The Cosmo Girl Construct – A Flawed Model?
A Study of Cosmopolitan Magazine’s Capacity to Reflect Contemporary Culture.
Jasmine MacPhee Year 3, BA (Hons) Fashion Promotion.
This study seeks to identify the character of the construct known as Cosmo-Girl, the leitmotif of Cosmopolitan, in its attempt to address the interests, needs and aspirations of its core demographic. Through an analysis – both qualitative and quantitative – of the content over a forty-year period, conclusions will be drawn as to whether the existing business model and editorial policy is sufficiently robust to withstand the challenges identified in the following pages.
The driver for this study was a personal view that such an inspirational magazine has, since the turn of the millennium, deviated from its core beliefs as originally enunciated by Helen Gurley Brown. This personal view has been stress-tested by research involving reading of the historical record, questionnaires and empirical study.
Throughout this study reference is made several times to Cosmo Girl, a totemic construct that is defined within the text. For the sake of brevity, references to Helen Gurley Brown are shortened to HGB. This study also follows the convention of italicising magazine and book titles. Cosmopolitan Magazine was first published in 1886 as a family magazine in the United States of America and was re-launched 1965 under the editorship of HGB as the New Cosmopolitan, becoming Cosmopolitan in 1965. In 1972 Cosmopolitan was launched in the UK market under the editorship of Joyce Hopkirk. The magazine was founded with a clear vision to be a forward thinking force. It provided a platform for open and unashamed discussion of topics between women, previously regarded as taboo. Of course one subject in particular – SEX.
HGB’s singular driving force can best be summed up thus:
I knew that women were having sex and loving it. I wanted the magazine to be their best friend, a platform from which I could tell them what I’d learned and talk about all the things that had not been discussed before. I wanted to tell the truth: that sex is one of the three best things out there, and I don’t even know what the other two are.
(Benjamin, online article, 2014)
The “modern woman” was starting to think more about her career, her romantic relationships and her sexual prowess more than she ever did before. It was time for her to have a ‘manual’ (Vonnegurt, online article, 2014) – perhaps even a dictionary. A point of reference so that she could feel reassured that her increasingly liberalised mind was not a lone force. Cosmopolitan was a voice of a generation with an ethos that was, and still is today, all about working hard, having fun and enjoying sex.
Cosmopolitan originally set out to promote a modern lifestyle with a feminist attitude. It was written by women, for women – though male writers were welcomed as in the September 1975 addition with three male by-lines. There was a significant focus on educating the readership in sex, with reports written by specialists and experts in the field. Contemporary editions suggest that non-specialist journalists have taken on an authoritative role to the exclusion of so-called experts.
This report will evaluate critical responses to Cosmopolitan’s current direction, made by the bloggers The Vagenda and others. What was once an empowering magazine seems to have evolved – or devolved – into a magazine that can often be seen as contradictory (Baxter and Cosslett, 2014, p.16). The argument being advanced is that there is too much weight placed on articles that follow contemporary dialectic, that lead. The magazine has now arguably been over-saturated with sex as a topic. Is there more sex than substance, more form than function? By selecting UK editions of the magazine from each decade, from 1972, to present, the content will be analysed and explored to establish the nature of change.
Section 1 of this paper will identify the history of Cosmopolitan’s relationship with SEX through empirical analysis, whilst Section 2 will identify contemporary issues and debates regarding the direction of Cosmopolitan’s travel. Section 3 will pose the fundamental question as to whether Cosmo Girl – the construct used to validate market positioning – is herself a flawed model which will fatally undermineCosmopolitan’s business plan. Both quantitative and qualitative research methods are employed in this paper, which inform the Conclusion to this study. Results from this research will be shown graphically, created purely for this study.
At the core of the argument is the Cosmo-Girl construct. According to the tagline for Cosmo she is the ‘Fun, Fearless Female’. According to HGB ‘she is traditional in many ways, she loves children and marriage but she doesn’t want to live through other people; she wants to achieve on her own’. Marcell d’Argy Smith said that ‘she cannot afford the luxury of being a girl anymore’ (Cassidy, online article, 1992) – she has to be a woman who is not just an appendage.
It is claimed that Cosmopolitan is the ‘relationship and sex bible for today’s modern, young women’ (Mullender, interview, 2014). A key question is as to how explicit and revealing the developing narrative of Cosmopolitan will go, and the effect of the seismic digital revolution. The key question has been posed thus: do the media attempt to dictate everything from your bikini wax to your body language, your diet to your sex moves, your pants to your personality? If that is the aspiration of today’s print media, does contemporary woman need to escape the grim clutches of Cosmo-Girl?
Section 1 – Sex Over Substance? What role does the subject of sex take throughout the journey of the magazine and how has that changed as a reflection of the times?
‘YES, Women Can ejaculate – The earth moving sex trick we can all try’ (Cosmopolitan Magazine, 2014, p. 235) is an example of an article that may not even raise a brow these days – standard Cosmopolitan fare for the Rhinanna-listening, Miley-twerking girls of the twenty-tens. This article headline extracted from October 2014 is a clear (and very common) marker of where we are in the public topic of sex. Meaning, what is casually discussed as a social norm for the current Cosmo readership? Cosmopolitan has been characterised as a ‘Sex and Relationship Bible’ (Mullender, interview, 2014) that started out with a certain feminist vision which has arguably been diluted with explicit sexual advice. Is this the sexual liberation that Cosmo had at the forefront of their venture? Is Cosmopolitan actually encouraging women’s servitude? What is the current consensus to sex content at Cosmopolitan?
