by Annemarie McDaniel
When I was in 12th grade, I asked my parents to buy me a subscription to TIME Magazine so I could learn more about current events before heading off to college. I still remember when the TIME 100 Most Influential came in the mail, and the glossy collage of famous faces on its cover. I read every single bio inside, thinking to myself how I wanted to know the stories of such important and inspiring people. Two years later, TIME 100 has tried more and more to capture the attention of young audiences through social media. TIME’s online poll allowed users to vote for their favorites and then share their votes on Facebook or Twitter. Friends of mine who weren’t regular TIME readers were still tweeting and posting about TIME 100, encouraging others to vote for their favorite.
The winner of the TIME 100 reader poll was Arvind Kejriwal, an Indian politician. Trailing just a few spots behind him in 5th place was trans activist and American actress Laverne Cox. Laverne earned a reported 88,481 total reactions, with 91.5% agreeing she should be included in #TIME100. In the past year, Laverne rose to national fame for her role as Sophia Burset, a trans woman sent to prison, on Orange is the New Black. Cox is a transgender woman herself, and has used her time in the spotlight to bring trans issues to the public. Laverne is currently working on the documentary FREE CeCe about the violence, imprisonment, and stigma trans woman of color CeCe McDonald faced after defending herself during a transphobic hate crime in June of 2012. Laverne Cox is a pioneer for trans representation in the media, paving the way for future trans actors and activists to follow her lead.
On Thursday morning, I searched the TIME 100 list to find her name, excited to see everything they included in Laverne’s bio. I searched for a few minutes, confused what category she was under, until I realized she hadn’t been included. I stared at the screen, unable to process how a woman who has shaped national understanding and dialogue around trans issues, specifically for trans women and trans people of color, could go unrecognized.
At the same time, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Was this transphobia? Racism? Yes, but not simply because TIME didn’t include her, despite her incredibly high poll results. The poll that me, my peers, and millions of others voted in actually held no official role in the TIME 100 selection process, even though the website implied the poll would directly help decide the winners. It’s even likely that the full TIME 100 was decided before the poll went live.
Without the poll, Laverne Cox still would not have been included in TIME 100, due to systemic transphobia and racism. But with the poll, we suddenly see how it’s not just a small handful of us who support Laverne Cox: a huge readership agrees she should be included. We’re forced to see that elite institutions like TIME Magazine still haven’t fully overcome their tendency to focus on mainly white, cis men. Their idea of influential people may never include trans women of color like Laverne Cox.
3.2 million votes cast, and hundreds of thousands of calls for more inspirational women of color went ignored. Who are we letting decide the Most Influential People?
To be sure, Laverne Cox does not have the level of name recognition as other artist winners do. But the argument that she should be excluded solely because of that just doesn’t make sense. If the TIME 100 was mainly about name recognition, artists like Katy Perry, Justin Beiber, or Rihanna should have been front and center. Furthermore, the creator of Orange is the New Black, Jenji Kohan was featured, so clearly the problem isn’t that TIME sees Orange is the New Black as not having enough international “reach.” TIME felt compelled to recognize its influence, but gave recognition to the cis white woman who gave a trans woman of color an “opportunity,” instead of highlighting the talent and work of that trans woman herself. And Laverne’s success in the reader poll is about more than just her acting skill and fame. If TIME had listened, if Laverne had made the list, have marked the first time a trans woman won the TIME 100 and would have signaled to the world that trans people cannot continue to be invisible in the eyes of media.
TIME does appear to be highlighting the talent of more and more women of color. It seemed the internet had a minor heart attack when Beyoncé’s cover circulated the internet, with her falling under the “Titans” category. In the Artists section alone, I was greeted by the familiar face of Kerry Washington, the first African-American actress to be the lead in a network drama in nearly four decades. Seeing Serena Williams and Malala Yousafzai made me instantly smile, and I also grinned at the many new faces I didn’t recognize of proud and powerful women of color, like Ertharin Cousin, Sheika al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Yao Chen and many more. With the exception of complaining to friends and family, it felt as if I had no right to criticize TIME when they truly had improved their diversity in the past few years, recognizing that success comes from beyond the Western white male.
But then I remembered why I am angry. I am not angry because TIME didn’t hit a quota I expected, as though there’s a magic number of minority women I need to see represented to be happy. I am angry because TIME Magazine clearly would not have included Laverne Cox without the poll. I am angry because TIME made it appear the poll could change this outcome. I am angry because we mobilized ourselves to support Laverne Cox; tweeting and blogging and posting across the Web. I am angry that no matter how loud we shout, it seems elite groups like TIME don’t listen.
I once fell asleep while reading the TIME so late at night, magazine in hand. My favorite women in the 2011 TIME 100 were my role models, and I was lucky enough to see women similar enough to me in appearance or aspiration that I had someone to look up to. Without such lists, many girls will sit on their beds and wish they could see their role model in TIME’s pages. Trans girls of color have even fewer role models in media, and when they see Laverne Cox excluded from this year’s issue, they might wonder why trans people rarely get the recognition they deserve. Perhaps next year, TIME will remember this uproar and include more women of color in the list or take the poll into heavier consideration in future TIME 100s. Something needs to change.