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How Did Lauren Duca’s Revolution Backfire?

The viral writer wants to galvanize young people with her new book, How to Start a Revolution. But past controversies — and a new complaint filed by her New York University students — threaten to undermine her message.

Posted on September 17, 2019, at 10:29 a.m. ET

You can’t really blame journalist and activist Lauren Duca for being a little nervous about agreeing to an interview. When I first asked to profile her in advance of her new book, How to Start a Revolution: Young People and the Future of American Politics, I did it over Twitter DM. She agreed, but seemed to get anxious as we got closer to settling on a meeting time. “Hold on lol,” she wrote. “Are you not following me? Feels like that would be helpful for a profile. And, not gonna lie, that makes me a bit apprehensive!”

When we eventually met in person in mid-August, she clarified the source of her anxiety a bit more. “I assumed it meant you were one of my haters,” she said. “There’s a level of reasonable paranoia. It’s weird being public-facing. It’s weird to interact with an idea of you.”

In her short professional life, Duca has been held up as both a feminist icon of her generation and a phony quasi-journalist who has taken advantage of a few lucky moments in her life. The truth, it seems, just depends on what version of herself she allows you to see. Over the past few years, Duca has become one of the most recognizable faces among a specific type of progressive white feminist, pussyhat-wearing activist-journalist — less a singular person than a representative of a particular corner of the #resistance. After working as a Teen Vogue columnist, a Twitter personality, a television talking head, and, most recently, an author writing about democracy and citizenship, the highs and lows of the viral economy seem to be taking their toll on her.

In all likelihood, you first heard of Duca as the young woman who called Tucker Carlson “a sexist pig” during a 2016 Fox News appearance. In the 10-minute segment on his show, Duca debated Carlson on whether people should feel free to yell at Ivanka Trump when they see her on a commercial flight. Carlson, who appeared to be loudly melting down during the segment, eventually snapped at Duca, “You should stick to the thigh-high boots. You’re better at that.”

Carlson ended the segment immediately after he insulted her, but Duca still got the final word anyway. As her satellite feed window began to shrink away and her microphone faded out, she mouthed the words “You’re a sexist pig” so clearly that it’s as if they’re blaring through in surround sound. It was (and is)...high art.

December 2016 was a big month for Duca — a few weeks before her Carlson appearance, she had written a column for Teen Vogue that seemed to encapsulate how a lot of liberals and progressives were feeling about the then-new president: “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America.

In it, Duca writes about how frequently Trump makes US citizens question basic facts like whether undocumented immigrants are allowed to vote, the national unemployment rate, and the integrity of various journalistic outlets. The piece went viral — shared by Dan Rather and Bette Midler, among others — because in the midst of all the postelection hand-wringing, Duca’s piece put in clear terms why people on the left were feeling so hopeless. (According to a spokesperson for Teen Vogue, the piece has received more than 1 million unique views.)

Duca, just 25 years old at the time, became a media darling seemingly overnight. Her rise coincided with Teen Vogue’s own political awakening as a leader in the anti-Trump resistance. Suddenly the country realized that Teen Vogue wasn’t just focused on makeup and fashion; it was giving young people a place to read about social justice, politics, inequality, and the power of activism.

“It’s weird being public-facing. It’s weird to interact with an idea of you.” 

In the months after her gaslighting piece and Fox News appearance, the media couldn’t get enough of Duca. She was profiled by the New York Times, gave commencement speeches, appeared on countless television shows, won awards for excellence in journalism, was profiled by the Today show, continued writing for Teen Vogue until 2018, and has since amassed nearly half a million Twitter followers.

But in the last year or so, Duca has tempered her online persona: Her tweets are less frenetic and frequent. “I don’t know if it’s necessary to be constantly in the mix,” she told me. “There are other people who got this too. That’s your ego, that you feel like you need to be [there]. No. Relax.”

Now 28 years old, Duca seems primed to stand alongside other young, emerging feminist media icons like Jessica Valenti or Lindy West or Liz Plank, but, as is the case with anyone who reaches a certain level of online fame, she’s had her share of detractors. That isn’t to say Duca doesn’t have her fans — she is loved because she’s feisty and bold and funny, especially in the face of ruthless sexism, always ready with a quip on Twitter. And yet she’s been criticized for not practicing what she preaches, behaving like she’s above reproach, and for having the capacity to be quite cruel.