Although we’re a sex and relationship bible, we actually devote as many pages to issues such as domestic violence or careers in your average issue as we do to sex. Sex coverage is getting smarter, but most women also want to know the same things – how do I get good sex, feel confident while I’m doing it, and make sure we’re both enjoying it?
(Mullender, interview, 2014).
In this context ‘sexual liberation’ refers to the acceptable level of thinking and speaking more freely about SEX. Addressing any sexual concerns we may have openly, without shame or embarrassment. Most importantly, perhaps being able to shout to a friend from the Ann Summers changing room whilst squeezing into a peekaboo bra and latex mini skirt: “Hey Martha, grab me a new rabbit will ya?! Mines on its last legs!”.
We now live in a world where women now congregate for Ann Summers parties, discussing the latest vibrators, which is the ‘modern equivalent of a tupperware party’ (Kelsey, online article, 2012) of the 1960s. This accurately demonstrates the current acceptance of sex.
Introducing Helen Gurley Brown – Mistress of Sex
Cosmopolitan under the editorship of HGB in the mid sixties aimed to create a sexual revolution for the masses at a time when many people were campaigning for a more liberated attitude to sex, often referred to as the ‘Permissive Society‘. Sex was an act that was propagated as something to be had, but never fully explored, by women. Cosmopolitan challenged the idea that women at home were NOT just thinking about baking and polishing, they were having sexual fantasies just like their husbands.
HGB described her agenda regarding her objective about placing sex and being single into Cosmopolitan: ‘I was saying that women do enjoy sex just as much as men do, and that has never been thought possible before, you were supposed to close your eyes and think of England, or mentally re-arrange your spice rack while you were having sex’ (Gurley Brown, 2012, quoted in: Kelsey, 2012 p.29). It was a comment that addressed what is thought to be one of her main objectives of breaking down sexual stereotypes.
In the public discourse at the time a lot of minds were pushing for a freer opinion and wider understanding of all aspects of the subject. Wanting to break the sexual taboos of the time HGB blazed a trail by talking about sexual topics that were usually avoided by the mainstream magazines of the time such as Woman’s Own and Good Housekeeping. In 1965, HGB stated in the formal concept for the magazine she submitted to Hearst Corporation that: ‘I don’t think prurient dirty stuff sells, but a pretty bosom, a discussion of a girls love life, yes’ (Gurley Brown, 1965, quoted in: Landers, 2010, p. 230). Socially, times were changing too and important sex-related movements were happening. Women were starting to achieve reproductive freedom, in the from of the contraceptive pill.
This gave Women the reprieve they needed from being baby-making machines in order to focus on other things, one of which was to start trying to redress the balance as far as gender roles were concerned
(Baxter and Cosslett, 2014, p. 16).
These changes made women feel more at ease with the notion of enjoying sex and being in control of sexual decision making. In the early 70s we saw the Women’s Liberation movement evolving, who demanded equal pay, equal education and opportunity, 24 hour nurseries, free contraception and abortion on demand (Rowbotham, 1997, p402). Women took to the streets of London’s West End, in March 1971, for their first march where five hundred women turned into thousands. ‘The Woman’s Liberation movement was committed to extending knowledge about the body and being frank about female physiology’ (Rowbotham, 1997, p. 429). Women started actively campaigning and fighting for what they believed in and this transcended through to Cosmopolitan.
In 1974 the contraceptive pill was made available to every woman outside of marriage through the NHS. Gone (almost) were the days of women travelling to Belfast from the Republic of Ireland in order to obtain free contraception (Rowbotham, 1997, p. 403).
It is hard to imagine now the difficulties women faced at the time Cosmopolitan was emerging, as a generation in which you can access the morning-after pill over the counter for £20. In 2001 this option of over-the-counter service was available to any ‘women of childbearing potential’ (Nordqvist, website, 2013), technically meaning a girl as young as twelve could obtain it. Reflecting this notion, three years on,Cosmopolitan printed an advert for the morning-after pill in February 2004. Valentine’s Day special advertising, perhaps? Recently,Cosmopolitan reported that one in three women take the pill (33.3%) in the UK (Mullender, Ford, 2014, p. 95). A huge increase in comparison to 1974, when it was recorded that only 9% of women were on the pill (Llewellyn Smith, website, 2010).
Examples of the early Cosmopolitan approach to the sexual theme can be found in articles such as ‘Cosmo’s Guide To Translating Gynaecological Terms’ (Roddick, 1975, p. 48), and ‘Oral Sex’ (Pomeroy, 1975, p. 78), an article that discusses oral sex with questions and answers from a doctor. This suggests that the content took an informative direction for sexual coverage, written by experts in the field and from a more educational angle. It was perhaps enough of a revelation for technical matters of sex to be published at this time and yet to evolve to the role of pleasure and sex within relationships.
In the Seventies, Cosmo approached sex with serious minded sincerity. When it came to sexual specifics, the magazine deferred to the experts rather than trust the topic to a mere journalist or to personal testimony.
(Kelsey, 2003, p. 52)
Referring to an early period of the publication when HGB was then editor in the early 1970s, she explained the format of sexually addressed issues:
Only a small percentage of articles and standard monthly columns actually dealt with primarily sexual topics. Certainly, Cosmopolitan articles routinely contained sexual innuendos and illusions to sex, but articles and columns specifically about relationships and sex were a mixture of risqué themes, suggestive anecdotes and traditional moralistic advice. Text was rarely explicit, and descriptions of sexual situations were not erotic.
(Gurley Brown, quoted in: Landers, 2010, p. 233)
Welcome To The Raunch
Analysis of issues of the magazine from each decade suggests that the heavily factual and researched sexual topics in 1975, gradually evolved into over-saturated sexual topics. Gynaecological sex education in the seventies evolved into sexual fantasies for women and men as suggested in an article from Cosmopolitan in July 1983 called, ‘Sharing the Same Sexual Wave’ (Hooper, 1983, p. 132).
