On Monday night at a media industry event, a reporter from Capital New York asked Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles about her magazine and feminism. Coles responded that Cosmo is “deeply feminist,” and covers issues like “equal pay for equal work,” “sensible control for guns,” and “access to contraception and access to abortion, should, God forbid, you need one.”
“There’s nothing more mainstream than equal pay for equal work. I mean, it’s completely obvious that’s what feminism should be for, and for women’s right to choose what happens to their own bodies. It’s unbelievable in 2013 we happen to be talking about this, but the battle over healthcare, the battle for women’s right to choose their own contraception, that ludicrous panel full of old men in Washington ruling what women could and couldn’t do—where is feminism then? Where are all the left-wing academics? Actually, Cosmo has been out there clamoring all along for this.”
Some feminists are not so happy about this, perceiving Coles’ remarks as dismissive of academics in areas like gender studies, race theory, history and others that have had a direct result on feminist advances of the 20th and 21st century. But I’m actually happy that the editor of the most major women’s mag in America didn’t run screaming in the other direction when the F-word came up.
To be sure, “deeply feminist” is an overstatement when characterizing Cosmo. It has feminist attributes. Many employees may identify as feminist. But “deeply feminist”? That brings to mind off our backs or Ms. (My favorite feminist magazine is the nonprofit Bitch Magazine — you should subscribe! ) Indeed, Cosmo was a torch-bearer at one point for mainstream magazines targeted towards women (see Helen Gurley Brown, below). Today, though, it is not by any stretch of the imagination on the frontline of feminist journalism or even feminist activism.
To that end, here’s a sampling of the reactions on Twitter in a hashtag called #MoreFeministThanCosmo — started by user Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) — questioning Coles’ declaration of its credentials:
My conservative Mormon mother is approx. 10000 times #MoreFeministThanCosmo
— FATHERLESS HUSK (@Menshevixen) December 3, 2013
My two dumb cats are #MoreFeministThanCosmo
— allisonkilkenny (@allisonkilkenny) December 3, 2013
The bacteria found around an ocelot’s anus is #MoreFeministThanCosmo
— Emperor von Bears (@halfabear) December 3, 2013
Nicholas Sparks movies are #MoreFeministThanCosmo
— Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) December 3, 2013
So on and so forth. You get the point. Yet Joanna Coles is not incorrect in her implication that Cosmopolitan is reaching more women better than the “left-wing academics” she spoke of. Cosmopolitan is the most famous women’s magazine in America. It has an enormous global reach as well: 64 international editions and is published in 100 countries. It’s far more likely that the average American woman will pick up Cosmo and read about equal pay or how to find her clitoris while she’s getting her nails done than she will read a book by bell hooks or Judith Butler. That might be a hard pill to swallow, but the reality is that most people get their news from the mainstream media. For that reason, I’m thrilled — genuinely thrilled —the editor of Cosmo actually is concerned with talking about reproductive choice and equal pay.
When most of us think of Cosmo, we envision a starlet in leopard print pouting on the cover surrounded by headlines with no fewer than six references to orgasms. The articles inside are bite-size tidbits of beauty products, embarrassing stories, and H-O-T-T sex tips. That’s still the basic recipe. But since Coles, formerly of New York magazine, MORE and Marie Claire, took the helm of Cosmopolitan in late 2012, the magazine has included more material on political issues effecting women, especially reproductive rights issues, and drastically amped up career advice content. It has published numerous ‘serious’ journalism pieces, like an article about consequences for delaying marriage on women’s lives by Irin Carmon, a former writer for Jezebel, Salon.com and now at MSNBC.com. Seeing those types of pieces (which also appear in women’s magazines like Elle and Marie Claire, both magazines always considered smarter than Cosmo) gives me hope for its current direction.
However, where Joanna Coles erred in speaking was when she dissed “left-wing academics,” who, ultimately, are responsible for generating the ideas her editors and writers put forth. I would include unpaid/lowpaid bloggers and unpaid/low-paid feminist nonprofit workers in this camp as well. The mainstream media — with its reach and power — broadcasts those ideas to the broader audience, but it doesn’t generate those feminist concepts (like “equal pay for equal work”) on its own. Additionally, it relies on the sources it interviews for those articles. Coles, in her powerful role, has sneered at the very people she should be working hand in hand with.
Because Cosmopolitan is not flawless in its feminism and she likely understands that. It’s still a mainstream media women’s magazine beholden to advertisers who airbrush the hell out of their models and push a thin, pretty, white, straight-looking beauty ideal. And the word “Cosmopolitan” is literally synonymous with “how to please your man” jokes. Bad Girls Go Everywhere, the biography of legendary Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown, describes in detail all the ways she was — and was not — a pioneer for women in the real of women’s sexual agency but problematically encouraged women to exploit their femininity. Many writers, including our own Julie Gerstein, have pointed out how this “stiletto feminism” misses the mark on true gender justice. Additionally, the magazine has a long way to go to be a truly intersectional feminist publication: the wide, wide majority of articles are aimed at straight, presumed-to-be-white women. “Feminism-lite” is a far more accurate description of the mag’s feminism.
I acknowledge the areas Cosmo does contribute in some ways to the oppression of women, as does The Frisky, and Elle, and Marie Claire, and Jezebel, and any other publication that isn’t explicitly feminist. But still, I’m willing to allow Cosmopolitan be an entry point to some feminist ideas to women and girls feminism might not otherwise reach. Feminist ideals are never going to be integrated into society if they only reach people who are privileged and well-educated enough to attain them through a university education, higher-brow magazines which are not as accessible as Cosmo (due to the effects media of consolidation), or the luck of your upbringing. It’s downright silly to criticize the magazine for not being a ‘zine handmade by Kathleen Hanna, because that’s frankly not what the average woman in America will be willing or able to access.
We all come from different entry points as women to feminist. I’m glad this entry point exists.
*** Full disclosure: I published a personal essay in Cosmopolitan a year ago.
Email me at Jessica@TheFrisky.com. Follow me on Twitter.