Whatever the general public might think of Duca’s personal politics, her book, How to Start a Revolution, is set to be published on Sept. 24. The 178-page manifesto has the lofty goal of laying “the groundwork for a re-democratizing moment as it might be built out of the untapped potential of young people,” according to the book jacket. It’s been blurbed by heavy hitters, including Rather, Janet Mock, and Ariel Levy, the latter calling Duca “the millennial feminist warrior queen of social media.”

Duca also spent this past summer teaching “The Feminist Journalist,” a six-week New York University journalism course for both high school and college students. After Duca agreed to our interview, she also acquiesced to letting me sit in on the final day of the class. She asked her students to come prepared with questions for her for what would be an AMA-style session in Washington Square Park. Her students sat in a circle around her in the wet grass. It was, I imagine, exactly what Tucker Carlson would envision a liberal journalism class might be: a bunch of kids from varied backgrounds, ethnicities, orientations, and gender identities, who could each afford a $6,500 class, wearing T-shirts that said “GenderQueer” or “Kill Patriarchy.”

In the park, Duca praised her students for their ideas and pitches: “You so totally learned what I was trying to teach you.” Nearly four weeks after the course ended, however, her students sent a collective formal complaint to the heads of the NYU journalism school about Duca’s conduct. “We are disappointed at the department and NYU for hiring a professor with more interest in promoting her book than teaching a group of students eager to learn,” they wrote. In the days after the course ended, several of the students also reached out to me to share more of their concerns. “Her ability to exploit the movement is really frustrating,” one former student said.

Caught between her and her unhappy students, I was now situated uncomfortably between the two sides of Lauren Duca: the brand and the reality.

Three days before I joined Duca in her class, I met her for the first time at a coffee shop in Brooklyn. Wearing a tattered David Bowie T-shirt and a big silver fish earring in her right ear, she greeted me with outstretched arms and a big grin. Though it took me weeks to get her to agree to an interview, she’s charming in person, funny, and self-deprecating: “We’ve all evolved since we were 18,” she told me after she flashed her “So it goes” rib cage tattoo at me.

She was open to talking about at least some of the controversies that have surrounded her. When her Teen Vogue gaslighting piece came out, some people argued that she had ripped off a HuffPost piece from earlier that year. (Tyler Kingkade is a former BuzzFeed News employee.) Duca didn’t mention the article in our interview specifically, but she has admitted that she doesn’t think she reinvented the wheel.

“It’s not that I’ve come up with some really crazy idea. It’s that I’ve nailed a moment in the culture, expressed something that people feel and haven’t been able to precisely express,” she told me. “I’m bolstering their foundation of information so they feel the confidence upon which to act.” Duca also understands that part of going viral on the internet is hitting at the right time in the right way. And who can blame her for capitalizing on such good luck?

“My power,” Duca told me, “is as a great communicator.”

At Teen Vogue, Duca was brought on to work the weekend shifts by Phillip Picardi, then the magazine’s online editor. “She demonstrated a range of coverage: She could write things from a perspective that would bring in a social or cultural commentary that I felt was important to add to Teen Vogue,” he told me. “It also helped that I found her, and still do find her, extremely funny.”

“My power,” Duca told me, “is as a great communicator.”

Together, Picardi and Duca had big plans to make TeenVogue.com more than just a fashion and lifestyle site by bringing politics to the forefront of its coverage. Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief Elaine Welteroth was doing something similar at the time for the print side. This was in the — comparatively — halcyon days of 2016 and 2017, when people on the left were still struggling to figure out what to do. Seemingly every weekend there was a march — the Women’s March, A Day Without Immigrants, A Day Without Women — even the Juggalos came out for their own.

Both the right and left were fostering their own young, white, conventionally attractive representatives of their respective movements. While Duca was winning acclaim on the left, women like Tomi Lahren and Laura Loomer were also going viral for their videos railing against immigration and Black Lives Matter. Though their messages weren’t necessarily new, their youth and social media savvy made them appealing representatives for the right.

