Recently, as I indulged in one of my guilty pleasures, fashion and gossip magazines, it dawned on me that sexism is still disturbingly prevalent in today’s society. And as I read my Cosmopolitan magazine, I began to question whether or not some women and some media outlets are enabling sexism against women and causing misconceptions about femininity to endure.
Cosmopolitan, known colloquially as Cosmo, began in 1886 as a women’s fashion magazine that also included artwork and current culture. It morphed into a magazine that showcased literature, specifically the work of muckrakers during the early 1990s, featuring Upton Sinclair, Kurt Vonnegut and Jack London. They wrote provocative stories that commented on the sociopolitical climate of the day. In 1965, Helen Gurley Brown became the editor of Cosmo (http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2010/04/26/guest-post-the-evolution-of-cosmopolitan-magazine/). She was a figurehead of the sexual revolution, and she wanted women to feel sexually liberated. Thus began the trend of sex tips and scantily clad women gracing the cover. Cosmo has continued in this vein because sales increased after this makeover but, it is far from serving the purpose that Helen Gurley Brown intended for the magazine.
If Cosmopolitan claims to be a magazine to empower women, then the focus of the magazine should be women. Just because it features a woman on the cover and has advertisements for makeup on the inside does not mean that women are deriving benefits from the magazine. Here are some example of sexist articles and headlines featured in Cosmo under the guise of female empowerment:
What Guys Secretly Freak Out About (Why does it matter?)
Get More Passes in Glasses (Read: How to be more attractive to men.)
50 Ways to Have Fun With Your Guy (What about just having fun?)
Our Most Sizzling Sex Survey: 12,000 Men Confess What Makes Their Toes Curl (Where are the women in this survey for a women’s magazine?) (Cosmopolitan, March 2014, Vol. 256).
Even the cover of the magazine is more psychologically appealing to men than women. The models are posed in a come-hither, sexualized manner with minimal clothing. Women are more psychologically attracted to models who have friendly smile, not a sexual smirk, and who are posed facing the camera head on, as this more accurately represents a women’s body and does not over exaggerate curves. I have often noticed in grocery stores, etc. that the covers of Cosmo are blocked because they are too offensive and sexual. How does this portray the spirit of the magazine which is supposed to be liberation for women? Nearly everything in the magazine relates to men somehow. Whether it is getting fit and sexy for a date, how to decipher your boyfriend’s mood or what to wear to score a guy, the message that is transmitted is sexist and detrimental. It implies that to be a women, you need a man. This is, of course, patently untrue, yet, even when Cosmo tries to highlight the successes of powerful, independent women it falls short. The issue is this: it even defines success in terms of men. It showcases women who are successful in male-dominated fields or women who rose above men in the ranks of their careers, or women who are successful despite handicaps in the workforce imposed by men. These women have achievements that stand alone, regardless of whether or not there are men in their workplace, field or social circle. One article particularly made my hackles rise with this sentence, “Women, unlike men, don’t always know when their value is rising and it’s time to push for more at work.” Men always know when their values are rising? Women are incapable of determining when it is a good time to ask for a raise or promotion? A woman, not a man, made this asinine statement in an article that boasts the ability to “help you [find] love and [unlock] your inner CEO.” Additionally, note that finding love is placed before job success in this headline.
If we want to vanquish sexism and a false portrayal of women, editors of women’s magazines like Cosmo need to seriously reconsider the true message that they convey. Media messages can be subtle, but they are powerful, so women and men alike should be wary of the messages that popular media imbues. I, for one, will be searching for a magazine that portrays women more positively for internal strengths, accomplishments and attitudes, not merely physical appearances or the ability to please a man in bed. As consumers of media and pop culture, we have the power to influence a positive media environment that emphasizes the strengths of all people and discourages discrimination and belittling of groups.