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‘Vanity Fair’s Women on Women’ Is a Missed Opportunity

Women writing about famous women does not a feminist or otherwise interesting collection make.

Vanity Fair's Women on Women
Radhika Jones and David Friend, editors
Penguin Press

In her Introduction to Vanity Fair’s Women on Women, editor Radhika Jones frames the 2019 collection as one in which the “gaze is female”. Its subjects are “women who, in their singular ways, stood up for their lives, as they envisioned them, and in so doing, shaped the lives of multitudes.”

Citing a long history of this approach—she quotes the magazine’s first editor as saying in a 1914 mission statement, “We hereby announce ourselves as determined and bigoted feminists”—Jones and David Friend set out to collect essays that both “signal the future” and indicate a “fascination with nostalgia, those forays into the past that help us interpret the present and remind us how we got from there to here.”

These vague proclamations are the only gesture toward editorial explanation; Jones and Friend don’t tell readers how or why she chose the 28 contributions from the many options over the past 36 years, since the magazine’s reinstatement in 1983 after a several-decade hiatus. The entries are divided into the categories of “The Comedians”, “The White House” “Society and Style”, “The Renegades”, “The Musicians”, “The House of Windsor”, “The Stars”, and, incongruously, “In Their Own Words”. Subjects include Whoopi Goldberg, Barbara Bush, Michelle Obama, Emily Post, Tina Turner, and Lena Waithe, among others. The authors include famous names like former editor Tina Brown, Maureen Dowd, and Monica Lewinsky, as well as many long-time Vanity Fair contributing editors of the past two generations.

Unfortunately, Vanity Fair’s Women on Women appears to be a weakly conceived attempt to cash in on an era. “This is a moment for women’s voices,” Jones writes, “and we are proud and delighted to bring them forward.” But “bringing them forward” is apparently the only connecting theme, if it can be called that; women writing about women does not a feminist collection make.

There’s an unsettling thread throughout many of the profiles that seems to link women’s physical characteristics to their success: Gloria Steinem’s hair, Audrey Hepburn’s thin frame, Tina Turner’s legs, Tina Fey’s glow-up for “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live. Furthermore, many of the entries are so recent that their inclusion herein seems like overkill.

The final section, “In Their Own Words”, contains essays about female filmmakers, sexual harassment on Wall Street, the gender-pay gap, the Silicon Valley Boys’ Club, and #MeToo, all articles which were published in Vanity Fair in the past two or so years—which makes them timely, but also repetitive for readers of the magazine (whom, I assume, are a primary audience for this book). It’s not clear why Jones and Friend deemed these few recent contributions worthy of a collection whose strength lies in past profiles of famous women, rather than comparatively brief forays into current social issues.

The entries that work best in Vanity Fair’s Women on Women are those that indicate a kind of “prescience”, as Jones explains in the Introduction in reference to Janet Coleman’s 1984 profile of Whoopi Goldberg, which was published prior to her award-winning turn in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film, The Color Purple. In particular, Gail Sheehy’s “What Hillary Wants”, a profile of Hillary Clinton during her husband’s first presidential run originally published in May of 1992, invokes a knowing, and for some of us, bitter kind of nostalgia.

Sheehy intricately tracks Clinton’s balancing act between playing the candidate’s wife and being the powerhouse half of the couple who could have, according to many contemporaries, been a formidable contender herself. The tensions between these roles were palpable, and Sheehy’s was one of the first detailed deconstructions of Clinton’s expert navigation of those tensions, published before Bill Clinton’s nomination, before Jeffrey Tuchman’s 1992 made for TV movie, The Man from Hope, before the 1990s became, for better or worse, the Clintons’ decade. Sheehy concludes: “Would she consider running? [Hillary] was pressed. ‘We’ll talk later.'” This is a 28-year-old cliff-hanger for which we all know, all too well, the ending.

Despite a few moments of brilliance, Vanity Fair’s Women on Women is a disappointing publication, not simply because some of the entries are rather superficial, but because, on the whole, it fails to justify or even explain its own existence. Why the feminist framing? Why these categories? Why these particular subjects? Why now?

Had Jones and Friend taken this opportunity to choose entries that together explore the intersectional tensions between feminist subjects, representations of famous women, and sociocultural changes over the past several decades, this could have been an interesting collection, indeed.

RATING 4 / 10