MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time to head into the Beauty Shop. That's what we call our conversations with our panels of women commentators and journalists. Sitting in the chairs for a new 'do this week are Joan Walsh. She's editor-at-large of Salon.com and an MSNBC political analyst. Veronica Miller writes about fashion and pop culture for xoJane and theGrio.com. Keli Goff is a columnist for theroot.com and The Daily Beast. And Mikki Kendall is a writer and media critic with hoodfeminism.com. Welcome back, ladies. Everybody, thanks so much for joining us.
KELI GOFF: Great to be back.
JOAN WALSH: Hi.
VERONICA MILLER: Hi. Thanks.
MIKKI KENDALL: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So we're not going to pretend that this is the most important news story in the world...
MARTIN: ...But it is one of the most talked about. Reality show star Kim Kardashian and rapper Kanye West grace, some might say disgrace, the cover of this month's Vogue magazine. It is an honor that Kanye had been lobbying for for months. Here he is last fall talking with Ryan Seacrest.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, ON AIR WITH RYAN SEACREST)
KANYE WEST: There's no way that Kim Kardashian shouldn't be on the cover of Vogue. She's, like, the most intriguing woman right now. Barbara Walters is calling every day, please let me put you on the most interesting - of course we're the most interesting. And collectively, we're the most influential because it's true, especially with clothing. Ain't - nobody's looking at what Obama is wearing.
MARTIN: Well, there you have it.
MARTIN: The manifesto - the Kimye manifesto. And well, the president has taken some heat for those mom jeans. But the outcry is what strikes me from some Vogue lovers to this cover shot. And, in fact, as was one star tweeted, you know, I'm canceling my subscription. Who's with me? So, Veronica, OK, let's start with you because you're in fashion. Why do you think this has struck such a nerve? I mean, she's been on - Kim Kardashian's been on the cover of InStyle, Cosmo, People.
MILLER: Well, I think because Kim Kardashian is incredibly polarizing as a celebrity, right, because the argument that many people make when - you know, I'm Kim-neutral so I have no dog in this fight. But the argument that a lot of people make is that she hasn't actually done anything to obtain her celebrity. So I think the argument is, I mean, the discussion over this cover is fascinating that it has become such an outrage.
But the thing about it is that Anna Wintour is no slouch. She knows that she's a highly polarizing figure. But she said something, and I'm paraphrasing, she said that her job of editing Vogue allows her to capture what's happening in culture at the moment. And I think putting Kanye and Kim on that cover is actually really - accurate representation of where our culture is at the moment.
MARTIN: Keli, what do you think? I take it you are not a fan.
GOFF: Well, apparently I'm not, and a lot of other people because, boy, when Sarah Michelle Gellar tweeted that she was canceling her subscription, not only did she get thousands of favorites and retweets, but the Vogue website, as well as the Vogue Facebook page was inundated by hundreds, which may now be up to thousands of people, cosigning that perspective. I mean, here's what's interesting is that the first issue of Vogue back in 1892, the first person to appear on the cover was a debutante. So it was basically someone who was jobless and hadn't done very much but looked well, and that's essentially who Kim Kardashian is.
But you're right, it was much more controversial than putting Lena Dunham on the cover, even though Kim is someone who actually embraces fashion more. Kanye's certainly more equated with high fashion than Lena Dunham. But I think there's been a shift where when you put someone like Hillary Clinton on the cover a little more than 10 years ago, you put people like Oprah Winfrey on the cover. We've now seen Vogue emerge into a brand where you expect the women on the cover to be women of substance who've actually done something, as well as being known for their fashion. And Kim Kardashian doesn't meet that metric, and that's why, you know, in the piece for The Daily Beast where I was interviewing brand experts, a lot of people felt strongly this was a misstep for the Vogue brand. Regardless of how you feel about Kim Kardashian, it was a misstep for the brand.
MARTIN: Well, how do you feel about it? Well, I'm quoting from your piece. It says, I don't buy tabloids. You're writing - you were quoting one of the commenter's on the site. I don't buy tabloids for a reason because I don't look up to or find inspiration in people with no talent and even less morals. Wow, RIP Vogue. The last bastion of style has fallen today. All right, so, Keli, where are you in this?
GOFF: Well, I - look, I'm not someone...
MARTIN: To Vogue or not to Vogue? Are you a...
GOFF: ...I don't - look, I certainly am not...
MARTIN: ...Pro or a con?
