Can a feminist read Cosmo?

I’ve been asked the question that titles this post more than once.

Last week I posted this bit about women and the importance of saving money “just for themselves”. It’s one of those tips that I think young women in particular need to hear. Another tip I often give to my women’s studies students regards their consumption of media: if it’s too hard to subtract, add.

To state the obvious, there’s a lot of sexist, misogynistic media out there. Some of it is in the form of crude advertising aimed at men; much of it in the form of “women’s magazines” which focus on beauty and fashion. Television shows like “The Bachelorette” or “America’s Next Top Model”, magazines like “Vogue” or “Cosmopolitan”, movies like “The Ugly Truth” — all send a troubling message about gender, about appearance, and about the capacity of any of us to find enduring happiness outside of narrowly defined roles. It’s not worth reiterating all that’s upsetting and demoralizing about mainstream media’s portrayal of women. But though many of my students find these magazines and television programs and films to be troubling and damaging to their own sense of self-worth, many also find them hard to give up. Over and over again, I’ve heard my women’s studies students describe reading fashion magazines or watching sexist shows (or, increasingly, looking at mainstream pornography) as “guilty pleasures.” And as a feminist, I’m wary of that phrase.

Obviously, we want to work collectively to reshape the ways in which the media portrays women — and men. It’s a given, too, that every dollar we spend is a vote; buying magazines which promote a narrow definition of beauty, for example, rewards and encourages the publishers and the advertisers. To the extent that we exercise choices within our consumer-driven capitalist system, we are at least partly responsible for those choices. The magazines and movie tickets we buy and the websites we visit matter; our behavior is tracked by curious advertisers and marketers eager to know “what works.” They are already rewarded enough for their contempt for women; why give them more of our precious dollars?

On the other hand, the reality is a bit more nuanced. Many women’s magazines which reinforce a narrow and destructive beauty ideal also feature first-rate writing by women on a wide variety of feminist subjects; magazines like Glamour and Cosmopolitan have run serious pieces in recent years on reproductive rights and pay equity; Seventeen and Teen Vogue have addressed eating disorders and sexual harassment. Those articles get more readers than comparable pieces in the feminist media; indeed, it’s entirely plausible that many women first encounter serious feminist analysis (whether they realize that’s what it is or not) within the pages of magazines like these.

Hectoring folks to give up magazines or TV shows that they enjoy has its merits, but too often, it perpetuates a stereotype of joylessness. While there is indeed little that is funny about sexism, there’s not much point in encouraging humorlessness in the young. And so rather than insisting that aspiring feminists and feminist allies give up all use of sexist media, I think it’s far more worthwhile to encourage them to augment their regular diet of mainstream infotainment with explicitly feminist material. Rather than soliciting a pledge to give up reading Cosmo, why not encourage a young person to read Bitch or Make/Shift or Ms too? And yes, there is feminist-centered pornography as well. For so many people whose erotic fantasies are conditioned by and fueled by imagery, it may well be better to redirect some of that energy towards different material rather than to insist that they surrender it altogether.

This “both/and” rather than “either/or” approach extends well beyond reading or viewing habits. Particularly for those for whom feminism is something new, or antithetical to the values with which they were raised, living out radically egalitarian values in every aspect of life right away is difficult. Embracing feminism comes as naturally as breathing for some; for others, it proves colossally difficult. And for those who find themselves experiencing internal tension between their feminist values and the habits, responsibilities, and pleasures to which they have become accustomed, it’s important to offer the reassurance that yes, it’s okay to live between what you already accept to be true and what you are not yet ready to give up.

Feminists don’t issue citations for laughing at a sexist film, or spending an hour engrossed in “America’s Next Top Model.” After all, we live in a world so thoroughly saturated with misogyny that few if any of our public or private pleasures are untouched by it. Seeking out feminist media, seeking out feminist community, seeking out feminist inspiration is something we can do even while we can continue to live, work and on occasion delight in aspects of a decidedly unfeminist culture. And if you’re not ready — and perhaps never will be ready — to extricate yourself fully from that culture, you can still embrace the alternative worldview that feminism offers. If you’re not ready to subtract, just start adding.

