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March 11, 2008

Private Parts

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Helen Gurley Brown's version of Cosmopolitan magazine was frankly what it was: a sexed-up, land-a-man publication for working-class gals. (Brown -- famous as well for the bestseller "Sex and the Single Girl" -- edited Cosmo for 32 years, beginning in 1965.) But despite the brassiness, heartiness, and materialism of the magazine, there was also something likable about it. (IMHO, of course.) Flipping through an issue was like hanging out with your favorite secretary at work, the one who wears long polished nails, who knows everyone's secrets, and yet who also has some real loyalty and sweetness.

But Helen Gurley Brown was deposed at Cosmo in 1997. Since then a new version of the magazine has emerged, sleeker and louder, and full of up-to-date attitude. While the volume and shininess levels have skyrocketed, the likableness of the magazine has plummetted. I used to get a kick out of leafing through Cosmo for a few minutes once or twice a year. These days when I run across the magazine I gasp, wince, and recoil. I'm horrified not by the R-ratedness of the publication -- hey, I like sexy entertainments -- but at the harsh, unimaginative belligerance of it.

Here's the cover of a recent Cosmo:


In some ways it's just a pumpier, more jangly version of the old Cosmo. The following attraction, for instance, is just a revved-up version of the traditional Cosmo thang:


Look a little closer, though, and you enter a whole new world:


Note to self: Write a blogposting marveling over the way pop culture has lost track of the real glories of sex. Hey world: Sex with another person can be a whole lot more rewarding than getting yourself off is. Hint to the confused: Really good sex with a partner isn't just a better way to jerk off.

Further note to self: Draw connection between the capitalist love of pleasing-the-self and the emphasis put by '70s feminism on women masturbating. Funny how both of these forces promote a me-first / me-always-first atttitude, isn't it? At one point feminism and capitalism were understood to be forces in conflict. Today ... Anyway: Who's going to stand up and say, "Far be it from me to get in the way of anyone having a good time getting him/herself off. But self-pleasure isn't all there is to life, you know, not by a long shot."

It seems to me that the model's facial expression synchs up perfectly with the general me-first / screw-you tone of the whole package:


Smug, mocking, out-for-#-1 ... Whose idea of sexy, let alone appealing, is that?

For a little contrast, here's a cover from an issue of Cosmo from 1979. The model is Christie Brinkley, the photographer was a Helen Gurley Brown fave, the genius glamor-schlockmeister Francesco Scavullo. Apologies for the lousy quality:


Yes, sure, it's kitsch. But it's calm kitsch, warm kitsch, approachable kitsch. Where the new Cosmo is glass, fiber-optics, and whirling computer graphics, the old Cosmo was satin and cashmere.

A different kind of sexual forwardness has emerged in the magazine too. I find it hard to imagine Helen Gurley Brown peddling a feature of this kind, for instance:


So much for valuing -- let alone cultivating -- a sense of mystery and allure. But then the new Cosmo isn't about attracting a man. It's about pleasing the self.

Is the new Cosmo what happens when a generation of girls grows up on Jane magazine?

(Incidentally, I do know that the case can be made that the old Cosmo reflected a world where a woman, in order to get what she wanted, had no choice but to do it by way of first grabbing a man. How great that women today don't need to do that. But I think that an equally good case can be made that 1) Far more women than is generally acknowledged in standard mythology led their own lives, and 2) There's a lot to be said for being open to a wider range of experience than can be allowed for by "the self.")

General conclusion: In recent decades, pop culture and pop values generally have become a lot colder, louder, and more in-your-face. Happy to admit that I'm an old fart, by the way. Still, I find it hard to feel anything but horror (of a minor sort) at the new Cosmo, let alone at the new pop-culture conception of sex as aggressively assertive self-pleasuring. The "sexiness" that's being pushed at us these days is often smug and harsh. What's erotic about that?

