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Cosmopolitan Magazine's "Wholesome Values"

by Emily Esfahani Smith

Posted: Aug 16, 2012 10:46 AM

The sex-crazy magazine Cosmopolitan, whose revolutionary longtime editrix Helen Gurley Brown recently passed away, is a force of nature. Not only is it the best selling magazine on the newstands in the United States, but it is also making serious waves worldwide with 64 international editions (Marie Claire has 35 and Glamour only 16)--a topic which was recently covered by the New York Times Magazine "99 Ways to be Naughty in Kazakhstan: How Cosmo Conquered the World":

Its covers rarely fail to feature at least one bold, all-caps rendering of the word “sex.” The August issue, for instance, offered “52 Sex Tips” and “When Your Vagina Acts Weird After Sex.” A sampling of 2012 headlines includes “50 Sex Tips,” “50 Kinky Sex Moves,” “99 Sex Questions” and “His Best Sex Ever.”

The repetition can be a little numbing, but it may help explain how Cosmo, which is the best-selling monthly magazine in the United States, has morphed into such a global juggernaut. (“If all the Cosmo readers from around the world came together,” read a recent piece in Cosmo South Africa, “this group would form the 16th-largest country in the world.”) Through those 64 editions, the magazine now spreads wild sex stories to 100 million teens and young women (making it closer to the 12th-largest country, actually) in more than 100 nations — including quite a few where any discussion of sex is taboo.

For instance, in India:

White [the editor-in-chief of Cosmo] told me that during a 2010 trip to New Delhi, the editor of Cosmo India correlated a rise in love marriages over arranged marriages to Cosmo’s influence. “I don’t know if this is true statistically,” White said, but “Cosmo has been very, very popular there. And I’d like to think that one of the messages we’re delivering to women is: You don’t have to marry the guy your parents told you to marry. You should marry who you want to marry. You can have a job if you’d like. You can have a career if you want. These choices are open to you today.”

In other words, Cosmo cherishes the "have it all" model of female living:

The magazine recently tried to cement its mythology through a two-minute Web video called “The Cosmo Effect.” Onscreen text asks viewers if they take for granted that they can have it all (“dream job, independence, dreamy guy, fun fearless attitude, baby”) or, if they prefer, a modified version of “it all” (“sexy single life” and “a great pair of heels”). Because not so long ago, the video explains, women’s choices were limited. Until “one woman’s vision changed the world.”

(That women would be feminist Helen Gurley Brown, who wrote Sex and the Single Girl, as James Bowman points out below).

White's attitude toward India's traditional ideas of marriage and sex are a bit hubristic, especially considering the fact that the jury is still out on whether love marriages actually lead to greater levels of happiness than love marriages. Even in the United States, the Cosmo ideal of "having it all" has led to, at best, mixed results for women. But these tensions of feminism--tensions that women who grew up reading Cosmo in the United State are now experiencing firsthand--are never addressed by the magazine. This is incredibly irresponsible considering that Cosmo is making inroads in places like India and Indonesia, where many young women will be exposed to the magazine's intoxicating glamour--who doesn't want to be a modern, cosmopolitan woman?--without realizing the consequences of the messages it sends.

Rather than own up to the fact that it's selling an unrealistic picture of adulthood womanhood to young women around the world, Cosmo touts the--don't laugh--"wholesome values" that it promotes in the pages of its magazine. The first wholesome value is that women should be proud of how their bodies look:

“50 Kinky Sex Moves” notwithstanding, Cosmo does adhere to a set of surprisingly wholesome values. The magazine discourages plastic surgery, for instance, and has run articles opposing breast implants. In its coverage of food and fitness, White notes, “we don’t do any diets, no crash dieting.” The U.S. edition also has a section called Body Love, in which it tries “to encourage women to feel good about their bodies,” no matter their size. A recent issue featured a spread of a curvy woman in a variety of gorgeous bathing suits on some fabulous remote beach.

The second wholesome value is, we are told with a straight face, that Cosmo actually has a traditional attitude toward sex:

Cosmo happens to be fairly traditional about sex itself. Brown believed that it was O.K. to sleep with married men (it was their wives’ responsibility to keep them faithful, she argued), but White eliminated that from the formula. (“A total no-no,” she said.) The magazine also assumes that you’re having sex with a boyfriend or a husband (there’s not much in the way of same-sex relationships), and not with a one-night stand. “We certainly talk about sex mostly in terms of relationships,” White said, “and most of our readers have told us they’re in relationships, and they want the sexual information for their relationship.” White also sees the hookup culture boomeranging back to more traditional standards. “One thing I do think that women will evaluate in the coming years,” she said, “is casual sex. Is it really what you want to be doing, casual sex, a lot of casual sex? Is it what you feel good about?” But if it’s your thing, that’s fine too. “We don’t pass judgment,” she said.

Are these seriously what pass for wholesome values these days? 

While I applaud White's (rather tepid) skepticism of the hook up culture, there is a contradiction here. Her magazine does not sell relationships. It sells sex (as you can see by looking at some recent covers). Just like in the hook up culture, in the pages of Cosmo, the primary way that members of the opposite sex relate to each other is not emotional, intellectual, or spiritual--but sexual, pure and simple. If this is having it all, then count me out.

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