GOFF: ...Seeking fashion advice or any other kind of advice from Kim Kardashian. So it - to me, it didn't fit with the Vogue brand. So that, for me, is the problem - is that if I, you know, if she appeared on the cover of People, like we said before, it would not have been as problematic for me, as someone who's not a huge Kim fan. But for the Vogue brand, when I think Vogue, I don't think Kim Kardashian, and I think that's the problem for a lot of us.
MARTIN: Well, you know, I have to remind people that - I recall Hillary Clinton was on the cover of Vogue, and she got a lot of - I don't remember how much, but she got some very pointed - Vogue got some very pointed, negative criticism about that in the letter segment from people saying she didn't belong on it because they didn't think she was fashionable enough. So - so there's that piece. I don't know. Joan Walsh, where are you on this?
WALSH: You know, I really don't get the outcry. She was not given the Nobel Peace Prize.
WALSH: She was not named, you know, the new editor of the New Yorker. She was put on a fashion magazine. She has a certain amount of style, you know, Vogue is all about spectacle, and Kim and Kanye are spectacle-defined. And I think listening to Kanye's boast and challenge, it's, like, you know, I kind of laugh at Anna Wintour just taking him seriously. OK, here you go. And we're all talking about it, guys, and this is what sells magazines. And like it or not, you know, she did something kind of smart and edgy and twisty, you know. I can't remember the last time I talked about a Vogue cover, except for that awful Lebron James cover that they should - that was, you know, we can - that's another segment, right.
MARTIN: Well, how about that? You know, and I think we have that segment. One of the points she made in this with - that interview with Seth Meyers was she pointed out that she - they are the first interracial couple on the cover of this magazine. He's the first rapper, and she's the first reality show star. So those are interesting points. Mikki, what do you think about this?
KENDALL: I'm going to be the person who, shockingly, I just don't care about Vogue.
KENDALL: There's - it's...
MARTIN: You're allowed not to care. You are totally allowed not to care.
KENDALL: ...900 - yeah, it's 800 pages of ads, 100 pages of substance, maybe. Whoever is on the cover - it's no different than being, to me, on the cover of Cosmo or Glamour or any of the dozens of other magazines she's been on the cover of. And frankly, I agree. It sells magazines, and everyone who loves Vogue should remember that Vogue needs to make sales.
MARTIN: All right. Well, we'll leave it at that. Thank you.
MARTIN: Goodbye now, as I crawl under my desk in shame.
MILLER: Michel, can I jump in and add one thing?
MARTIN: Sure. Sure.
MILLER: The one - the most striking photo in that spread though, I think - and this is about the part of capturing the culture is, there's a photo in there where Kim is holding their baby, North. And she's holding the baby and taking a selfie. And while she's taking a selfie, Kanye is taking a picture on his iPad. So you have all these people taking pictures of each other in the photo, and no one's paying attention to the baby. But I think it's a really - it's a really accurate, like, description or capturing this moment where we are, you know, in this culture, where we're so engaged in capturing the moment with selfies and Instagram and everything without actually being engaged in the moment. And I think Kim and Kanye are kind of the epitome of that. So I think that was successful in kind of defining what our culture is right now at this moment in time.
WALSH: I agree, Veronica.
MARTIN: This is interesting, 'cause I was thinking about that 'cause I got, like, millions of pictures of my kids when they are babies, but I'm not in any of them because I'm taking them. And obviously, there's a technology issue there because the technology that made it so easy to take pictures of yourself did not exist, you know, then in ancient history. But it's just funny that, I think you make an interesting point about that about - but I don't know. We can't speculate. I just think it's hilarious. That's all I can say. I'll just add, I find it hilarious.
MILLER: Well, the baby is looking at Annie Leibovitz, like, somebody please pay attention to me.
MARTIN: The baby is adorable.
KENDALL: I think the baby was just posing. She just knows it's time to pose.
MARTIN: She knows.
WALSH: She's got to.
MARTIN: We are having our Beauty Shop roundtable with Mikki Kendall of hoodfeminism.com, Joan Walsh of Salon.com, Keli Goff of The Daily Beast and Veronica Miller of the The Grio and xoJane. So let's talk about another woman who's been on the cover of Vogue multiple times, Michelle Obama. The first lady recently returned from her trip China where she met with the Chinese first lady. She promoted cultural - educational exchange, she fed some pandas and she also spoke with Chinese and American students about the importance of free speech. I just want to play a short clip in case you missed it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA: Time and again, we have seen that countries are stronger and more prosperous when the voices and opinions of all their citizens can be heard. We respect uniqueness of other cultures and societies, but when it comes to expressing yourself freely, we believe those universal rights - they are universal rights.
