Archive for the ‘Cosmopolitan’ Category

The Cosmopolitan Divide, part 32



Similar to the Simpsons Illustrated series, this was just a way for me to try to answer/exorcise questions that have been in the back of my mind for some time now.  Reference librarian that I am, I’ve been trained to look for the question-behind-the-question, because often what we ask is not what we really want to know; it’s what we think will tell us what we want to know.  With Simpsons Illustrated, the question I asked was “how many times does Matt Groening’s signature appear”; the real question was “how many times did it need to appear?”.  The answer to the first question is 108, or almost 11 per issue; the answer to the second question is “not nearly that many, you’d think”.

For Cosmopolitan, the first question (“does it always”) was covering the other, more crucial one (“why”). I feel like I must have guessed at the why after my undergraduate college career, especially once I’d taken the Psychology of Women course. But, like I’ve been saying since the beginning, you have to verify these things, find out whether the opposite is true, before you can be confident in what you “know”. So the “why” of it turns out to have answers at multiple levels: the consumer level, the writer level, the editor level, the publisher level, the business level. When you put all those answers together, you do get a bleak picture. Businesses have an interest in upholding the status quo because businesses are a part of the status quo.  They want to propagate ideas that keep them in the black. Businesses have long traditions of hiring psychologists to work on advertising.  If you can make someone feel they have some lack, you can get them to buy the fix for it. In the words of Mr. Boogalow from the 1980 film The Apple:

Cultivate a need/ Grab them by the greed/ Slaves are guaranteed

Publishers and editors know that their job is to keep their bosses making money, and they know what will sell magazines. And when you factor in that many women don’t actually read the magazines, well, what are they taking in from it?  Images, promises, bold statements (the ones they see and the ones they hope to say). And, well, those parts of the magazines seem to be getting more gendered over time. And if the idea that people don’t even engage with the light reading they pick up, how can we expect them to seek out good information to make better choices for their diets, for their love lives, for their *sigh* political engagement?

This might be a good time to mention that I did pick up one of these magazines once (I want to say it was Cosmopolitan, but I’m not certain) and looked through one of those articles that promised 153 (or some high number) of sex tips.  There weren’t 153 discrete tips. There were 153 sentences.

I’m 32, and so is this series.  Cosmopolitan will continue to publish covers with celebrities showing cleavage, and I’ll continue to like cleavage. No big surprise there, right? We’d like to think that history tends liberal; that intellect tends liberal; that the universe is bending towards equality.  Rhajon N. Colson-Smith might disagree with you, at least in terms of what business selling messages do.  And I’m sure you know plenty of people who would love for the opposite to be true.

The truth is, as the globe becomes more connected, fewer and fewer people need to be thinkers and innovators for everyone to benefit. And when fewer people are making their voices heard, the bigger ones win. The ones with money win. More money=more chances and ways to get your message out.

How many articles/comics/videos/photographs have you shared on Facebook over the past year?

How many have you written/drawn/made?

If you feel I’m criticizing you, maybe I am. Maybe you deserve it. Maybe I’m just another American white cishet male with a degree and a career and a full set of working limbs and organs telling you what’s what when it’s not my place. But I’d like to think that I’m saying this as much to myself as anyone else:

You’re part of this world. Engage with it.



Boner count: Haha sorry wrong blog


Alexander, Katina. (1990). Cosmo’s queen of cleavage makes no apologies. Orange County Register, O01.

Baker, Christina N. (2005). Images of women’s sexuality in advertisements: a content analysis of black- and white-oriented women’s and men’s magazines. Sex Roles, 52(1/2), 13-27.

Colson-Smith, Rhajon N. (2005). Look Younger, Lose 10 Pounds, and Influence Your Audience: A Content Analysis of Popular Men’s and Women’s Magazine Cover Blurbs and the Messages They Project to Their Readers. (Thesis). East Tennessee State University, Johnson City.

Gough-Yates, Anna. (2003). Understanding Women’s Magazines. London: Routledge.

Smith, Stephanie. (2008). The science of covers: celebs, cleavage and sparkle. Women’s Wear Daily, 195(3), 12.

The Cosmopolitan Divide, part 31


How often did the cover of the US edition of Cosmopolitan feature cleavage? I realize that not everyone is going to define cleavage the way I do, so I’ll try to make a distinction for my list here.