The article was published shortly after a BBC documentary describing how women and men relate to each other in terms of sexual needs and desires. In comparison to the gynaecological report article in 1975 they are worlds apart, but Cosmopolitan is surely responding to social changes. At this time, people were experimenting more with sex. In 1983 saw the birth of the “Rabbit” vibrator and in 1986 the first home pregnancy test was sold over the counter. Sex was beginning to be explored and reflected publicly.
This approach to sexual topics in 1983 shows that women and men are getting more sexually liberated. Sex is discussed openly and has a sex therapy angle, conveying an honest and open approach to sex. From this point onwards experimental sex between males and females was being explored within Cosmopolitan, although at a time where AIDS first arose mainly in the gay community, Cosmopolitan had to tread lightly: ‘Of course women weren’t about to stop having sex, or embarking on new relationships, but there was a very strong feeling that relationships might somehow re-defined’ (Kelsey, 2003, p. 52).
But when did the “raunch” start? According to the Vagenda narrative: ‘By the eighties and nineties any pretence of feminism had been fully overshadowed by raunch’ (Baxter and Cosslett, 2014, p. 16). In Figure 1 headlines from sexual articles have been extracted throughout each decade of Cosmopolitan. This suggests that there is an accelerating sense of the explicit content delivered from Cosmo over the past five decades.
Has Cosmopolitan Lost The Penis Plot?
Does this suggest that the readership has become de-sensitised? Now we can expect to find such articles as ‘The Sex Act Even Christian Grey Only Dared to do Once’ (Cosmopolitan, 2014, p. 243) – a ‘real-life confession’ about a woman’s sexual fantasy to have sex with her boyfriend – with a strap-on. These articles have now saturated the magazine. In the seventies it was common to see recruitment adverts for the Army, now these have been diminished and in place are adverts for perfume and cosmetics.
A particularly illustrative example of the modern Cosmopolitan linguistic is a column called the ‘Penis Reader’ (Hedley, 2004, p. 109). Agnes Freeman claims to be the UK’s only ‘Penis Reader’. Freeman has the ‘amazing’ and perhaps disputable talent of being able to read ‘clues of his lifestyle, relationship potential and what kind of lover he is’ just from a picture of his penis. She claims she can read ‘his penis just like a palm’. When this article was presented to an audience between the ages of 18-64, 54% believed this headline to be real, whereas the rest thought it was fake (MacPhee, questionnaire, 2014). This raises the difficult question as to whether the readers are unknowingly de-sensitised, acceptive or shocked at Cosmopolitan‘s content. This question will be addressed in Section 3 of this paper, in the form of a public questionnaire.
This article indicates a dramatic move away from sexual advice based on facts and scientific findings seen in the 1970s, to the articles such as ‘the Penis Reader’, which shows such advice now grounded by modern day “fiction” and not academic sources. If we analyse the language from this article it is a huge indication of change – what was once ‘male genitalia’, is now ‘shaft’ or ‘penis’. It can be argued that such articles set a precedent for what was informative sexual advice to be converted into risqué headlines with not much substance to back it up, in order to obtain an audience. ‘Magazines are constantly searching for new ways to appear to whet the reader’s appetite’ (Baxter and Cosslett, 2014, p. 99). Whether or not this editorial line reflects a management requirement to increase circulation figures it will be addressed in Section 3.
To show how Cosmopolitan’s content has become so overly sexual, quantitive research has been carried out by analysing the occurrence of the word “sex” in the October 2014 issue (Cosmopolitan, 2014, p. 1-258). The results are illustrated in Figure 2.
In Figure 3, comparisons are drawn between the sex content and the career content on a page by page analysis over a period of forty years. This graphically shows how editorial policy has – and does – address and cover the issue of sex. There is visually a huge increase of sexual content from the outset. However, there is justification of the content in current issues of Cosmopolitan. According to Mullender, the current Features Director of Cosmopolitan:
The average Cosmo issue has six pages of sex content. But the December issue, for example, has a four-page sexual harassment at work report and three pages of career advice. If you look at Cosmo you will actually find that sex is a small part of what we do – we often do more in any one issue on women’s issues, politics, body confidence and careers than we do on sex.
(Mullender, interview, 2014).
The question must arise, therefore, as to whether the editorial ethic of Cosmopolitan is at variance with its delivery. This theme will be developed further in Section 3 of this paper.
Section 2 – Who do they think we are? The Cosmo portrait of the modern woman
‘For women by women’ (Cosmopolitan, website, 2014) is the prevalent Cosmo tagline. It sums up the brand’s ethos that centres around the idea of empowering women that consume their pages, through addressing important issues in their lives. Sex, careers, relationships and men, dominate the content and creates a silhouette of the overriding female agenda through the eyes of the reader. The emphasis on these particular “issues” changes throughout building an image and painting the portrait of the Cosmo-Girl.
It seems its content reflects the women they think we want to be. A recent issue of Cosmopolitan (Dec, 2014) has zero pages dedicated to world issues, but it seems there is a major priority to catch and KEEP the man of your dreams, with a dedicated section called ‘Inside Men’s Minds’ housing a total of five articles.
The Cover Girls – Lads’ Mag or Ladies’ Mag?