Duca’s piece wasn’t the only or the best example of Teen Vogue’s foray into politics, but it did hit the hardest. “The gaslighting piece was able to sum up a lot,” Picardi said. “It created a consciousness around misinformation and abuse of power that I think was extremely sharp and really cut through the noise. Obviously the numbers and Lauren’s trajectory speaks to its impact wholeheartedly.”

Picardi picks up on what may be Duca’s greatest asset: taking complicated political issues and making them approachable to a much younger audience who might otherwise feel boxed out of these conversations. No wonder she seems to shock reporters who’ve cut their teeth treating politics like sacred ground that only the deserving can enter. “There’s not a lot of showmanship with her writing or with her approach,” Picardi said. “I think that makes more people feel like they can be invited to the conversation.”

Fox News

There’s not a tremendous amount of coverage about Duca’s new book just yet, but what is public is largely positive. At time of this publication, it has a 4.40 rating on Goodreads (but with just 10 ratings thus far a week before its release), and one glowing Publishers Weekly review. “Duca’s conversational prose ... and clear passion for equality allows her to galvanize without preaching,” reads the review. “This call to action will resonate even with those who are not already involved in progressive politics.”

Duca’s book certainly speaks to its readers in very simple terms — it defines “democracy” and “oligarchy” and “gaslighting,” terms that you might be familiar with if you’ve ever taken a civics class or two. But for Duca’s audience, whom she considers to be between 14 and 24, it’s a perfectly reasonable and non-condescending education; how else are you going to get young people to care about politics if you don’t explain it to them? “I think a lot of political writing is written from this high-perch, omniscient view that it's just not accessible, and it’s disempowering at times,” Duca told me. “I think I tend to forget how much I have the IV plugged in and how high my knowledge level is.”

But here’s the thing: Some of our most prominent activists today are teenagers or twentysomethings. Nineteen-year-old David Hogg and his sibling, 16-year-old Lauren Hogg (both of whom Duca interviews in How to Start a Revolution) are fighting for gun control more effectively than some members of Congress. Greta Thunberg, also just 16, is inspiring other teens to fight climate change. Nadya Okamoto is a 21-year-old and the founder of a nonprofit that works toward ending period poverty.

Malala Yousafzai, at 22, has a Nobel Peace Prize. Is Duca the best person suited to speak to Gen Z when Gen Z is already rallying its own peers?

Simon & Schuster

The book has some confusing factual errors, too. In one chapter, Duca uses the infamous 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese as a case study for the bystander effect, when in fact that specific myth around Genovese’s murder had long been debunked. (Though she uses this comparison, she also concedes on the next page that the events are disputed.) Finished copies of the first hardcover printing also come with this erratum slipped in: “On page 29, reporter David Folkenflik is incorrectly identified as a media consultant for the NRA. Mr. Folkenflik works at National Public Radio, where he is a media correspondent.” The cover itself — George Washington in pop art makeup — has also been readily mocked.

Privilege comes up often when criticizing Duca, and her book does her no favors on this front. Like the work of a lot of white women in political writing, the book only fleetingly examines the intersection of race when she talks about political engagement. “Before the 2016 election, I only ever understood politics as a spectator sport,” she writes early in the book. “Once upon a time it was possible to say ‘I don’t like politics’ as if expressing a distaste for olives.” Which of course makes you ask: Who exactly has been so lucky to spend their entire pre-2016 life thinking this?

The real purpose of the book — as stated by Duca in our interview — is to help galvanize young people to get involved in politics and help them be informed. “Well, friends, being a good citizen is as easy as three simple steps,” she writes in the conclusion. Her steps include “learn — empower yourself with information,” “decide — form a political opinion,” and “act — put your beliefs into action.” It’s simple, but sometimes simple is enough. Simple can make you go viral with a message that’s far more helpful than just sitting around and waiting for someone to leave office. “I think that journalism is necessarily an activist practice,” she told me. “I think the function of journalism should be to empower people with information, and the information people need to act and raise their voices.”

“This moment is not about suddenly caring. It’s about finally doing,” she writes in How to Start a Revolution. But by the end of the book it remains unclear what, exactly, she’s encouraging us to do.

