In case you somehow had moved on the from Mindy Kaling ELLE cover scandal, ELLE editor-in-chief Roberta Myers reminded everyone of the whole event in her March 2014 editor’s letter, just to make sure everyone knows that nobody at ELLE did anything wrong.
To refresh your memory: ELLE‘s February women-in-television issue featured four separate covers, with a cover each for Allison Williams, May Poehler, Zooey Deschanel, and Kaling. While the first three actresses were shown in color with full body shots, Kaling’s cover was in black and white and closely cropped around her face. Had the Kaling cover been an individual image, I’m certain that this would never have been a thing, but the covers dedicated Williams, Poehler, and Deschanel looked like a set, while Kaling’s stood out drastically. The Internet cried foul, leading to noncommittal responses from both ELLE and Kaling. It dominated the fashion/beauty news cycle for two days or so, and then was over. Actually, it’s not, because Myers herself decided to weigh in a month later.
The reaction to the Kaling cover was swift and fierce. While the majority of people who responded were pleased that a fashion magazine finally put Kaling on a cover, there was a very vocal minority who thought we’d somehow dissed both Mindy’s body and ethnicity because we shot her in black and white at a close angle.
Her painstaking effort to point out that only a few loud quacks were angry while the rest of the world patted her on the back seems a bit obvious.
The notion that we would try to hide Kaling’s shape or ethnicity is counter to everything we believe in. There was another picture of Mindy, in color, that was cropped right above her knees. She looked good in it, but she’d been shown like that before. At ELLE, we want our cover images to surprise, to reveal a side of someone that you might not have seen, and to convey that she’s more than just a pretty face in a cute dress. In the black-and-white photo, I thought that Mindy looked powerful, beautiful, potent, and sexy in the best sense of the word: When she looks at the camera, you see a woman who’s alluring and in control, a woman who’s not afraid of her own desires.
This is basically the same thing ELLE said in their first official response, that Kaling looked beautiful and so everyone should shut up. It of course fundamentally misses the point of the whole thing–nobody was looking at Kaling’s cover alone and criticizing it. Nobody ever questioned that she looked “powerful, beautiful, potent, and sexy.” She looked like all of those things, and also like the odd man out.
I’m of two minds about this whole thing. Naturally there’s a cycle to these things (Melissa McCarthy’s ELLE cover got the same treatment)–Internet outrage, tired responses that claim no wrong doing, a message of support from the featured star, think pieces about broader implications, and then we all move on. But there doesn’t seem to be a great way to handle this. To apologize and admit guilt would be to say “Yes, we did find Kaling to be different and also lacking.” To intentionally miss the point also looks pretty bad. There’s no clear win here.
This really all should have been a non-issue. If you want to shoot a set, shoot a set. And if you can’t find a graceful way to deal with the fallout when you make a mistake, maybe stop talking about it. You’re digging yourself in deeper.