When I tell people I subscribe to Cosmopolitan Magazine, reactions range from raised brows, giggles or side-eyes that just scream “intellectual suicide.”
The scandalized responses I’ve deflected from men, women and several aunts, however, often stem from a common misconception that Cosmo and every other “women’s magazine” is only home to the four F’s: furniture, fashion, food and family — plus sex positions.
Cosmo isn’t serious, they charge, so why spend your meager paycheck on that dishrag? Everyone — even me, who so earnestly subscribes to The New Yorker and The New York Times — has their vices, I suppose.
My vices include, but are not limited to, 3 Musketeers bars on late deadline nights, post-production shot pitchers and ignoring responsibilities in favor of yoga classes.
My Cosmo readership, however, is not a guilty pleasure.
A letter in August 2013 by Robbie Myers, the editor of ELLE Magazine, condemned the pigeonholing of women’s magazines on the lower rung of the journalistic totem pole. Myers recounted a lecture at Columbia University during which she shared a 6,000-word piece that appeared in the magazine on then-Sen. Barack Obama’s 2006 trip to Kenya.
A male student raised his hand.
“I had no idea you did such important stories. How does it feel to know nobody reads them?” he insightfully proposed.
In her letter, Myers fired back, attributing the comment to youth and narcissism.
“He meant you, dear reader, the some 8 million smart, educated, chic, interesting women who consume ELLE … It’s your status as a woman that makes you ‘nobody,’” she wrote.
For decades, Cosmo and its counterparts have been fueling a dialogue on serious issues that are often ignored or miscast — women’s health, abortion, equal pay and high rates of domestic or sexual violence, to name a few — affecting about half of the global population. Our generation and our predecessors should recognize the sheer value in that niche and nuanced coverage alone, even if they overlook the tremendous journalism that these publications produce.
Women’s magazines offer young professionals a map to lifestyle issues that our mothers and grandmothers never approached or told us about.
Cosmo, the oft-proclaimed “sex bible,” is a monthly lowdown on getting hired and excelling in a career, socializing, exercising and, yes, having sex, tackling emotions and investing in sensible (but still beautiful) footwear.
Importantly, today’s brand of women’s magazines are sex-positive, trumpeting women as sexual, not merely sexualized, beings. All too often, we meet them as objects, from pop culture to workplaces, pornography and mass media like Esquire, whose aptly constructed tagline is bookended by “Beautiful Women” and “Drink Recipes.”
Publications like GQ and Esquire, likewise catering to a gendered audience, don’t catch the same flak for dishing on fashion, entertainment or sex. Instead, their journalism is awarded and lauded in major media circles as “general interest” work.
Women’s magazines are a critical antidote to the depictions of one-dimensional women that have permeated old Disney flicks, modern romantic comedies, classic literature and history. We’ve hailed “Frozen” for its depiction of a strong female lead, so why haven’t we let go of our negativity toward Cosmo?
The public places a chokehold on women’s magazines, and, this past summer, it tightened its grip, as media members, too, exchanged a pingpong of takes.
Last July, Politico’s piece on the “princess effect” promised a diplomatic death wish for any politician who poses for a publication like Vogue. The writer asserted that Vogue’s profiles reduced women in office — take the United Nation’s Samantha Power and Texas legislature’s Wendy Davis for example — to stalwarts of “having it all” or nothing more than goddesses of luck who stumbled upon prominence along a yellow brick road.
“In the end, every woman who cooperates with this inanity … becomes the ambassador of a puff-piece brand,” the article’s author wrote.
Cultural norms stereotype portrayals of women with children, nice houses or tastes in fashion and food who don’t thunder with self-inflated egos. On the flip side, if women gloat too much, we still dismiss them.
By stigmatizing depictions of high-achieving women in women’s magazines as anti-woman, we simultaneously demand that women in power should instead be duplicates of men. Meanwhile, cultural norms excuse portrayals of women as half-dressed airheads or starlets of Lysol commercials.
Women’s magazines are also not recognized as fit to win the top awards that every other form of journalism is eligible for. A dearth of appearances for women’s magazines also exists on the popular archive of standout journalism, Longform, sponsored by our own writing program.
On Longform, you can find seven articles from ELLE, five from Marie Claire, two from Vogue and zero from Cosmopolitan. Conversely, you’ll find 234 articles from GQ and 129 from Esquire. As for the annual National Magazine Awards, women’s magazines clock in shallowly in three of eight possible categories: personal service, essays and public interest. Under Joanna Coles’ helm, Cosmo won its first last year.
Cosmo’s inaugural winner, a guide to contraception, informed us on a range of alternatives to Trojan condoms or the pill — serving “readers’ needs and aspirations” in an era when the medical Silicon Valley is freezing eggs.
In heels, Cole has navigated the freshest wave of feminism at the magazine, bringing outspoken leaders like Sheryl Sandberg and Roxane Gay on board.
“In Helen [Gurley Brown]’s day, women used sex as a way to find a man to look after them,” Cole told New York magazine this week, referring to her predecessor who spent more than three decades at Cosmo. “Our reader doesn’t assume that she won’t be able to look after herself. And so I would say that we approach sex from the point of view of ‘How can this be fun for you?’”
A good question.
By denouncing women’s magazines, you’re denouncing women. The last thing we need is yet another hater bludgeoning a celebration of women. So, to the next person who calls my Cosmo a “sex bible”: please hold the side-eye and start doing some serious reading.
Email Natalie at Nataliedaher7@gmail.com