How to Start a Revolution also attempts to contend with Duca’s virality. Her online fame has given her a massive platform, but it has come at a cost. “The things that she showed me that people said to her, I have never experienced that level of ire in my life,” Picardi said. “Rape threats on the regular that she was reporting to Twitter multiple times per day, death threats, horrible things that were said about her appearance or her body.”

There’s another reason Duca went viral: “Pharma bro” Martin Shkreli’s consistent Twitter harassment of her in 2017. He even went as far as bizarrely photoshopping himself into a photo of Duca and her then-husband. (He also invited her to the presidential inauguration as his date, lucky girl.) The harassment got him suspended, which, of course, begot more internet harassment for Duca.

Even now, Duca continues to experience a grotesque amount of harassment. “It was super bad after Tucker. I got really sick. I had a panic attack and could not move for a couple of days,” Duca said. “That was one of the most pivotal moments of my life because I was like, what am I doing? What is all of this for? What am I enduring? I had to figure out what I care about and what hills I'm going to die on. I was processing that it does take a toll. I can't just pretend it doesn't.”

While some criticisms directed against Duca are valid, other ones are, to put it lightly, completely unhinged. While the right attacks her with outright inhumanity, some on the left questions her sincerity in the movements she writes about and engages in, and wonder whether she deserves whatever success she’s had. Plenty of the criticisms, according to Duca, are just bad-faith arguments. “An example is Pride of 2017: I ate pussy for the first time the night before, and I tweeted the next day, ‘Happy Pride to everyone because no one’s 100% straight.’ I was just, like, pumped. People, women, predominantly in New York media, framed it as if I was All Lives Mattering Pride.” Duca later deleted the tweet after she received backlash.

"I ate pussy for the first time the night before, and I tweeted the next day, ‘Happy Pride to everyone, because no one’s 100% straight.’ People framed it as if I was All Lives Mattering Pride."

“Their idea is that I’m espousing equality for personal gain, and that’s what they’re attacking. They're using the language of equality to attack me,” Duca says. “[Do] they think someone who’s out here putting their literal life on the line — death and rape threats, the word ‘literal’ does apply here — to stand up for equality and blaze a trail for young women is doing that to get famous and to — I don't know — barely be able to have health insurance and a home and write a book?”

Older tweets have also resurfaced, ones where she mocked fat people and community college attendees. These, at least, Duca will acknowledge and apologize for. “That’s something I really had to evolve from. I thought I was fucking fat when I wrote that. I was bulimic when I wrote that. I was miserable when I wrote that and I was socialized to think that fat jokes were okay,” she said. “I don’t defend that shit at all. I apologize. Those were horrible. I appreciate that someone would feel skeptical, and I think if their heart is in the right place, they would also be able to hear me say I’m sorry and understand that it was a different time, 2012, in terms of what we understood as politically correct, and we’ve all had to evolve.”

Duca’s nascent career is filled with missteps, ones that in isolation aren’t really a huge deal for your average millennial, but certainly have larger consequences when you’re a representative for a larger movement advocating for better political (and personal) behavior.

And then there are the rumors about Duca’s time at HuffPost, when she would have been around 24, allegations which are practically media lore at this point. (Screenshots of her alleged harassment have circulated among media types for years.) In March, Jezebel wrote the first published report about it. Writer Anna Merlan reported that 10 of Duca’s former colleagues anonymously alleged that she “sent several inappropriate emails to and about her coworkers — and herself — from what was meant to be an anonymous account.” She allegedly referred to one male writer as a “bald freak.” Another writer was allegedly called an “overweight fake blonde.” Duca herself was allegedly referred to as a “feminazi.”

Duca’s argument, at the time, was that someone was faking an email account pretending to be her and sending her colleagues harassing mail. In our interview, she claimed that she never read the Jezebel piece and declined to comment on her time at HuffPost or allegations that she sent her colleagues harassing emails. (She didn’t reply to Jezebel when they requested comment either.)

“Several of Duca’s former coworkers have come to see her newfound stardom as a referendum on the nature of viral fame itself,” Merlan wrote in her Jezebel piece, “as well as how someone aligning themselves with the movements du jour — mainstream, marketable feminism; the more salient parts of the Resistance — can escape any real scrutiny.”

“My gut motivating ideology is pushing for equality, is pushing for public power. What that looks like will change over time.”

