnation of the Nasty Woman/Girl Boss modus operandi: the idea that being authoritarian or contemptuous at work is feminist, because if men get to do it, why can’t women?

Wintour embraces a version of femininity that says you have to be skinny, white, elegant, aloof, and rich. If you don’t have any of those qualities naturally, you have to work hard toward them: eat less if you’re too big, conform to Eurocentric beauty standards if you’re Black, act mean, never crack a smile. There’s a whole generation of young women who watched Sex and the City and thought Carrie Bradshaw’s affection for Vogue and its tenents was something to vie for, instead of creepy and desperate. “Sometimes I would buy Vogue instead of dinner,” she says in one episode. “I felt it fed me more.” (You know what feeds you more than Vogue? All foods.)

Wintour might be unique in how powerful she is, but you can trace her influence across many industries, not just media. The company founded on a singular woman’s cult of personality can be seen in brands as disparate as Thinx, Nasty Gal, Glossier, and the women’s coworking space The Wing, founded by Audrey Gelman. But there is a clear distinction between women like Wintour and those like Gelman: Wintour found power in being icy, while third-wave “feminist” bosses learned to hide their harshness behind public displays of feminist solidarity.

So it’s disingenuous for Wintour to now act like she’s just one cog in a big, anti-Black machine. The allure of Wintour is in her all-encompassing power; if you want something to happen at Vogue, you need Anna’s permission. (Even the creator of The Hills knew that if he wanted Lauren Conrad to get that Teen Vogue internship, he’d have to sell Wintour on it in a closed-door meeting first.) Her entire brand is about her unwillingness to compromise, but with that come questions around how she chooses to wield her power. There is no other reason why Vogue’s culture is apparently so hostile to the Black people who work there or want to work there. Three decades into her tenure, the magazine functions entirely by her design, and the publisher is so heavily influenced by her that it’s nearly impossible to imagine a Condé Nast without her as the artistic director and global content adviser.

Nearly every publication in American media is having to confront its failures when it comes to hiring, promoting, and retaining Black employees. They all require a seismic shift in their office cultures. And Wintour may, publicly, express a desire to see Vogue become a more inclusive magazine and workplace. But it seems that Wintour is not about to sacrifice her own privilege or position in order to further Vogue’s progress. That she only took a 20% pay cut as Condé Nast embarked on drastic cost-cutting measures and layoffs related to the pandemic (meager considering her reportedly $2 million salary), and that even now, per Condé Nast CEO Roger Lynch, she refuses to resign, speaks to her extreme reluctance to relinquish any of her power. A boss like Anna Wintour will have to be dragged from her desk, French Revolution–style.

If her whole brand is being an ice queen, then how reliable is a Wintour apology? Condé Nast and the fashion industry at large have permitted her to be like this, seemingly without any consequences, despite repeatedly failing to make her workplace even remotely comfortable for Black people. Her words are hard to take at face value because she has no record of amending her behavior; in fact, Wintour’s whole bag is doing it her way, critics be damned.

In her half-hearted apology, Wintour implies that she’s merely been a passive participant in a media institution that rarely gives Black people any work, any compensation, or any credit. She’s not fooling anyone and should just admit the truth: Vogue is like this because Wintour designed it to be. If she ever did finally leave the company, it’s unclear how the magazine could ever proceed without Wintour at the helm because so much of it is influenced by her. But maybe that’s the point. Perhaps it’s time for Anna Wintour’s Vogue to finally come to an end, and make way for something new. ●

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