The old saying goes that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case it is more than relevant to take a look at the choice of covers from Cosmopolitan. Do the girls that grace the front of the magazine represent the values and brand ethos of Cosmopolitan? But what is the ethos behind the brand now? According to Mullender they should ’embody the Cosmo brand and their values’ (Mullender, interview, 2014). True, Cosmopolitan’s sexual nature is reflected in the cover – the cover girls ooze sex appeal. The cover girl should be ‘glamorous, fun and feisty, want to be heard and have something to say’ and ‘celebrities like Fearne Cotton’ reflect this (Mullender, interview, 2014).
When the question of ethos was put forward to the Junior Editor of Marie Claire, Caroline Leaper, there is some divergence to choice of cover girl: ‘Angelina Jolie represents the Marie Claire brand really well as she’s really using her position and power to drive changes that will benefit other women around the world’ (Leaper, interview, 2014). Mullender states that the qualities of a cover girl are ‘women who embody our values, who are striving to be the best they can be in whatever area of life they have chosen to work in’ (Mullender, interview, 2014).
Comparisons with Playboy have been frequently addressed. In the first edition of Cosmopolitan UK editor Joyce Hopkirk stated in the editor’s letter that there had already been comparisons between Cosmopolitan and Playboy very early on.
Since the news of Cosmo (sic) first leaked out, everybody’s been asking if it’s going to be a female Playboy. Although I thinkPlayboy is very entertaining it has a very different slant from us. Playboy preaches a doctrine in which all their men are fantastic looking, rich exciting and successful.
(Hopkirk, 1972, p. 3)
By selecting covers from Cosmopolitan and Playboy to demonstrate how similar they can often be, a questionnaire “Cosmo or Playboy?” (MacPhee, questionnaire, 2014) has been conducted. In presenting covers from both Playboy and Cosmopolitan the choice was given whether the covers belonged to either magazine, to an audience of males and females, between the ages of 18 – 65.
The questionnaire suggests that there is crossover between the less raunchy covers of Playboy and the racier editions of Cosmopolitan. They both publish articles on sex and it could be argued both the magazines treated women as sex objects in some way. Cosmopolitanwith its ‘sex manual tips’, and Playboy with its provocative, naked women. Apparently, ‘The Cosmopolitan moral is just the other side of thePlayboy coin’ (Lander, 2010, p. 225).
So how is it possible for two completely different genres of magazines – a magazine for men with pornographic ideologies and a lifestyle mag for women – to lack coherent distinction? They both share a requirement for the objectification of the female body to be the selling point on the front cover. Is this a contradiction for Cosmopolitan? The claim is that Cosmopolitan is a mural for women on all the important issues of her life. Cosmopolitan’s ideology is that there is an underlying message that the magazine should empower the woman sexually, socially and professionally. Its hard to understand how a racy cover shot is the representative of this.
So why does Cosmopolitan choose to put sexualised women on their covers? ‘Our covers are often pretty sexy, as we don’t shy away from women’s sexuality’ says Mullender (Mullender, interview, 2014); a fair point, as they are promoting such strong sexual ideologies for woman, it could be argued that the cover is directly associated to the content.
The male gaze, a concept developed by Laura Mulvey in 1975, described the process through which women are objectified within the media. Mulvey’s theory suggests that the male gaze denies women ‘human identity, relegating them to the status of objects to be admired for physical appearance’. (Mothy, website, 2013). This theory can be applied to cover models of Cosmopolitan and Playboy. The Vagendasuggests: ‘Just as in porn, in the fantasies pulled straight from the pages of Cosmo the male gaze has primacy’ (Baxter and Cosslett, 2014, p. 97).
The March 1995 issue features Rohini Ross. According to then editor Marcelle D’Argy Smith she ‘is more than a cover’. Apart from her amazingly good looks that got her on the cover in the first place, she has a BA Hons degree and an MA in Cultural Geography. In August 2013, British Olympian Jessica Ennis took to the cover, along side a cover line that read ‘Men’s Secret Desires’. Is this an interesting contrast or embarrassing contradiction?
Hi Ho! It’s Off To Work We Go
Coverage on careers has provided women with a with a ‘go get it’ outlook on the world of work. Emphasis on careers is a firmCosmopolitan trait – throughout its time it has provided positive career-driven content for its readers. Cosmopolitan came at a time where ‘women were just getting a sense of freedom and starting to have the life they wanted’ (Kelsey, 2003, p. 25). Despite criticisingCosmopolitan as a whole, authors of The Vagenda concede that; ‘Cosmo argued that the way to female equality was through earning your own money, you can’t help but agree that, to a point, the magazine was right’ (Baxter and Cosslett, 2014, p. 188).
Those in the fashion world also agree. Loraine Candy, a past editor of Cosmopolitan and the current editor of Elle magazine, has said thatCosmopolitan enabled her career ambition to turn into reality: ‘I can honestly claim that Cosmopolitan did change my life – with its careers pages encouraging me as an ambitious wannabe journalist at the age of sixteen to chase my dream, despite a serious lack of qualifications’ (Candy, quoted in: Kelsey, 2010, p. 11).
The format of Cosmopolitan included careers from its outset. It reflected HGB’s construct of the Cosmo Girl, which were women that she encouraged “to have it all” – the family, the sex but mostly importantly the career. The DNA of the magazine was ‘inspiring, aspirational, full of information, full of service and it said to women – set your heights high’ (McConnell, online video, 2009). HGB opened the doors for women, she made women believe and others understand that women had ‘tremendous determination, ambition and they worked very hard’ (McConnell, online video, 2009). The magazine was an educational tool for women, it encouraged careers and made women believe that they did not have to live through a man to achieve; ‘The time had come to stop repressing ambition because girls don’t or can’t do the same things as boys’ (Kelsey, 2003, p. 136).