26 thoughts on “Can a feminist read Cosmo?

  1. Can a feminist read Michael and Debi Pearl? ( Perhaps only on days when they need to laugh and shake their heads.

  2. Well thanks a lot Skylark! I had to go look at that website – THERE’S five precious minutes of my life I’ll never recover… (I think I threw up in my mouth a little)

  3. I love fashion magazines, probably because I don’t take them as aspirational. Even if I could fit into a Dior gown, and afford one, neither of which are plausible, I live in the country and work from home – where would I wear such a thing? But I can appreciate fashion as an art form or a glimpse at a foreign culture. Fashion also helps me value the girly side of being a woman. In affirming the strong-willed and intellectual sides that feminism encourages, I can fall into being ashamed of “frivolous” feminine qualities.

  4. Lots of thoughts and internal arguments going on with this one… I’ll have to sleep on it. Thanks, though, for the thought-provoking post.

  5. Kudos on mentioning Make/Shift magazine!

    You mentioned “feminist centered pornography”. It sounds like you are saying that perhaps a person may not be able to give up pornography all together but perhaps they can redirect themselves…until perhaps one day they may decide to avoid all porn? I’ve never really considered any forms of pornography to be “feminist centered”. Could you give some examples? Thanks.

  6. I’m reluctant to promote pornography of any kind. But porn happens on a spectrum, and something like “On Our Backs” (the obvious URL) represents visual erotica that centers women and women’s wants.

    I want a porn-free world, believe me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t distinguish between different kinds of porn. I’d rather folks be vegans than vegetarians, too, but being lacto-ovo is a transitional step for many folks (not all) towards pure herbivoriousness.

  7. Great post, Hugo. As a journalist and feminist, I write for fashion magazines in part because I think they are one of the most necessary places to publish voices and perspectives that are critical of traditional gender norms and scripts. I really appreciate your nuanced take on this issue.

  8. Hugo, I can’t even begin to say something polite about a straight heterosexual man reluctantly granting a well-it-could-be-worse blessing to On Our Backs and wishing that it didn’t exist in an ideal world.

    As for Cosmo, beyond the obvious sexism, it’s just goldarned dumb. You can feel your IQ trickling out your ears when you read it, which doesn’t happen with, say, Vogue.

  9. Hugo, I very strongly second mythago. A world in which things like On Our Backs don’t (can’t?) exist is not a world I’m interested in fighting for, and it’s absolutely not the place of straight men, however feminist, to object to a publication by and for dykes. On Our Backs crusades against misogyny and heterosexism and provides vital, feminist sex ed for queer women.

    I know you’re trying to balance anti-porn and sex-positive and I respect that struggle. But OOB and the like are not a transitional step towards purity — they are powerful queer activism. And, as a feminist, I imagine you can see how incredibly problematic is it for you as a man to tell women how we should use our sexuality amongst ourselves. OOB is none of your business.

  10. Hugo, I am curious, in your ideal porn-free world, what would peoples sex lives be like? Would sex be something that is only practiced by couples in secret and never ever photographed, filmed or shared in any way with other consenting adults? Would people who don’t have a partner live contented celibate lives and just not think about sex? How is porn fundamentally different than mental sexual fantasy? In your ideal porn-free world, would people not have sexual fantasies either? Just asking.

  11. I regret referencing OOB. I typed that reply on my iPhone in haste, and was trying to think of an example of feminist erotica to offer as a counter to mainstream porn. OOB was around way back in the day, and it was the first thing that popped into my head — it was not the right example to use, and I regret having done so. No more commenting in haste on the PDA.