While Duca is willing to apologize for some of her past behavior, she’s dismissive of a lot of the other criticism. “I think jealousy doesn't always look like what you think it looks like, and I think it's funny that it's directed at me in a way it's not directed at my male counterparts. I wonder if they find it as excruciatingly obvious as I do,” she said. “My gut motivating ideology is pushing for equality, is pushing for public power. What that looks like will change over time. Maybe I'll have some tweets that are offensive to robots in a few years. We'll see. Someone from, like, Jacobin will screenshot them, and the whole thing will happen again,” she said, laughing and shrugging slightly.

For Merlan, and a significant contingency of Progressive Twitter, these apologies seem to largely fall flat, especially considering her evasiveness about her time at HuffPost. “I really thought that there was a possibility that we could have a genuine conversation about how she reconciled this incident in her life with who she is now,” Merlan told me. “But that didn’t turn out to be the case.”

Dave Kotinsky

Lauren Duca accepts an award onstage at the the 9th Annual Shorty Awards on April 23, 2017, in New York City.

Duca was hesitant to allow me to join her for her last day of her NYU class, and I understood why. After her syllabus started circulating on Twitter, so did the endless mockery. The syllabus seemed to focus heavily on personal branding (students would have to tweet for 20% of their grade) and ironically included Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed as required reading. Plus, she spelled Rashomon wrong, which upset just about everyone.

“I think that they’re fucking corny. They’re making fun of me — for putting Twitter on my syllabus — on Twitter, which is the only place they have a voice,” Duca said. “I wish the people who spent a ton of time criticizing me would use that energy to make a thing. To have an idea.”

How did Lauren Duca get away with teaching a feminist journalism class without having any feminist text, let alone black feminist text, on her syllabus....?!? I’m lost.

A few days after I sat in on Duca’s class, I received a number of emails, unprompted, from her former students who wanted to talk about their six weeks in her class. “It was an interesting experience to say the least,” one student wrote.

Out of 10 students, five spoke to me on the record, under the condition of anonymity, specifically due to fear of reprisals from Duca or any of her professional connections. All of them had similar allegations against Duca and the class’s structure: that Duca didn’t follow her own syllabus, that she spoke often and inappropriately about her personal life, that she would belittle and yell at students, and, most pressingly, that she targeted one student in particular. All the students wrote a formal letter of complaint to NYU and signed it, “Sincerely, ‘The Feminist Journalist’ Class - Summer 2019.” When I reached out to Duca for her comment on the complaint, she started by saying, “I guess I'm not a teacher.”

The complaint, filed to NYU journalism school’s institute director, Ted Conover, and associate director, Meredith Broussard, on Sept. 11, details many of the same things the five students told me. “There was a consistent lack of professionalism that persisted throughout every aspect of the course,” the complaint reads. “We are disappointed at the department and NYU as an institution for hiring a professor without a syllabus and classroom management skills. We are disappointed at the department and NYU for hiring a professor without a clear course objective.”

“I wish the people who spent a ton of time criticizing me would use that energy to make a thing. To have an idea.” 

Most of the students had never taken any sort of structured journalism class before, and their ages ranged from high school students to college students in their mid-twenties, some of whom had a few internships under their belts. “There was no syllabus or clear expectations of what she would be teaching us. The class kind of banded together to teach each other things so that we weren’t the subject of Lauren’s wrath,” said one student. “I was expecting to learn how to write an article.”

“I created a dynamic, experimental, ever-evolving course structure that pulled from my syllabus, added things in based on our conversation and allowed each of them to individually craft their pieces, and I watched the pieces evolve over the course of the semester,” Duca said in response. “I think that they, on some level, internalized some of the objectives, whether they know that explicitly or not.”

All five students alleged that Duca’s class was disorganized and “a master class in Lauren Duca’s personal life.” (“The point of it is that I'm oversharing all the time. And I think that, yeah, some people like it, some people don't. Apparently you fucking hate it, but that's fine,” Duca told me.) They said that she would vanish for 30 to 45 minutes per class to “meditate.” (“It was a three-hour class and we took a break and I would meditate for 15 minutes and they would be gone getting snacks and stuff,” Duca responded.) And that the class was a “waste of six weeks for all of us, and we don’t want anyone else to make this mistake again.” They claim Duca would snap at them for small problems, accuse them of not having done the readings, and never actually read any of the assignments they submitted to her.