The Equal Pay Act was introduced in 1970 which made it illegal to pay women lower rates than men for the same work. The championing of women getting into the workplace really set Cosmopolitan above competitor magazines by being responsive to changes that were happening at the time. Women were starting to achieve on their own, and entering jobs that had before been associated with men. For instance, articles from the 1970s profiled women who were either an ‘airline pilot, architect, bank examiner, civil engineer, stock broker or veterinary’ (Landers, 2010, p. 234).
However, if one looks at the current issue of Cosmopolitan (Dec, 2014) its career content is given to a mere 3 pages out of 282 pages – or 1.1% of the magazine. One “career feature” is called ’10 Things Millionaires Do Every Day’ which is hardly inspiring content for the career driven. The magazine was contextually inspiring for the career women but now the focus being on a now demographic has lead toCosmopolitan losing its career “mojo”.
Section 3 – The Future Of The Cosmo Girl: Will She Live To Tell The Tale?
What does the future hold for the Cosmo-Girl? What concerns her and how does she operate in the ever-growing digital landscape? The manual of the ‘fun, fearless, female surely’ has the opportunity to question this downward spiral of superficial standards, as identified in the previous Sections of this paper. The market position of Cosmopolitan is under attack as a wealth of information is available to us at the touch of a button. Information that is so diverse, uncensored and accessible it is hard to see how the magazine could compete. We are now learning the digital dangers that are emerging – such as revenge porn, cyber bullying and twitter trolls. Is Cosmo-Girl being drowned out by increasing digital noise?
Overshare Overload – TMI?
A new generation of social media-savvy and twitter-tolerant people are being conceived with the evolution of the web. In a recent study from Marketing Magazine, they state that: ‘64% feel that other young people share too much information on social media’ (Maunder- Allan, website, 2013). But how much is too much information today? TMI is internet slang for “Too Much Information”. This expression came to light when online conversation culture was booming such as instant messaging site MSN, which launched in 1995. The term is used when someone has shared information that they would prefer to be kept private.
A recent article in Cosmopolitan states; ‘The private is now public and an industry of oversharing is in full swing’ (Cosmopolitan, 2013, p. 119). But when did we become so comfortable with over-sharing? Since the upheaval of social media in 2004, it has allowed us to share and feed the world with every waking moment, from selfies to extremities such as ‘twisted reality where women live tweet their live miscarriages’ (Cosmopolitan, 2013, p. 119).
Candid, personal internet expression is now being dominated by young females, as Cosmopolitan explains: ‘there is definitely an appetite for the younger female story to be told as it is, in an honest and upfront way’ (Cosmopolitan, 2013, p.119). Articles from young females based on their sex life are surfacing all over the web. One prime example featured on The Tab, an online student paper serving over 48 Universities: ‘I have shagged over 100 blokes but I’m not a slut’’ (The Tab, website, 2014), and details her vast sex life with such graphic information as: ‘You name it and I’ve done it. Threesomes, DP (double penetration), facials, squirting…there’s nothing I haven’t done’. Such articles are now being shared from these sites and spread over Facebook.
People are also using new online platforms such as blogs to air their dirty laundry. Lena Dunham, creator of Girls, responds to the online upheaval thus: ‘A scant web presence is so rare these days, alluring in and of itself’ (Dunham, 2014, p. 132). The impact of erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, published in 2011, is an example of how experimental and erotic sex such as BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism) has been acceptable to share publicly. The book has sold just over 100 million copies, and is one of the 10 best selling books, sitting alongside Charles Dickens and JR Tolkien.
Cosmopolitan followed suit with this “erotic trend” and subsequently published 141 articles based on Fifty Shades of Grey on Cosmopolitan.co.uk. This new over sharing sexual expression, from the impact of Fifty Shades, has set a bar to what is acceptable or not in contemporary culture. But how much is too much information? It certainly seems that Cosmopolitan has churned out a few examples of what could be deemed as “TMI”. The headlines described in Figures 6, 7 and 8 have been extracted from Cosmopolitan online as well as recent print editions and put forward to an audience between the ages of 18 – 34, which is also Cosmopolitan’s “target market”. Are the results the same among a younger age range in comparison to an older age range? How will Cosmopolitan’s desired target market react? The survey determines whether they deem them to be either helpful, acceptable, TMI or X-rated (MacPhee, questionnaire, 2014).
‘The Sex Act Christian Grey Only Dared To Do Once’ (Cosmopolitan, 2014, p. 243) is an article about a woman’s sexual fantasy to have sex with her boyfriend, with a strap on – the content of which is very sexually graphic. Almost half of 18 – 24 year olds (44.8 %) considered it to be ‘Acceptable’ but only 27.3 % of 25 – 34 year olds disagreed and thought it was x-rated material (MacPhee, questionnaire, 2014). It is evident that a younger audience is comfortable seeing this topic covered in Cosmopolitan, and the older audience was not (See Figure 5).
Another article on Cosmopolitan’s UK website ‘8 Things Nobody Tells You About Anal Sex’ (Breslaw, online article, 2014) which highlights the pros and cons of anal sex and states that: ‘I am not a doctor, just a Muggle Woman who’s had the occasional up-the-arse experience’. 44.8 % of 18 – 24 year olds thought this article was ‘Too Much Information’ (MacPhee, questionnaire, 2014).
Cosmopolitan’s website content is often explicit and overtly sexual, for instance articles such as the The Joystick Joyride relates that to ‘straddle your man and move with his penis inside of you like a joystick of a video game’ (Cosmopolitan Magazine, online article, 2014). Less than half (34.5 %) of the 18-24 year old bracket found this headline to be acceptable, whereas NONE of 25-34 year old bracket believed it to be acceptable (See figure 7). This is a huge difference between the two age groups. It shows that a younger generation are more accepting of content of a highly sexual nature. A girl of 13 being able to access this kind of content on cosmopolitan.com is a daunting thought. A younger generation are now being subjected to highly sexualised language and information because of the accessibility of the internet.
