Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.
This week, it’s with Lauren Duca, a journalist you probably know from her work at Teen Vogue. Lauren’s career trajectory is truly astounding. She has quickly grown into a rising media superstar, amassing more than 400,000 followers on Twitter thanks to her biting, intelligent — and often quite funny — political writing. Here, we discuss her rapid ascension, her experience now living in the public eye and the value of humor while covering serious subjects.
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1. We start all our Q&As in the same way—at the beginning. So: How did you break into journalism, and what led you to where you are now?
I always wanted to write, but finding my voice while working for the paper at Fordham University made me realize I wanted to write things that are true. It took a while for me to “break into” anything beyond the delivery girl circuit run out of the fashion closet at Allure, but that summer of unpaid manual labor led to a spot reporting at a local publication near Fordham’s campus in the Bronx, which led to an internship at New York magazine, and eventually a fellowship at the Huffington Post. I suppose that was when I finally became convinced the whole journalism thing could work out.
2. Your rapid rise to prominence from is truly remarkable, going from a relatively unknown freelance writer to a media superstar with 400,000 Twitter followers in the span of a little more than a year. It started in earnest with your massively viral piece, Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America, and then exploded with a memorable appearance on Fox News opposite Tucker Carlson. What has that been like for you living through it? At what point in all this did you realize, “Things are different now?” How do you approach your job — and your life, really — differently now that your platform has grown so much so fast?
I wish this was an audio interview, so that I could answer with extended hysterical screaming. I don’t know that I’ve fully adjusted. I spent a good portion of this year waiting for everything to calm down, but by the spring, it occurred to me that I was just going to need to adjust to a constant state of emergency. Being public-facing is incredibly disorienting, and there are moments when I can’t believe how radically my life has changed since “Gaslighting” first when viral. The benefit is that I have had to be impossibly rigorous about refining my political views and journalistic ethics. The whole thing has definitely made me not only a stronger writer, but a stronger person. It’s kind of like I’ve had my worldview forged in the fires of Mordor.
3. Not too long ago, most of your writing focused primarily on entertainment, fashion and pop culture. (Tucker Carlson seemed particularly infatuated with this piece on Ariana Grande’s boots at Jingle Ball.) But then came the 2016 presidential election and suddenly, as you once said, “It felt like nothing I was working on mattered anymore.” What was that epiphany like, and how did you react to it? Did that realization challenge your core beliefs about what you thought you knew about yourself or make you question your identity? Or did it stir up a part of your identity that was always there?
I would definitely say that a switch flipped for me on Nov. 9. That said, my work was always political on some level. At the Huffington Post, for example, I wrote a feature on “The Rise of the Woman-Child,” in which I dissected the tonal disparity between male and female iterations of liminal adulthood in film and television. (A woman smoking, and drinking and fucking her ambition away is seen as inherently sad, but for some reason, when Seth Rogen or Adam Sandler exhibits that exact same behavior, it’s meant to be endearing and/or hilarious.) I also created a newsletter and column titled Middlebrow in which I frequently unpacked feminist issues through the analysis of Taylor Swift, Kim Kardashian, Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus. Using these larger-than-life figures made the theoretical accessible to readers who were mini-experts in pop culture, but perhaps less familiar with complex social power structures. As far as I see it, this paved the way for my current work as a political writer. Now, instead of pop stars, my major characters are politicians.
4. You once said, “Sports writing somehow flows effortlessly into politics, but for most women, there is no analogous entryway. If anything, working in entertainment, beauty, and fashion are used to discount female writers.” We are a pair of sports writers who have been subjected to the chorus of “STICK TO SPORTS” in our careers, but there’s no doubt sports appears to be an easier entryway than entertainment and fashion. Why is that, in your mind? How much of this stems from men trying to question the credibility of women writers? How can this be combated on a systemic level?
There is tons of gatekeeping in political writing overall, but, generally speaking, stereotypically gendered interests are weaponized as disqualifies of intelligence. That’s true for female writers, and women overall. Why is golf a more legitimate interest than nail art? If anything, hitting a tiny ball into a hole seems like a less intricate skill, but maybe that’s beside the point. Politics is not something separate or other. It should not require permission. As a nation, we need to push toward a level of democratic participation that seamlessly integrates civic engagement into daily life. That starts with changing the way we talk about who gets to be a political writer.
5. A lot of your work these days appears on Teen Vogue, particularly your column, Thigh-High Politics. Teen Vogue is now a hotbed for some of the most well-read and shared political writing on the internet. What does it say about the media at large that it responded with collective shock to the revelation that Teen Vogue’s audience — gasp — cares about political and social issues and want to read about them? Why do you think it took so long for most youth media outlets to recognize there was a desire for this sort of coverage and commit to it the way Teen Vogue has? What does it mean for the future of other youth publications?
The true revolutionary thing about Teen Vogue is that they have always insisted on taking readers seriously. That was true long before our absurd cultural dialogue about whether or not young women are interested in politics. Youth publications, and really all publications, need to stop assuming millennial apathy as a truism, and work harder to make politics accessible.
6. In September, you sent out a tweet that stuck out to us: You reminded people that you are just 26-years-old and are still “learning in public.” What would you say you’ve had to learn over this time? How often do you find people using your young age as an effort to discredit your work? What would you say is the biggest misconception about your — our? We’re 30! — generation?
Look, I’m 26. I’m pretty sure science says my brain only just fully developed. I have so much more I want to learn, and all of the books to read. We’re all learning all the time, but I’m doing it on a massive platform and people can be extremely unforgiving.