Here's Francesco Scavullo's website. Here's Cosmo's website. Here's the website of Kate White, Cosmo's current editor-in-chief. Here's a visit with Kate White.



posted by Michael at March 11, 2008


This is a nice commentary and I'm in agreement with 100 pecent of it. Right on.

But since I work in media, I'd like to add that any given media outlet only gives the public what it wants. The public wants this on some level. If most women found it gross and distasteful, they wouldn't buy it.

What does it say about Americans -- and American women in particular -- that they buy in droves a magazine that celebrates their own narcissicism? I see a clear link between this and Oprah's shows, which also seem an exercise in self-love. I think multiple generations of parents and teachers hyping "girl power" have added to this.

We get the magazines, movies and pop music we desire - and deserve. When no one reads a mag, it closes -- as was recently the case with Stuff magazine. I guess American men didn't want to buy that tawdry crap. Hm.

Posted by: Days of Broken Arrows on March 11, 2008 12:00 PM

"Yes, sure, it [the 1979 cover]'s kitsch. But it's calm kitsch, warm kitsch, approachable kitsch"

Uh, really? That woman looks like a zombie. Just look at her dead, thousand-mile stare!

Posted by: Taeyoung on March 11, 2008 12:11 PM

Days -- Completely agreed. It's a very weird taste-set that has emerged, don't you find? Narcissistic, as you say ... Almost the point of freakishness. Yet it's the new normal. Weird.

Taeyoung -- Yeah, I can see that response. Another way of looking at the "zombie" expression though is that she's content being an object of beauty, something to observe and look into. The new girl is self-actualized and dynamic, maybe even frantic with aggression. The hairstyles say a lot too, don't you find?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 11, 2008 12:36 PM

I second all your observations. But let's forget substance for a moment and just focus on aesthetics: there's something about the graphics of today's Cosmo covers that just jangles my nerves. I have no inclination to pick them up, read them, or to even get within a few feet of them: they might bite.


Back to substance. Days of Broken Arrows' comment that all this reflects modern narcissism strikes me as true, but maybe misses the point. Yes, people are more narcissistic today, and society clearly condones narcissism or even holds it up as a desirable ideal, but let's face it: narcissists are lonely, inwardly scared people who have been thrown in emotional jail with a life sentence. And the narcissist wanna-bes of Oprah are drawn to her because of a lack of emotional sustenance in today's hyper consumerist society.

It's all quite sad, really.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 11, 2008 12:39 PM

The editors of Cosmo have obviously decided to market to the people who actually BUY the magazine as opposed to the ones simply reading it in the supermarket checkout line!

Posted by: Brutus on March 11, 2008 12:57 PM

Maybe it's generational or life-cycle related but, as best I can tell, all that SEX-SEX-SEX on those Cosmo covers (moreso and cruder on the recent one) doesn't always translate into relationship behavior. I won't go into details, but will just say that some women read Cosmo yet never put what they read into practice.

Why? I dunno. I still haven't figured out women after all these years.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 11, 2008 1:05 PM

What's vanished from women's lives is love. And seduction. Most modern women have no idea how to seduce or how to enjoy being seduced.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on March 11, 2008 2:40 PM

I would be interested to know the demographics of who buys Cosmo and what their circulation is like these days. My grandmother was a Cosmo reader, and while I know it’s still in print, I don’t know anyone who actually buys it. Maybe if they had Sandra Tsing Loh or Laura Kipnis write for it, I might pick it up. I live in New York, and here most girls are content to read whatever magazines are available at the nail salon. I think the only fashion magazine worth buying these days is the biannual English language, Dutch publication, Fantastic Man. Your favorite photographer, Terry Richardson, usually contributes. And there’s always French Vogue, which I admire for refusing to publish articles on balancing work and home, or preventing cancer.

I don’t know if it’s still true, but I remember reading twenty years ago, a survey of the highest circulation monthly magazines, and among the fashion/style mags, Bride’s came out first. I’m pro-marriage, but from a strictly aesthetic p.o.v., I say “yuck.”