Liberal count (conservative count–large part of area not shown and/or no visible shadow and/or blouse too high up)

1985 – 10 (9)

1986 – 11 (10)

1987 – 11

1988 – 12 (11)

1989 – 11

1990 – 12

1991 – 12

1992 – 12

1993 – 12

1994 – 11 (the 12th had a generous side shot)

1995 – 12 (10)

1996 – 11 (9)

1997 – 12 (11)

1998 – 12

1999 – 12

2000 – 12

2001 – 12

2002 – 12

2003 – 12

2004 – 12

2005 – 12

2006 – 12

2007 – 12

2008 – 12

2009 – 12

2010 – 12

2011 – 12

2012 – 12

2013 – 10

2014 – 10

2015 – 11 (10)

2016 – 10 (9)

So, for the span of my lifetime, Cosmopolitan has featured cleavage on its cover 96%/94% of the time (370/360 out of 384; the percentages do not change substantially if you include my birth month).  And for all that Kate White tried to downplay the cleavage (“winning” covers had them), note that she oversaw an unbroken run of cleavage in her 15 years of being Cosmopolitan‘s editor.


The Cosmopolitan Divide, part 30


Helen Gurley Brown left Cosmopolitan in 1997, and Kate White became editor-in-chief in 1998, keeping the position until 2012. Kate White was interviewed in 2008 by Stephanie Smith for Women’s Wear Daily.  I’m going to end the main portion of this series of mine (there’s two posts left) with two excerpts from Smith’s article.

Kate White […] said that, despite the magazine’s focus on sex, Cosmo’s cover girls don’t have to have huge cleavages. But a winning cover does include some. “It’s not about big breasts like it used to be. It’s just about showing off your breasts, whether they’re double As or whatever.” As for the woman carrying the breasts, White says the perfect Cosmo cover model is “someone that you’d love to drive cross country with, you’re not going to end up arrested with and with whom you’re not going to get bored.”

Don’t misunderstand her, though, the perfect cover model should also be one you’d want to fuck:

“My sense of a good cover that will sell well is if I want to lick it,” said Cosmo’s White. “And the Beyoncé [December 2007] cover I licked several times before the sun came up.” Another sign that a cover is a winner? “If I dance with it, or if I feel the urge to make out with it, then I’m like, ‘Wow, it works!'”


The Cosmopolitan Divide, part 29


Gough-Yates (2003) ended her summary of scholarly engagement with women’s magazines with a call for researchers to investigate the producers of the magazines themselves. I won’t report on the rest of her book, Understanding Women’s Magazines: Publishing, Markets and Readerships, and do I even need to find any articles about how sex and skin sell magazines? But I will take a brief look at what the producers of Cosmopolitan have said.

Helen Gurley Brown, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan from 1965 through 1997, was interviewed in 1990 by Katina Alexander of the Orange County Register. I think I’ll let Brown’s words speak for themselves (speak themselves?):

“I want to sell magazines and I think we want to see pretty
girls,” says Helen Gurley Brown….

“I think breasts are wonderful,” Brown was saying. “I wish I were bosomier; that would be great. I think everyone likes to look at cleavage. I certainly do. It’s pretty. And I have no apology for that.

“We don’t have the girl-next-door on the cover of Cosmo.

“We use somebody who is much more technically gorgeous, and I have no apology for that either.

“I want to sell magazines.”

I asked if these models were an example for a reader, something she should aspire to.

“She’s supposed to enjoy looking at the covers, as I do. They (the models) are probably the ideal of feminine beauty in our country at the time.

“And you can’t aspire to that, Katina, but you can do a lot better. You really can look quite glorious, no matter who you are, you know, for a particular night or day you get your makeup on and your hair done and you wear pretty clothes.”


The Cosmopolitan Divide, part 28


Before I move on to what Gough-Yates called for as the next stage of research, I’d like to take a moment to call attention to race. It’s likely that at some point over the past few months you read about how some (many?) black women did not feel that Hillary Clinton was a candidate who would (could) represent them and their interests.  And, yeah, I’ve overlooked this aspect so far myself. Think how many problems this brings up, though, at every point of the history of scholarly criticism of women’s magazines.  Positive/negative images? Well, they were all white for a long while there, so black must be really negative. Magazines as tools of the patriarchy? Shit, white women themselves have been tools of the patriarchy for a long time (*cough* suffragists *cough*).  Conversations about thorny social issues? I’m going to refer back to the covers to give you an indication of who we’re being told are having these conversations.