MARTIN: So, Joan, I'm going to you first on this because critics say this was another example of where Michelle Obama could have done more. She could have said more in China about human rights and that - oh, for example, she was criticized for not meeting Liu Xia, who's the wife of jailed Nobel laureate, Liu Xaiobo.
And she's under house arrest. But the Chinese authorities say she can have visitors, and some people say this is exactly the kind of thing she should be doing. She should have paid a call upon this lady and tested that theory. So, Joan, I'll start with you and then ask for other opinions about this - that you think this is true, that the first lady could be doing more with her job?
WALSH: No. I mean, specifically in the realm of China, having listened to her speech knowing that she talked about freedom of expression as a universal value, knowing that she also, in that speech and I believe in another speech, talked about the example of the Civil Rights Movement and the importance of civil rights for minorities and full inclusion for all people in a place like China was incredibly bold of her. I think just the symbolic statement of the president sending to a country that's not so wonderful on women's rights, his wife, his two daughters and his mother-in-law, as his emissaries was a powerful statement in itself. And, you know, the woman can't do anything right for some folks on the right. But I thought it was a powerful moment of diplomacy, and I was happy to see it.
MARTIN: Well, Keli, to your point of, I mean, what do you think? I mean, you've - Joan, I would simply say that it's not just people on the right.
GOFF: Right. I was going to say that.
MARTIN: ...There's people on the left who feel that...
MARTIN: ...It seems to me that many of the complaints about what she does with her position, with her platform, really come from people on the left, I mean, who feel that she should be doing more to flush out - a woman of such accomplishment, they feel, should sort of be a bigger - cutting a bigger swath.
GOFF: Well, I...
MARTIN: Keli, where are you on this?
GOFF: Well, yeah, 'cause I was about to say, I want Joan to actually put that in writing that I'm agreeing with someone on the right so that people can stop saying I'm biased the occasional times I go on Fox that, you know, you wacky Liberal, biased, crazy person or whatever it is that they say, and I go, OK. But no, you know, look, we've had this conversation on your show before. I'm sure we're going to keep having it until - as long as Michelle Obama is our fabulous first lady. But, you know, for me, Michel, I'd summarize my feelings this way. My two favorite first ladies in history are Jackie Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt, two very, very, incredibly different women.
And so my only criticism, and I say it as a form of constructive criticism and tough love, if you will, with Michelle Obama is, I feel like we've gotten a lot of the Jackie Kennedy part right. I'd like to see a little bit more of the Eleanor Roosevelt. And I know that there are people, you know, who've occasionally pushed back and say, well, how do you know that that's who she wants to be? And my response is, anyone who's read her thesis from Princeton knows that this is a woman who cares deeply about issues like social justice and civil rights and has extremely strong opinions on them, which I think is awesome and fabulous. I just wish we could hear more of them and see more of that.
And, you know, I'm someone who completely got when, you know, the president was facing re-election, that there were positions on race and gender and reproductive rights that they kind of held a little close to their vest, right? But he's in second term, and as much as I love seeing the Jackie Kennedy cultural ambassadorship that she brought to China, I really would love to see and hear a little bit more. That doesn't mean she has to, you know, lead a protest in the street, Michel, but, you know, I do - I would love to see her be a little bit more of the first lady we know she has inside because she was that woman before she became first lady back at Princeton.
MARTIN: Mikki, where are you on this?
KENDALL: I'm going to say that at some point, we have to pick a lane in terms of expectations because when Hillary Clinton spoke in China about human rights abuses, she was blasted for it. She was overstepping the boundaries of a first lady. When Michelle Obama has brought up topics of race or class or anything else, she's blasted for it. She's literally in a no-win position. No matter what she says, someone's going to complain.
I personally thought the speeches were excellent and were a nice diplomatic - I know this is a concept that has left a lot of American discourse - diplomatic step forward because sometimes, shockingly, especially if we are stepping away from the idea that we're the police force of the world, we have to negotiate, which means small steps not major steps, immediately. And that is where I felt like this was coming from - that place of, let's have this conversation. Let's not revisit Tiananmen. Let's try to work this out slowly in the same way that we eased our way through other conflicts in other places. We're not going to see a military solution to what goes on inside Chinese borders. That's not ever going to be feasible. So we're going to have to make a diplomatic solution. And like it or not, the U.S.'s own track record for human rights abuses is not clean.
MARTIN: Veronica, what do you think?
KENDALL: We're going to have to work from that place.
MARTIN: Sorry, Mikki, excuse me. Veronica, what do you think about this?
