Women’s History Month should feel different this year. We’re living in an epicenter of change and progression. We have powerhouses Nancy Pelosi and Hilary Clinton sitting high in the White House. Tina Fey represents our new wave of venerated cultural icons. And before our new president married our first lady, he was reporting to her in the workplace. Yes, smart is sexy again. Or is it?
The truth is, you’d never know it from reading the literature of the liberated: women’s magazines, the bright, blessed keys to the pop culture kingdom. And let’s face it, no matter how many times we’ve read The Feminine Mystique, how many of us have turned to the “How to Really, Really Please Your Man,” article we spotted while waiting for our wine to be scanned at the checkout line?
But women’s magazines weren’t always a medium for recycled, superficial news, nor were their readers always in the market for it. They used to be (dare I say it?) thoughtful, provoking, political … something completely different from what we pick up today. So since when did scouring the literature in the checkout line become a guilty pleasure rather than an intellectual pursuit? When did the literature turn guilty?
In the Beginning …
Believe it or not, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Good Housekeeping were all once the epitome of social activism and sophistication. Teddy Roosevelt himself used to be a Cosmo Girl, so to speak, contributing lengthy stories to its pages before they were filled with frills and celebrity fanfare.
At the time of its incarnation, Good Housekeeping was about more than putting women back in the kitchen. It advocated for pure food at the turn of the twentieth century, leading to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. It started an anti-cigarette campaign twelve years before the Surgeon General’s warning was even printed on cigarette packs, and endorsed the Ludlow Amendment in the 1930s, which required that any declaration of war—with the exception of an invasion—be ratified by a direct vote of the citizenry. Today, however, its readership is used largely by businesses as their primary target for consumer studies. While it’s not fair to stereotype all Housekeeping subscribers as apron-clad homemakers, the magazine’s history of political activism does feel far from the headlines we see on its covers today—dominated by baking and how to entertain houseguests.
Glamour magazine also appears to have had some touch-up work done over the ages. In years past, it was noted as the first magazine to put an African American woman on its cover, the first to extensively write about abortion rights (winning the National Magazine Award in 1992 for its abortion coverage), and the first to address its female readers from the viewpoint of work outside of the home. But wait, are we talking about the same Glamour? The cover story in its recent issue with Penelope Cruz enticed female readers with “Eight Things Guys Crave in Bed.” What happened to what women want?
The Queen of Them All: Cosmo and the Gurly Girl
It seems impossible to explore women’s magazines without making note of their leading lady, Cosmopolitan. This Cosmo has also undergone its own evolution, launching in 1886 as a family magazine. In 1897, it infamously launched a free correspondence school, offering to pay all educational expenses for its readers. And, with the birth of the serialized story, it became a hot sell in the fiction market in the 1900s with contributors such as Jack London, Edith Wharton, and Upton Sinclair.
The Gurly Girl
The Cosmo we know today began with Editor-in-Chief Helen Gurly Brown, who completely remodeled the mag in the mid-sixties. It was Brown’s vision that began the racy cover shot each month with the “new” sexually liberated woman.
The irony, of course, in all of this was that Brown’s vision was progressive and seemingly, pro-women. She even ran a scandalous near-nude centerfold of Burt Reynolds in 1972, heralding the desires of the single woman and the camaraderie in no-shame pre-marital sex. So why is the “new woman” today an airbrushed, nonexistent one? And why is she troubled with the ancient concerns of how to please a man, and him only?
Which Came First: The Hot Chick or the Egg?
Putting aside the obvious “sex sells” motto of our current pop culture, one can’t help but wonder how the former shells of Glamour or Cosmo covers would fare on the magazine rack today.
Are we women not turning to the more intellectually-stimulating magazines of yore because they’re not as available, or because we’re not as interested? It raises the question of which came first: the cover girl craving to eat something of substance or the reader craving to read something other than substance?
And who’s reading it? Recent demographics for Cosmopolitan.com (courtesy of hitwise) show that 34 percent of its readers earned between $30–60,000 a year and 24 percent earned $60–100,000, with the majority being females between eighteen to twenty-four living in affluent urban neighborhoods. Educated, youthful, and flourishing financially—I still can’t help but wonder, as a single woman living in San Francisco, why so many smart, successful women continue purchasing ideas on how to please their man.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m just as guilty as the rest. Granted, I’ve never subscribed to Cosmo, but I’m definitely not above reading some of the beauty secrets when there’s a long line at the grocery store.
Of course, there is a percentage of intelligent women who don’t read the juicy magazines at all, given the number of insightful periodicals also available on the rack. It’s important to note that many more of these stimulating women’s magazines exist today and some, such as the ultra-feminist Ms. magazine, have ensured that their message stands the test of time and cultural evolution.
But as a woman of this exciting new year of change and progression, I wonder about the covers pushing too many new ways to say, “It’s all about him” each month. I’m all for the sexual revolution, but is “Eight Things Guys Crave in Bed” what Gurly and others had in mind? How liberated is the new, liberated woman of 2009? And how much are our girly magazines signs of the times?
Maybe with our new wave of role models, our magazines will be up for a makeover soon again. There are many of us who would gladly choose Michelle Obama for our cover girl (thank you, Vogue) rather than someone anatomically incorrect. Or perhaps at the end of a long day at the office, some women just want to forget about the revolution and dive into the fluff of bright photos. That’s the thing about the “new woman”—you never know who she’s going to be next.