On top of that, I have too many examples of my age being used to discount my work. Not too long ago, the New York Post’s John Podhoretz called me a “child” on Twitter. More pervasively, the label “millennial” is so stigmatized that it is treated as a bad word. I think the biggest misconception is that we — and, yeah, you guys technically count as millennials! — are disengaged. Low voter turnout is a statistical reality, but it doesn’t tell the full story of the ways in which we are alienated from the political conversation.
7. You endured a very public string of harassment from former Pharma Bro and currently incarcerated felon Martin Shkreli. The experience actually resulted in Shkreli being kicked off Twitter. It’s no secret that you endure abuse on social media, as do so many women who write on the internet. Have there been instances where you’ve felt genuinely threatened and unsafe? How have you handled those moments? What, if anything, have you had to change about your life online in light of all of the abuse you receive? And, much more importantly, what needs to happen so that the future isn’t this bleak?
Interestingly enough, Martin Shkreli getting banned from Twitter is one of the worst things that happened to me this year. Afterwards, his followers attacked me by the thousands, threatening rape, death and doxxing, if I didn’t let Martin back on Twitter, as if that was my decision! It took all of 45 seconds to hit “report,” screenshot Martin’s page and tweet it at Jack. His followers apparently felt that me defending myself in any capacity was the equivalent of being a “professional victim.”
It’s all so exhausting. I have methods for mitigating it now, but the reality is that harassment takes a toll. Any time ugliness enters my viewfinder, that costs me time and energy. Those are capitalistic forces, which put all female writers, and, frankly, all women, at a disadvantage. I don’t have a solution for rampant misogyny/the general ugliness of humanity, but I have found that positive forces are more powerful than evil ones. There are a lot of people who go out of their way to send me kind notes, and, sometimes, cute pics of their dogs. I see that as a greater expenditure of energy than someone dehumanizing me while hiding behind a screen. Instead, it takes an acknowledgement of my humanity, and the active effort of recognizing that. For anyone hoping to improve the quality of the public square, I’d say: Keep doing that, please! Take the time to let the writers you appreciate, and especially vocal women, know they are doing important work that moves you. We eat a lot of shit, and the good vibes make a difference.
8. Your voice as a writer and on social media, even when discussing very, very serious issues, is often quite funny. Often, your tweets are just straight-up jokes. I believe you’ve called your brand, “comedic anthropology.” How difficult is it to write funny? Is this a skill that could translate to, say, stand-up? At what point in your development of a writer did you recognize that comedy was going to be an important part of your arsenal? And how useful of a tool is comedy, especially when you’re writing about topics that might not obviously be targets of it?
OK, again, wishing this was an audio interview, because then my answer would be [flirty giggles that quickly transition into sobbing]. It’s challenging, because a lot of people are huge jerks with no sense of humor. Honestly, I’m just waiting to be hung in effigy over a joke that doesn’t land. Back in May, for example, there was a bad-faith, alt-right effort to frame one of my dumbass tweets as an assassination attempt, and it ended up on the Today show. It’s dangerous out there, but not enough to push me toward straight-laced earnestness. I definitely don’t think I’m stand-up funny, but I strongly believe comedy is important, especially in these impossibly toxic times. It also helps make political commentary more inclusive. Insider nonsense is alienating, but everyone can bond over the fact that Steve Bannon looks like a human carbuncle.
On a more serious note, I’ve had to figure out how to maintain my voice, while avoiding the machinations of a hoard of malicious assholes who are apparently waiting to derail my career. I think the fact that I’m a young woman has a lot to do with that. I’m all too aware that the problem is often not what I’m saying, but the fact that a young woman is speaking up at all.
9. What needs to change about political journalism?
There are two core problems in political journalism right now: a lack of accessibility and the performance of objectivity. Far too many political writers are writing for insiders, and ultimately failing to do the work to break down the landscape for the average citizen. You need to be five kinds of highly specialized lawyer to fully grapple with a lot of the stories coming out of the Trump administration, and journalists need to devote more effort to helping the electorate parse through all that information. Then there’s the issue of public trust. The attempt to appear neutral in response to Trump’s attacks on the press has created an echo chamber of false equivalency. Political journalists need to stop fighting so desperately to seem unbiased, and instead rely on being transparent about their method of objectivity. As an industry, we need to focus on better communicating and executing our ultimate goal: holding power accountable by arming the public with information.
10. Last spring you had the opportunity to deliver the commencement address at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. That sounds… very hard. How did you go about figuring out what you wanted to say? How did you even know what a commencement address should be? What was the experience of actually giving it like? Oh, and did you get to eat at Bizen in Great Barrington? If not, you should have. It’s awesome. (Shameless plug: Jared’s cousin is the owner and sushi chef there.)
Writing a commencement speech was very hard, because commencement speeches are terrible! Almost every one I have ever heard is filled with meaningless platitudes that feel vaguely rousing in the moment, only to be forgotten by the time everyone gets their hands on the free sandwiches. I spent a lot of time spinning my wheels thinking about what to write, and then it occurred to me that I needed to say all of the things that I wish I had heard on graduation day. I think I did a good job with that. Anyway, at least one of the students thought I was better than Paul Krugman the year before.
(I did not eat at Bizen, but maybe I will next time I’m in Great Barrington! I’ve since become friends with the president of Simon’s Rock, Ian Bickford, and his wife, and they occasionally host group Shakespeare readings. The next one is Richard II, and I have my fingers crossed for the role of Henry Bolingbroke.)
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