With the current appetite for over-sharing and the constant evolution of online, it is hard to imagine digital consumers reducing their appetite for “raunch”. Every generation is diving head first into the digital age. Children are swapping books for I-pads. A children’s toys company, VTech, have recently brought out a tablet-like toy for 3-9 year olds in which ‘Kids and parents can exchange and share their text messages, photos and more over a kidsafe Wi-Fi connection’’ (VTech, website, 2014). Teenagers are exchanging diaries for Facebook; it is hard for some to imagine ever living in a private world.
The Onslaught Of Online
Before the internet, magazines provided insight into what other women were thinking, what they were doing. Now you can go online and get all the information you could ever need
(Edbookfest, online video, 2014).
Does this statement demonstrate that magazines will eventually die out due to the online challenge? Cosmopolitan has a challenge of its own in the race to stay ahead of the technological game. The online arena has opened up a whole new minefield for all types of publications to get to grips with. It has been well documented that the internet is fair game for published magazines. The age of blogging and v-blogging has mushroomed and there is much evidence that blogging could potentially rival print, certainly in the realm of broad-sheet newspapers. But what does this mean for the future of Cosmopolitan and its progeny, Cosmo Girl?
There is a wide mutual prediction that online may fatally challenge many categories of print. The National Readership Survey estimates that readership of British national newspapers has fallen by 13% between 2013 and 2014 (Sutcliffe, Jackson, online article, 2014). Mainly celebrity publications such as Heat, Hello! and Closer have reduced sales, ‘squeezed out by celebrity websites and the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame’ (Rowlands, online article, 2013). It has been said that blogging is just a different area to look at fashion, it feels fresher. ‘I think that blogging is just a fresh perspective’ said Kate Lanphear, the style director of US Elle magazine (Burcz, online article, 2012). The relationship between blogging and magazines is very different; blogging has a sense of community whereas magazines feels somewhat private – perhaps isolated.
However, fashion publications may have an upper hand in the various elements that make them work so well in print. Not least the fashion photography that simply requires the luxury of glossy paper but also the comfort and reassurance a favourite magazine can provide for the reader that is a humble follower. This idea that print has certain advantages is supported by Douglas McCabe, a print specialist with the research company Enders Analysis, who told The Guardian in 2010:
The female space is a lot more resilient than almost every other print media that we can think of. Print magazines simply suit the kind of content that is centre stage in those titles – fashion, beauty, great photography.
(Saner, online article, 2010)
Reading a magazine is a tactile and comforting experience, something that is often used as a tool to relax. ‘I hope that there will always be a place for print. Nothing can match the feel of a new magazine in your hands’ says the Features Director of Cosmopolitan Magazine UK (Mullender, interview, 2014). It is common for consumers to treat magazine as if they were manuals for their lives, from fashion pointers to brushing up our skills in the kitchen. Information is condensed and housed in one distinct place and you know what to expect. Now, living within the digital age we perhaps seek relief from electronic devices and magazines have that advantage.
There are different experiences for the reader with print and digital. The junior editor of Marie Claire, Caroline Leaper, explains these differences:
When you read a magazine, you’ll sit down and enjoy a long profile piece or feature about something you hadn’t necessarily planned on reading. Online, you’re often reading on a mobile or tablet, maybe on a desktop on your lunch break – so you’re often looking for snappier features or news stories
(Leaper, interview, 2014).
This statement proves that publications do see a place for themselves within both print and digital platforms. There are very important technical advantages with digital for the magazine industry, advantages that print does not have. Caroline Leaper, who works across both digital and print channels at Marie Claire states:
The best thing about digital is that everything is measurable – so you can literally see how many people are reading each article and how long they’ve spent reading it. This really helps to know what’s popular and what formats of features are working best
(Leaper, interview, 2014).
The future of course depends on the advertising budgets and whether the super brands continue to move away into more lower-cost online avenues and take with them the bread and butter of the magazine. Largely due to the pressures of advertising, the average length of a feature now is now about 300 words.
Hearst UK report this year that Cosmopolitan magazine has a circulation of 279,127 and the website engages more than 3 million eyes per month. With a combined audience of over 5 million across print and online and 1 million followers on the social media platforms Twitter and Facebook. (Court, website, 2014). ‘Cosmopolitan is the world’s number one magazine brand – with 61 editions worldwide, if you put all our readers together they would make the 16th largest country on Earth’ (Court, website, 2014).
Hearst also claim that ‘The brand is constantly ranked as the UK number 1 top-grossing brand in the Apple news stand for I-phone sales showing a rapidly growing demand for Cosmopolitan through emerging digital channels’ (Court, website, 2014). When judgement day for the digital age does come there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Cosmopolitan is very strong competitor. Mullender commented on the digital future for Cosmopolitan; ‘We can only respond to changes that come at us, and who knows what they might be? It’s very exciting’ (Mullender, interview, 2014) also stating that they try to make ‘the digital experience as interactive as possible’ (Mullender, interview, 2014) meaning that they are fully responding to the needs of the evolving digital consumer.
We try our best to respond to changes wrought by the digital age – for example, our recent reports on revenge porn, and how porn affects readers’ sex lives. We listen to our readers’ concerns, keep a close eye on how things are changing and on social media, and respond to new issues in our own voice.
(Mullender, interview, 2014).
