I would not want to be a Cosmogirl. The other day I picked up some copies of Cosmopolitan from the library sale table and was struck by how . . . pathetic is the apparent target reader, the 3,000,000-some Cosmogirls who buy the magazine (over half from a newsstand) and who seem really, really, to need a man. It is full of articles about finding a man, finding a good man, keeping a man, and pleasing a man, and though most are written in a bright and chirpy voice, the urgency and even desperation are not hard to see.
The magazine and its peers (Glamour, InStyle, Self, and the like) have a gospel of the good life that they preach as vigorously as any street evangelist. And people like it. It clearly speaks to them. These magazines sell over thirteen million copies a month, over half on the newsstand. People, presumably youngish women, pick up this stuff on impulse. Theirs is a gospel you wish no one will accept.
On the surface, Cosmopolitan portrays in bright zingy prose the exciting adventurous uninhibited life of the sexually-free single woman. This is what their readers must think of themselves, or what they want to think of themselves. That is bad enough.
But below the surface, and not too far below it at that, the magazine deals with their target reader’s anxieties and fears, and her surprising need for male approval. The main impression the magazine gives of its readers is that although they may be liberated from societal expectations for female chastity and from any need to find fulfillment in marriage and family, they are not strong, independent women. They are women out of a fifties television show. That is worse.
In Cosmo’s world, a woman needs a man like a fish needs water.
At one level, the level of the cover story, sexual intimacy seems to mean nothing to the Cosmogirl. It is a recreation, diversion, exercise, social event, product. It comes with all sorts of practical problems, like avoiding pregnancy and disease and emotional commitments when you don’t want them, but it doesn't mean anything in itself. Sexual intimacy has no more moral status than the choice of Thai or French when you go out to eat.
It is not, as portrayed in Cosmopolitan, significantly different an activity from shopping or eating out or any other enjoyable form of consumption. Maybe a little special, in the sense that the right man can’t be bought off the rack or ordered from the menu, but the specialness derives from the difficulty of acquiring what you want, not from what you do with him.
Yet at the same time, the Cosmogirls clearly want sex sometimes to lead to love or at least some kind of commitment, or at least to a “relationship,” undefined as that is. Many if not most of the stories give hints for finding and binding men who otherwise would remain free. The readers want sex to be “special,” and they have tried to maintain some idea of sex as “special” while rejecting all the traditional moral limits that made it special in practice.
If you don’t see Cosmopolitan, think of the average PG-13 movie, thriller or romance, in which promiscuous people suddenly find their life partner to whom (the audience is supposed to think) they will be faithful forever, though they had been unfaithful to dozens of others before this. Despite their previous experience, their going to bed together, usually on very short acquaintance, is presented as if it were the wedding night of virgins.
That is the Cosmo ideal. A love that lasts only as long as you want it to last. A love that you can speak of as if it were eternal, then drop when you want to. A love that is “special” though there is not a clergyman in sight.
It doesn’t work. In practice, you cannot make something “special” when you have rejected the practical moral limits and replaced them with abstractions like “love” and “commitment” and “relationship.” Too many people will simply have as many loving and committed relations as they can manage, till “special” means only “special to me at this time.” From this, many people will begin to believe that sex is not special at all, or no more special than dinner at a mid-priced restaurant or any other pleasure requiring some effort and sacrifice but not much.
The sexual liberationists tore down the walls of the garden and are still trying to pretend the garden is as beautiful as it was, despite all the weeds that blew in when the wall went down and have now pretty much taken over. They would rather insist that the weeds are beautiful than rebuild the wall and have to admit that many walls, once destroyed, cannot be rebuilt.
A few years ago, the English newspaper The Daily Telegraph ran a profile of the magazine’s founder, Helen Gurley Brown, then 81. She says, speaking of her early sixties best-seller Sex and the Single Girl:
All the suggestions about pleasing men are as viable as ever,” she says in her soft, papery voice, perhaps the only indication of her age. “Whatever age you are, you should be flattering to a man about the way he looks, telling him how attractive he is. And you should be very flattering to his penis. You should tell him how beautiful it is, how attractive, how irresistible.
And yes, despite saying this sort of thing, she considers herself, and is considered, a feminist.
Now the tide is turning and she is once again being recognised as the prototype feminist, a status of which she is very proud. “I was there before Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique. I was there saying, 'You're your own person, go out there and be somebody . . .'. You don't have to get your identity from being somebody's appendage.
Reading the rest of the profile, which describes her ardent, or desperate, and either way clearly doomed, pursuit of good looks, I can only ask, “What good is being a feminist if it makes you into Helen Gurley Brown?” It’s quite sad, having feminists who feel they must praise men’s penises, and then insist that they have freed themselves from being any man’s appendage.
Maybe I’m only reflecting my upbringing and culture, but of the two extreme errors, I think the hard feminist one the better of the two. Far better to be a tubby lesbian in overalls digging in a garden out in the New England countryside than a Cosmogirl. Oh, much, much, better. There is a woman who can stand on her own two feet, not one who simpers and mewls in pursuit of a man.
But better still, infinitely better, would be to be one of the strong single women of Christian culture, the Dorothy Days and Mother Teresas, the nuns, and others not so prominent. Blessed are they who do not worry about finding and keeping a man because they know the Man.
David Mills is Deputy Editor of First Things . His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.