Christina Baker (2005) may have found that 11.5% of Cosmopolitan‘s readers were black, but I invite you to scroll down the page and see if the covers match that percentage.


The Cosmopolitan Divide, part 27


So let’s sum up the history of scholarship on feminist magazines:

Nobody looks like that! These are unrealistic images of women!

Sure, but that’s not the magazine’s fault; women wouldn’t buy it if they didn’t identify with it. Magazines are just one of many tools.

…of the patriarchy, yeah.

Okay, well, maybe these magazines are starting to address real issues that women face?

And offering them solutions that don’t rock the boat (the patriarchy boat)!

*sigh* You’re right.  Ms. is better than most, though, right?

Yes, Ms. is okay.

Well, maybe women are still thinking for themselves past the pat solutions offered?

….yeah, no, sounds like they don’t even read the damn things; they just treat them like lottery tickets. You buy one so you can think of what you’d be like if you could be perfect and have everything.


The Cosmopolitan Divide, part 26


Feminism (and feminist critique) have among their goals the empowerment and freedom of women, right? So in the 1980s, researchers began to counter all of the above by saying that perhaps readers were making their own meaning; that perhaps they themselves were critiquing the magazines even while consuming them. Let’s take this idea further–that women are strong enough that something like a magazine can’t harm them in some deep way.  Just how each generation’s ideology and how it’s communicated to the masses differs, so too does the way each generation responds to it.  So, sure, let’s look at the readers!  Joke Hermes interviewed a number of women in the early 90s to gauge their interaction with women’s magazines.  (For the sake of how much time I’m willing commit to a series on boobs I stared at in the grocery store, I am simply summarizing Gough-Yates’s treatment of Hermes’s study; though really I should have tracked down Hermes’s book Reading Women’s Magazines.)  What Hermes found was that the magazines functioned as a way for women to envision ideal versions of themselves.

Her interviewees often seemed to have very little to say at all about the magazines themselves, talking much more about how the magazines they read fitted into their daily routines. In fact, readers gave meanings to women’s magazines which Hermes found to be quite independent of the text….


The Cosmopolitan Divide, part 25


In the late 1970s, says Gough-Yates, the discussion had moved from women’s magazines as tool of ideological mouthpiece to place of ideological “negotiation”.  That is, as feminism itself was on the rise, women’s magazines seemed to offer more articles on the topics addressed by feminists: gender inequality in all levels of society, be they in the family or workplace or political arenas.  The magazines would discuss these topics, but would offer practical solutions that were typically along the lines of individual responsibility, which I’d argue was part of a larger shift towards atomized morality (another story for another day).  In other words, and I’m reading between Gough-Yates’s lines here, is that the internal conflicts of women (should I obey my husband or fight for my rights–sorry for being reductive) were externalized.  Sure, the reader could get a chance to think about the issues she and her contemporaries faced, but someone else was limiting the conversation to simply what she could do alone. The discussion was externalized; thus the solution was as well.  Radical views–and solutions–were not addressed.  On the whole, said the feminist academic community at the time, women’s magazines “lack[ed] the substance needed to effect meaningful change in either wider society or the magazine genre itself.”  Except for Ms., though. Ms. was pretty great.


The Cosmopolitan Divide, part 24


The next round of scholars took a page from Louis Althusser’s ideas of ideology, saying that ideology is practiced by society. In other words, the ideology (of what women should be) existed already, and not only were the magazines fixing it and normalizing it in the process of dissemination, but women were practicing it as well, and would see in the magazines a reflection of their own lives. The criticism remained–these were feminist scholars, after all–that the magazines were (merely) a tool in the hands of the patriarchy.


The Cosmopolitan Divide, part 23


Anna Gough-Yates (2003) offers a summary of scholarly engagement with women’s magazines in terms of their content (imagery/text), their production, and their readership.  She goes all the way back to 1963, with Betty Friedan (among others) claiming that women’s magazines were a bar to women realizing their true selves and connecting with each other, thanks to the false images offered of what women were/should be.  This stage of feminist academic treatments of the magazines, according to Gough-Yates, was one of simply saying whether the images offered were “positive” or “negative”.