Posted by: CC on March 11, 2008 6:10 PM


I think some pop culture might be passing you by - the cover isn't "some model", it's in fact one of the biggest pop artists of the last few years (Rihanna). Believe me, the Cosmo photo doesn't do her justice...

Posted by: cure on March 11, 2008 9:53 PM

I think the same kind of smugness is apparent in Desperate Housewives. Ugh! I also hate the color scheme of the front cover. I was recently heading out for a trip with some students to Boston, and caught a glimpse of their reactions upon looking at the magazine. They loved the front cover; I didn't. I'm tired of the vay-jay-jay euphemism. If only my generation understood other aspects to sexual gratification. Of course this is a generalization; some do.

Posted by: David Brown on March 12, 2008 12:47 PM

FvB -- Those cover graphics really are jangling, aren't they? It's funny that Helen Gurley Brown's Cosmo covers were always thought to be pretty tacky and garish, and maybe they were by comparison to the respectable publications of the time. But they're like Mozart chamber music compared to the covers of the new Cosmo.

Brutus -- I wonder how the new Cosmo is doing, sales and ad-wise. Sigh: I should really do more research than I do...

Donald -- But we never stop trying to understand what women are up to, do we? Well, except for the occasional exasperated day or two. Then it's back into the fray. Talk about biological programming!

Richard -- "Love." "Seduction." Soon you'll be talking about "respect" and "class." Sheesh.

CC -- That's a number of great points. I have a hunch you're really onto something when you talk about the gals you know just picking mags up in styling salons. The way people use magazines seems to have changed a lot in recent years. Back in prehistoric days, many gals semi-defined themselves by which gal-mags they subscribed to. There were young women who were Glamour types and others who were Mademoiselle types. (The move from Seventeen up to Glamour or Mademoiselle was a big moment in a girl's life.) Moms had their McCalls and such. You really had your nose in the air if you found amusement and pleasure in Vogue. But these days, like you say, women just seem to pick up whatever's around, then throw it away. An interesting development in its own right, though I don't really know what to make of it. Any hunches about what it means? Pop culture has just become a trash-wallow, and that's all there is to it, so why fret about titles?

Cure -- I think I'm laughably far behind on a lot of pop culture! To me, Madonna is still the latest happenin' thing.

David -- It's funny how this kind of stuff genuinely seems to make a lot of kids happy, isn't it? I mean, it's garish, idiotic, and crass. (It's also, in terms of its derivation anyway, semi-camp and semi-gay. Nothing wrong with that, but how odd that that has become a standard way of exciting and amusing young hetero people.) I suppose it's a smiley wallow in crap and trash, a pig-out in mental junkfood. Whee! Why not, I suppose. It'd be nice to think it might lead one day to an appreciation of , shall we say, more refined and adult (or at least calmer) pleasures, but it doesn't look like that's going to be happening ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 12, 2008 2:24 PM

Unfortunately, this is similar to Maxim, FHM, & many other magazines directed at men. They've also lost the general class & maturity earlier men's magazines had and have become equally vulgar, garish, trashy, & infantile. It's not looking good for anyone or the culture, that's for sure.

Posted by: al on March 12, 2008 3:00 PM

Good piece. Cosmo seems like a lot of tripe to me (with lots of made up anecdotes about the sex lives of John and Carol, etc). About a decade ago, I followed the vocabulary level of pop mags, and found that Cosmo had an amazingly high vocabulary level (with lots of exotic words and longish articles). My feeling is that anything that gets people reading can't be that bad.

Every time I see one of these mags at a supermarket, I have to wonder whether putting Playboys on each checkstand would be less scandalous?

When I lived in Eastern Europe, I always enjoyed finding the Russian/German/French version of Cosmo, which apparently were identical in outlook, aesthetics and commercialism. Glad to see that some things cross boundaries easily.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on March 22, 2008 9:45 AM

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