Cosmo's new feminist focus

Sunday, 4 March 2012

What happens when the ultimate men-and-diets magazine does equality?

One of my pet subjects to analyse, keep track of and, yes, rant about is the way women's magazines approach the subject of feminism. It used to be that they wouldn't touch it with a bargepole; feminism was something cringeworthy and outdated that seemed so out of place until the middle of the Noughties. Then gender issues got cool again. Okay, this happened at least five years ago but it's only in the last couple of years that mainstream women's magazines have wised up to the fact women actually care about gender equality and have started covering it again.

They've got a host of new books and new protests to reference. And a host of women - always referred to as "the new feminists" - to profile. But what really gets me, to the extent that I wrote about it at length last year, is the limited and clichéd way in which they approach the multifaceted awesomeness that is feminism. We're talking repeated references to Sex and the City, Katie Price and high heels. Reducing gender equality to a set of rules: "Can you wear makeup and be a feminist?" - "Can you have a boyfriend and be a feminist?". They'll interview activists doing amazing work and shoehorn in stuff about lipstick and fashion.

It's really irritating and really patronising. Irritating because it attempts to cause division about what makes an acceptable feminist. Don't worry, girls, you can believe in equality and still get a Brazilian! Patronising, because it seems to ignore the fact that women are capable of thinking about serious issues without having to see references to vajazzling painfully woven in. We know women are entitled to be into clothes and celebrities. But they do have other concerns.

To be fair, some magazines have been doing some good work of their own by promoting awareness of issues like domestic violence and workplace discrimination. And with International Women's Day coming up, I've been wondering what coverage gender issues would be receiving this month. Enter Cosmopolitan magazine, celebrating its 40th birthday and running a new campaign all about using "the F word".

The premise is, of course, that lots of women today don't like using the word, or might not even know what it's all about. So Cosmo's hoping to change that - running a campaign to close the gender pay gap, getting celebrities to talk about why they use "the F word", and taking part in the Women of the World festival in London next week. The thing I'm left wondering though, is how does this all fit with the magazine's steady stream of "Get a man! Keep that man! Get a better body! Lose weight!"? Its focus on men, dating and sex "tips" is legendary and much-parodied.

So when Cosmo editor Louise Court went head to head with feminist blogger Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour on Monday, how did she deal with the accusation that, well, women want more than dating tips and body image hypocrisy? Rhiannon, who writes for brilliant new feminist blog The Vagenda, wondered if the magazine could do with changing the record if it wanted to be more supportive of women's issues. Louise didn't agree. Her argument centred on the fact that women must want to read about that kind of thing, because Cosmo shifts plenty of copies - 1.6 million of them, to be precise. She wondered why women who complain about magazines like Cosmo don't just set up an alternative. Rhiannon asked if she thought it was good that teenage girls might be getting negative messages from the relentless focus on appearance and pleasing a man - Louise replied that actually, plenty of older women are into Cosmo, because they're newly single and want to know - I quote - "about the new rules of dating". Erm, yay?

I'm not buying it. I know for a fact that women do get sick of standard women's magazine fodder, which is outdated and repetitive. I think that when journalists refuse to acknowledge this, they're underestimating their readership. I do think it's good when mainstream magazines cover feminism. But I think they have to be careful that they don't reduce it down to something with no substance and no passion in their quest to make it appealing to a new audience.

The new edition of Cosmo is now out. Included, one of its "10 rules for living the Cosmo life": "Outshine your male colleagues in that early meeting - all while wearing stilettos and a bodycon pencil skirt. Feminist and fabulous? Hell, yeah!". When the magazine takes part in the Women of the World festival, well-known women will take the "for" and "against" sides in a debate called "Can you vajazzle and be a feminist?" It's not filling me with hope for the future of Cosmo's relationship with gender equality, let's put it that way. Let's move away from the clichés, and towards an approach to empowering women that actually seems genuine.

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I fell out of love with lifestyle magazines a year ago, (I'm only 21), and agree that the 'feminism' in women's publications is a just another sales tool employed by the writers to increase their readership and up advertising revenue but you should know that Cosmopolitan was acutally released as a femenist agenda magazine. And that was way back in the 70s. Unfortuately, it's not confined to the previous decade alone.
@LoveFromSarahA x

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