MILLER: Well, I have to agree with Joan and Mikki in that, you know, Michelle Obama is in a no-win situation. You know, when she tried to take on something on as, you know, kind of as, you know, noncontroversial as saying we should get kids to eat better and move around, she got blasted for that, you know. When she wore sneakers to a garden, she - everything she does - if she sneezes, you know, in the wrong direction, somebody's going to have something to say about that.
So, you know, to Keli's point that, you know, wishing she'd be somewhere between Jacqueline Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt, I'm kind of interested in just us allowing her to be Michelle Obama and embodying that first lady position in the way that she feels is necessary to embody it. Because no matter what she does, she's not going to win, somebody's going to have something to say. And I've learned in being in those positions in my little world, it's just easier to do what you want to do.
GOFF: Michel, can I just say one last thing, though?
MARTIN: Keli, excuse me, I'm going to move on...
GOFF: OK, sorry.
MARTIN: ...'Cause I have one more topic that I want to get to.
MARTIN: And this is something that - we'd often talk about hair. I mean, hair is a thing, you know, and sometimes people say, why you are you spending so much time on hair? But this is another example of hair isn't just hair. And since we have somebody in the shop with specific expertise on this, I wanted to raise it. There's a new, U.S. Army policy that has - there are grooming regulations that prohibit certain hairstyles.
They specifically prohibit certain hairstyles like twists, certain types of braids, dreadlocks and large afros. And critics of this policy - and there have already been people who've - 6,000 people have already signed a petition protesting this - say that this is biased against African-Americans, particularly African-American women who are, by the way, overrepresented in the Army specifically. And so, Mikki, since you were in the military, I just wanted to get your take on this as briefly as you can. You have specific knowledge about it.
KENDALL: OK, so let me preface this by saying that I had both cornrows and straight hair while I was in the military. And one of the facets of this is gender. I would say it is gender bias, but it is gender bias based on equipment because you have to where a cover. You have to be able to wear a Kevlar, which is a helmet. You have to be able to wear the hood of an NBC suit, which is Nuclear, Biological, Chemical suit. Big hair won't fit under certain things. It just won't.
The same is true in terms of hair texture for white women with long hair. Most of this equipment is designed for a male head with a short-crop hair cut - high and tight, right. So most women struggle to contain their hair. I know I did. I have a big head and a lot of hair. I just do. I struggled to contain my hair through basic and beyond. And some of the styles that they are referencing are bulky and will not fit under the - inside the uniform properly. You will not have a consistent fit with your gas mask. Your Kevlar will not fit correctly.
MARTIN: So is there a way to work this out?
KENDALL: That does not mean I agree with all of that.
MARTIN: Yeah. Is there a way to work this out in a way that satisfies people and doesn't feel as if they're specifically targeting a group of people who actually happen to be among the most supportive of their...
MARTIN: ...Mission and the most present, right, as the largest minority in the service as women?
KENDALL: Yes. I would actually say that one of the things would be that we need to start getting equipment - you know, we're still buying agreement that's theoretically suited for a male frame of a certain height and a certain weight. But obviously, that is not what our military looks like. It has not looked like that for 30-plus years. So we're going to need to make some changes in terms of equipment. Also, the regs should be visited by women who are in power...
KENDALL: ...Not just by men.
WALSH: Me and - I had to defer entirely to Mikki on this because she makes such excellent points. And she has the experience. The only thing I would say is, like, looking at the flyers, you know, the website, it just - it looks like it was designed with absolutely zero African-American, female input. And, you know, it stigmatizes whole types of hairstyles where, you know, they could fit within a helmet.
WALSH: You know, depending on - it just looks like somebody designed these regs with no thought to they would sound.
MARTIN: Well, we got to leave it there for now. Interesting discussion. Once again, I just want to make the point - hair is not always just hair. Hair is not just hair.
MILLER: Not at all.
MARTIN: So that was Joan Walsh. She's editor-at-large of Salon.com and an MSNBC political analyst. Mikki Kendall was also with us. She's a writer and media critic with hoodfeminism.com. Veronica Miller writes about fashion and pop culture for xoJane and The Grio. Keli Goff is a columnist for theroot.com and The Daily Beast. Veronica was with us from WHYY in Philadelphia. Mikki was with us from WEBZ in Chicago. Keli and Joan were both with us from our bureau in New York, leaving me by myself in Washington, D.C., sad.
WALSH: Awe. Next time.
MARTIN: Thank you ladies.
GOFF: Thank you.
WALSH: Bye, Michel.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.