Cosmopolitan’s myriads of platforms all aggregate to be a strong contender in the digital versus print fight. If content is generated for the right platform such as their online presence, Ipad edition and print they will all have a certain cause and a purpose. With a huge presence digitally Cosmopolitan believes it is the bully in the playground that can over-power the geeky little blogger in the corner who wants to have his or her say.
The Attack of the Cyber-Feminists
The fourth-wave of feminism has been characterised as ‘being defined by technology: tools that are allowing women to build a strong, popular, reactive movement online. Modern feminism is defined by pragmatism, inclusion and humour’ (Cochrane, online article, 2013). By contrast, the so-called third wave that blossomed in the 1990s delivered such campaigns as “I’m not asking for it” where woman demanded the rights to revealing clothes. ‘It’s possible to have a push-up bra and a brain at the same time’ (Rampton, website, 2014). Feminists are now taking to the web to voice their opinions. The dialogue on the internet is constantly evolving and in turn so is the emergence of social media, blogs and online forums. Activists are now getting behind the keyboard to share, discuss and deliver feminist opinions.
What does this new movement have to do with Cosmopolitan? The DNA is about guiding and educating the modern Cosmo Girl in all areas of her life. A new – or developed – construct of the Cosmo Girl could come to light because of this movement, a generation could influence the future for Cosmopolitan. In their mission statement they claim to be a ‘bible for young women’ (Cosmopolitan, website, 2014) and that their aim is to ‘open readers minds, broaden their perspectives’ (Mullender, interview, 2014), so it only makes sense that they reflect contemporary culture and new attitudes. It is hard to comprehend a Cosmo Girl beholds feminist attitudes. The contrast between theCosmo Girl construct underpinned by the idealistic mission statement with cover girl Miley Cyrus (Dec 2013), who is infamous for her overt sexual antics when performing. The main question is can Cosmopolitan satisfy the new ‘Contemporary Feminist’ (Munro, online article, 2014).
Who is the contemporary Cosmo Girl now? Features Director of Cosmopolitan, Rosie Mullender explains that she is;
A young woman who isn’t always sure what she wants, or how to get it, but tries to be the best she can be whatever she turns her hands to. She’s ambitious, loves her friends and family, and knows it is possible to be a feminist and love shoe shopping
(Mullender, interview, 2014)
Cosmopolitan’s ethos of working hard, having fun and enjoying sex is still the same today as much as it was in the heyday of HGB. Priorities such as ‘love, sex, work, men and relationships are still a huge part of young women’s life’ (Kelsey, online article, 2012), but the difference is women have become more empowered since it first came around: ‘Women expect equality, instead of having to fight for it now’ (Kelsey, online article, 2012).
Is the Cosmo Girl a threatened species? Will Cosmopolitan be able to keep up with and satisfy this new breed of feminism? Mullender states that the Cosmo Girl ‘knows its possible to be a feminist’ (Mullender, interview, 2014) but Cosmopolitan has faced critical feminist backlash from the authors of The Vagenda. They believe that Cosmopolitan is anything but a magazine with feminist ideologies. In 2012,The Vagenda blog was born – a feminist website that voiced the detrimental effects that women’s magazine had on its readers. In 24 hours the blog had 60,000 hits and 8 million hits in its first year (Edbookfest, online video, 2014). Later in 2014 they published a book that explored all of their ideas housed on the blog. One of their main targets: Cosmopolitan.
The two female authors, who were fresh out of university when they first set up the blog, are now at the forefront of the fourth wave of feminism. A new generation of feminists are evolving and The Vagenda has a huge part to play in that. In a video interview the authors tell of a time when a girl of the age of 13, had written to them saying that she was ‘the only feminist in the village’ (Edbookfest, online video, 2014) after finding their blog. She goes on to say moreover that after her discovery of the blog she felt better about being flat chested. I do not think you could say that a Cosmopolitan article could potentially ease personal self issues frequently. This influence that The Vagenda, and other platforms such as feminist.com are having on the next generation is coming with a vengeance. It is clear that Cosmopolitan see The Vagenda as a threat, when the question ‘What are your thoughts on The Vagenda?’ (Mullender, interview, 2014) was pitched to the features director of Cosmopolitan – she declined to comment.
Younger girls are now finding their voice to speak up, and not feeling as if they have to sign up to a checklist to be a particular of mainstream feminist. It poses the question that if girls as young as 13 are evolving with the fourth wave, where are they going to invest their money to gain knowledge and a sense of community?
The contemporary Cosmo-Girl has been profiled thus from profiling website, YouGov: ‘our connected data vault which holds over 120,000 data points, collected from over 200,000 UK YouGov members’ (YouGov, website, 2014):
• Aged 25-29 (which does nott comply with Cosmopolitan‘s ‘target market’)
• Professions = healthcare/medicine, entertainment, advertising marketing/pr
• Location = London
• Hobbies/activities = dancing, exercising, singing
• General interests = beauty/grooming, fashion/design/cosmetics, people and celebrities
• Niche interests = shopping, going to pubs and clubs, dancing, women’s issues, sleeping
• Personality = ‘I use beauty products to make myself look better’, ‘it is important for me to
look physically attractive’, ‘I like to go to trendy restaurants and bars’
• Online for = 46-50 hours per week
• Newspaper read = Daily Mail
• Watched TV for less than 1 hr per week
• TV shows = Eastenders, X-factor, This Morning
Social media is becoming a huge arena of dialogue for feminist activists. With an increasing use of social media by teenagers the next generation is being subjected to new and developing feminist views and opinions. Whether they are responding or not teenagers such as being described by The Vagenda are being educated in a way that would not be possible before the arrival of the World Wide Web. They are starting to define a form of ‘Contemporary Feminism’ (Munro, online article, 2014). Social media acts as an international solidarity movement which allows women to communicate as they have never done before. Another report recently published by Columbia University’s Barnard Centre for Research on Women, show that females aged between 18 – 29 are the ‘power users of social networking’. (Munro, online article, 2014).
