Sex and the Women's Magazine

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3m 21sec

Back in the sexual dark ages, feminist pioneer Betty Friedan cast a stern eye on the pap to which women were being subjected in the glossy pages of the magazines addressed to them. In Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s, Redbook, and the like, she scornfully observed in The Feminine Mystique (1963), there was a superabundance of drivel: an article on overcoming an inferiority complex, a short story about a teenager who doesn’t go to college winning a man away from a bright college girl, and much, much more.

"The men who run the women’s magazines," Friedan said, seemed to have a low opinion of women.

"Where is the world of thought and ideas, the life of the mind and spirit?"

It’s still a good question, observes Hal Colebatch, author of Blair’s Britain (1999), now that women’s magazines in the English-speaking world are edited not by men but "overwhelmingly or entirely by women."

At his local newsstand, the cover of Cosmopolitan offered these enticements: "Should I stay or should I go now? Take our ditch-or-hitch test" and "The Big Bang: How to Be a Show-Off in Bed." On Marie Claire: "Women Who Kidnap Their Own Children," "Are you sleeping with the Right Man?," and " ‘I had sex lessons to save my relationship.’ " On She Australia: "Cameron Diaz on her $38 boob job and why Mariah Carey drives her crazy." No less "intellectually vacuous" than the old magazines, the new ones have added "baseness [and] decadence," Colebatch writes in the Australian journal Quadrant (Sept. 1999).

For the most part, argues Alexandra Starr, an editor of the Washington Monthly (Oct. 1999), women’s magazines today "are pushing the same message they were half a century ago: Women’s existence revolves around landing the right guy. Except these days, the seduction isn’t accomplished through baking the perfect cake, sculpting your nails, or making sure your hemline isn’t crooked." It’s accomplished instead through sex, sex, sex. "In 1961 Redbook ran an article cautioning young women that premarital hanky-panky could mean giving up any chance of walking down the aisle; today the magazine advises readers on how to drive men wild." That is what readers want, according to Bonnie Fuller, who succeeded long-time editor Helen Gurley Brown at Cosmopolitan (circulation 2.3 million) in 1997 and then long-time editor Ruth Whitney at Glamour (circulation 2.1 million) the following year. "What Fuller gave them at Cosmo," writes Katherine Rosman, a staff writer for Brill’s Content (Nov. 1998), "was a redoubled emphasis on sex. Even Brown, who in 32 years at the magazine was endlessly castigated by feminists and conservatives alike for her devotion to sex-related articles, says Cosmo is now ‘much sexier than I would have gone.’ "

"Why," asks Starr, "do women lap this stuff up?" Her answer: "Well, ladies’ economic fortunes may no longer turn on landing the right guy, but... women want to be perceived as attractive." So do today’s men.

In fact, women’s magazines and men’s magazines such as Maxim (circulation 1.3 million) and Gear are becoming increasingly indistinguishable in their outlooks, contends National Journal (Oct. 2, 1999) correspondent William Powers. "A wave of polymorphously perverse, gender-bending madness has swept across the American newsstand.... Women are trading tips on how to improve their abs and get hot men into the sack. Men are studying clothing layouts and fantasizing about life as a top fashion model." Though most of the magazines "seem to be written for the ‘slow’ reading group of an average fourth-grade class," he says, they "offer evidence that’s more reliable than any opinion poll or labor-market statistic of the ways that feminism has changed the culture—probably permanently."



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