Duca responded that she did read all the assignments, though she added: “It's okay if I'm not a great teacher because I'm great at lots of other things.”

But most galling is that all the students — both in interviews and in the formal complaint to the college — claim that Duca went out of her way to target one student in particular: an exchange student who was visiting New York for school. “Her English wasn’t perfect but that’s hard,” one student told me. “She came from another country. She was very courageous for taking this class.”

The students claimed that Duca would unfairly admonish this particular individual in class. “We all clocked it two or three classes in,” said a classmate. They claimed that Duca said the student “won’t have a lot to say” during class presentations, that she refused to accept assignments from this student while accepting them from others, that she called her work “basic” and “vague,” and that during one class Duca made the student cry during a one-on-one meeting. To this Duca responded, “I said, ‘You need to do the work; she cried. Like, come on. Is that targeting? What am I supposed to do? ‘You didn't do the work; here's a trophy’?”

“That day was the day that I decided that there’s no way we’re going to let this person teach students again. It was awful. It was absolutely awful,” one of the students told me. “She definitely picked favorites, and she picked people she blatantly didn’t like,” said another. (In the complaint the students wrote to NYU, it says that Duca “consistently targeted this student on the basis of a communication difficulty the student cannot change.”)

“We received a complaint pertaining to Ms. Duca’s course only yesterday and are carefully assessing it,” Conover told me in an email statement on Sept. 12. “After our review, we will determine the course of action that is in the best interests of our students and their education.” Since receiving the complaint, Conover has already reached out to one student to meet in person and discuss the complaint in more detail.

As I continued asking Duca for comment about the specifics of the complaint, she became more and more agitated. “You should put in there that my tone was expressly pissed off and frustrated,” Duca told me. “You're being so fucking hard on me, Scaachi, and I really, really, really, really would ask you if you would be grilling a man in this same way. It's amazing. The shit that I have endured to continue to sustain a voice where I'm just fighting every inch for the same thing that I think that you want, which is public power and equality, and I'm trying my goddamn best, okay?”

“In a way,” one student told me, “she is that ‘worst idea’ that conservatives think liberals are.”

The line went silent and I asked Duca if she was still there. She was, and she continued questioning me about my motives around this article before saying, “Congratulations, you thrillingly, thrillingly adept journalist, you have discovered that Lauren Duca is not perfect. Put it in the headline, baby.”

Some of the students knew who Duca was before they took the class — “It was exciting … to be up close with somebody who’s Twitter famous and hear what her writing process is like given the fact that now she’s who she is,” one student said — but most of them left the class largely disillusioned with Duca, if not with journalism entirely. “It’s frustrating to see as a student, as a young woman, see how somebody can so clearly take advantage of the system and capitalize on her supposed wokeness while not practicing what she’s writing about,” one of the former students said.

But Duca didn’t become a representative of the millennial resistance entirely on her own. It happened almost accidentally: a simple but apropos piece that went viral from a publication not otherwise expected to deliver such a message; a television appearance where she was condescended to and got heaps of people coming to her defense as a result; and a harasser who zeroed in on her, garnering her even more empathy. And because Twitter fame is mercurial, her milkshake-ducking was also inevitable. No one can possibly live up to the expectation of perfect wokeness at all times. If you play the game too much, and in some ways too well, you risk alienating your followers because they no longer trust that your politics are anything more than performative.

“In a way,” one student told me, “she is that ‘worst idea’ that conservatives think liberals are.”

If Duca wanted to get young people to rally together in the pursuit of a cause, she was successful. It just managed to be against her rather than some other common enemy. “Writing a book is not easy,” Merlan told me. “Living your life in public is not easy. But I do think we have a responsibility as people who live in public to own our mistakes and our misdeeds in public, and I wish she had done that.”

“People’s memories are very short,” Merlan added. “She’ll absolutely be fine.”

Duca is already on her way to writing a second book, this one about her “major, major god experience,” which she is tentatively titling Ego in Retreat. Since our first interview and my observation of her final NYU class, Duca has unfollowed me on Twitter. ●

CORRECTION

Nadya Okamoto's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.

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