It is evident that Cosmopolitan is campaigning for Contemporary Feminism in some ways. Is Feminism Dead (Mullender, online article, 2013) was an article written in response to an article that The Independent had published called Today’s young Women have Betrayed Feminism(Alibhai-Brown, online article, 2013). Mullender again argues that ‘it is wonderful when young women do take up the cause of feminism’ (Mullender, online article, 2013). It seems that Cosmopolitan is partially up for supporting young women that are becoming drivers of this new feminism.
A breath of fresh air has been blown into the world of feminism, fanned by social media. Through the internet you can express yourself in many areas whether that be merely tweeting your opinion or following campaigns. It is all about just having your voice heard. The internet allows you to engage with things you feel strongly about without signing up to an ideology.
Will Cosmopolitan work in line with this movement? It can be argued that Cosmopolitan does try to work in line with feminist views, such as gender equality. With articles such as Groped by the Boss (Cowood, 2014, p. 73) and Revenge Porn (Mullender, Smith-Squire, 2014, p. 49) they are demonstrating fighting back against gender inequality. It seems that Cosmopolitan is acknowledging the feminist debate; within theGroped by my Boss article a tagline states that they want to hear about experiences by email, presumably to generate a dialogue with their consumers.
Behind the detail of Cosmopolitan’s precise strategy to encompass fourth wave feminist narratives, lies The Vagenda’s core proposition: ‘Women’s press is a large hadron collider (sic) of bullshit…(emphasising) women’s inability to say “no”…(that) we subject the media and the way it “speaks” to women to all the ridicule it deserves’ (Vagenda, 2014, p. 133).
There is a central critique in this statement of mainstream traditional media – that magazines such as Cosmopolitan speak down to their consumers. The central tenet of social media is two-way communication, and call the respect that this implies for diversity. It is impossible to have communication as equals without appreciating and acknowledging differences of view – increasingly important in a society which welcomes immigrant communities.
Cosmo Girl was blessed once with that ability to transcend indifference and mediocrity, so that the construct became more than the sum of her parts. Now, perhaps, the construct is being eroded. According to Cosmopolitan itself:
At the heart of every feature, blog, tweet or video is the ethos that Cosmo must inspire women to be the best they can be – on their terms. Whether that’s by empowering them through campaigns, giving them the confidence to ask for that pay rise, offering honest relationship advice, or helping them to hunt down those heels, Cosmo engages with our reader on a deeper emotional level than any other brand, providing solid, intelligent advice she really trusts. As a result, Cosmopolitan is the most widely read monthly magazine in the UK – one which is as in touch with its readers now, as it was when the magazine launched in 1972; a fact we’re very proud
(Cosmopolitan, website, 2014)
This suggests that despite the challenges alluded to above, the publication suite – i.e. including print and digital – is in robust health. In fact, there is a more nuanced analysis, based on the use of the word “read”. In fact, combined circulation using 2013 figures is 310,149, compared with the combined circulation of Glamour which runs at 404,946. Further, Cosmopolitan’s circulation fell by 15.2%, whilst digital circulation dropped by 25%. (PPA CCC, website, 2013) This hardly suggests a magazine in rude health. To compound the concern, circulation drop is a trend over a three year period (Press Gazette, online article, 2013).
C O N C L U S I O N
This report has attempted to identify Cosmopolitan’s relationship with the concept of contemporary feminism within the context of a preponderance of content loosely related to SEX. Key to the argument is the relationship that the readers – the consumers – have with the construct termed the Cosmo Girl.
At her birth, Cosmo Girl offered the magazine a method of market differentiation, making the product aspirational and offering a sense of developing freedom – whether in the workplace or the bedroom. Evidence adduced in this report suggests that Cosmopolitan is becoming less differentiated, more mainstream, attacked from both sides of the publishing spectrum, namely the blogosphere on the left and women’s magazines on the right.
It would be presumptuous to suggest that this evolvement has had an impact of circulation figures – which are driven by a variety of factors, not the least being spending power in the Age of Austerity. However, it is axiomatic that society is becoming increasingly segmented through a combination of digital technology, political devolution and diversification resulting from immigration from non Anglo-Saxon countries. The writer has been encouraged by this work to dig deeper into the demographic of women’s magazines, and realise that an increasingly diverse society offers both challenges and opportunities. Should Cosmo-Girl now be wearing a burqa or a hijab? According to the “I Can be She” project, Islam ‘offers a firm basis for gender equality and social justice’ (Segram, online article, 2013). The global movement Musawah, which means equality in Arabic, has for five years been making the case that women can fight for justice and equality from within the Islamic tradition. Yet a search on the Cosmopolitan website produces zero results, whilst the keyword “Islam” produces three results – all news items.
Living in the East End of London, it seems crass that Cosmopolitan reflects more the debates amplified by Heat Magazine, and less the concerns of a vibrant, multi-ethnic community. Previously unaware of these issues having grown up in Cornwall, the writer is now encouraged to view future media trends in a far more sophisticated manner. The core challenge for Cosmopolitan is how it is to respond to these challenges, and whether an agenda driven by SEX – in all its many manifestations – will deliver circulation as well as maintain its increasingly precarious position of giving women the platform to be the best they can be – on their terms.
HGB was guided by the idea that Cosmopolitan should be a platform through which women can communicate – foreseeing the digital revolution. Her understanding of Cosmo Girl as “traditional in many ways, loving children, loving marriage but wanting not to live through other people” is surely still achievable in modern society?
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