Cosmo, as both a magazine and a worldwide brand, is full of contradictions. Most basically, it’s a publication that became what it was thanks to Helen Gurley Brown, a powerful and sometimes revolutionary woman — and at the same time, its content can look neither empowering nor revolutionary. In the New York Times magazine this weekend, Edith Zimmerman highlighted these contradictions. She cites headlines like “Eeek! You’ll Die When You Read What These ‘Normal’ Guys Wanted Once Their Pants Hit the Floor” (from American Cosmo) and “Oops! My V Zone Is Strange!” (from the South Korean version, which underscore the mag’s reputation as, in one of her friends’ words, “trash.” But then she quotes the editor of Cosmo Kazakhstan’s message to her readers: “You are strong, you can control your life, you can earn as much as men do and you can have sex before marriage and not be condemned by society.” It’s messages like this that make Cosmo tough to dismiss.
That’s what Gail Dines would like readers to do, though. In a Guardian response to Zimmerman’s piece, Dines (who also wrote a polemic against pornography) argues that Cosmo is materialistic and obsessively focused on pleasing men, and that instead, women deserve “a bestselling magazine that devoted itself to giving women great orgasms on our own terms.”
I used to cover women’s magazines as part of my job, and so I had to read Cosmo religiously for a couple of years. I bought it with some embarrassment, especially the time the cover had a special medallion that read, “For Naughty Girls Only.” I was bothered less by the magazine’s materialism (if memory serves, its fashion and beauty recommendations were far more affordable than those of other women’s titles) or its man-pleasing tips (often more ridiculous than anything else) than by its relationship advice. Cosmo seemed to think men and women were incapable of verbal communication, and that they needed a series of quizzes and body language charts to prevent them from killing each other. The magazine was far from perfect, and now that I no longer have to buy it, I don’t.
But I don’t hate it. Helen Gurley Brown, whom Zimmerman credits with creating the mag’s “frank, sexy tone,” had plenty of objectionable opinions, but she was also one of the first people to state publicly that it was okay for women to want to work and to have sex, and not to want to get married. And various editions of Cosmo around the globe appear to be carrying on this message, from Kazakhstan to Indonesia, whose head Cosmo editor told Zimmerman, “Before Cosmo, it was taboo for women to talk about sex openly.”
I too would like a magazine about having great orgasms on our own terms (actually, publications that discuss that do exist on the internet). But I also want to acknowledge a magazine that opened doors to talking about sex in the first place, and that seems to be still doing so around the world — and the legacy of a female entrepreneur who, for all her faults, wanted women to succeed. Cosmo occupies a major place in women’s history, and for some women, their present. It’s very far from perfect, but let’s not pretend it’s not important.