  12. Hugo, OOB isn’t really the point; you’re lumping all porn into the category of “sexist commercial porn of the type Hugo is well over” and wishing it all went away. As Daisy said, you’re out of line.

  13. Pingback: Some Thoughts On Queer Liberation, Feminism, And Pornography « Dear Diaspora

  14. Agreed, Myth, I was trying to resist the lumping of all porn together, but failed miserably. This post would have been just fine without the reference to pornography, and the thread better without my thoughtless response.

  15. Hugo, Thanks for the link. I read your review and started writing some reflections (some things to agree with and some things to disagree with) but this really isn’t a thread on porn, and I don’t want to try and make it into one. If a topic emerges in the future where my thoughts seem appropriate, I’ll offer them there.

  16. While I generally agree with your post, I dislike the imagery of ‘hectoring’ people and the frowny, no-fun feminist stereotype. Of course none of us want to be the overzealous college student who just yesterday read Andrea Dworkin and so forth, but the sterotype is not so much true as it is a caricature used to fend off actually useful comments. There’s a world of difference between ‘no feminist would read Cosmo’ and asking ‘have you considered how sexist Cosmo is and whether that’s something that affects how you view it?’

    It’s a tiresome and aggressive attack on feminism to conflate genuine and thoughtful discussion with sour PC orthodoxy, and it’s a particularly common way of shutting down anyone who suggests that what I like may be problematic. It’s a close cousin of “aw, you’re just jealous”.

  17. As for Cosmo, beyond the obvious sexism, it’s just goldarned dumb. You can feel your IQ trickling out your ears when you read it

    Mythago and I are sharing a wavelength today. :)

  18. I can recall having read some good articles on issues such as domestic violence, equal pay, eating disorders and female genital mutilation and so forth in some “women’s magazines” (can’t remember which offhand) And while it can only be a good thing that women’s mags are publishing articles on these topics, I wonder how much the positive messages of these articles, which ultimately only make up a small amount of the publication anyway, is undermined by the sexist content, including and especially the advertising, that is found in the bulk of the magazine.

    And yeah, Mythago, Lisa KS, I just had a look at the Cosmo website and my head is hurting. It reminded me of how so much of that particular mag seems to be just slightly reworded reprints on sex advice, finding a fella, fashion advice and dieting tips. That publication undermines feminism AND the intelligence of anyone who reads it with the intention of taking it seriously.

  19. Dinana, I too have seen good articles in women’s magazines. Just not Cosmo. 😉

  20. My intent — which may be worlds away from the impact of the post — was to suggest that students who, for whatever reason, enjoy “problematic” media begin to change their relationship with what they consume by adding in MORE feminist-centred material before worrying about giving up something that they really enjoy. Of course Cosmo is particularly troublesome, which is why I titled the piece as I did; it’s also the first magazine that folks think of.

    True confession: in our household, we subscribe to Ms., Bitch (may the print issues soon resume), Make/Shift — and Glamour, Vogue, and W. But not Cosmo.

  21. I agree Hugo. It isn’t helpful to shame anyone for reading these mags, although pointing out their deficiencies and like, as you said, suggesting that women (and men) add some feminist material to read alongside these mags is a worthwhile thing to do. How to do it, especially in a manner that doesn’t promote shame, or as you said perpetuate a stereotype of joylessness could be a challenge.

    And I really liked Jendi’s point at the beginning of the thread.

    I have (briefly) enjoyed reading these mags in the past, and do occasionally read them still, say if I’m sitting in a waiting room and I happen to see a copy of Cosmo or Vogue. Needless to say, I skim for the few pieces of decent journalism they may have to offer. I used to read the other sections, but as I said in my last comment, they are basically just slightly reworded reprints of the same-old same-old. Therefore I got bored with them. Not to mention I didn’t appreciate how crap they made me feel about myself, for not being a size 8 or 10, and for not being able to afford (or want, really) all the clothing and accessories they advertised.

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