Reclaiming the Mainstream

0 Posted by - January 27, 2012 - Design, Features

100 Best Sex Tips of the Year. Bigger, Better Pleasure. Shrink Your Inner Thighs! The Smile That Gets You What You Want. The Sexy Confidence Men Can’t Resist.

The above are samples of headlines from just the past five issues of Cosmopolitan magazine, a periodical that touts itself as being “for women”. Reading these headlines however, it seems as though this publication is more interested in catering to men, rather than offering a source of empowerment, sexual or otherwise, to women. The articles tantalize young women who are still recovering from the throes of adolescence, the blows to their self-esteem, and so advertisements about how to look sexy, get the guy, and lose that weight offer remedies to all their mental and emotional ails.

Cosmopolitan is an established media enterprise: the magazine has been in publication since 1886, but only became exclusively a women’s magazine in the 1960s. It is the largest women’s magazine in North America, and thus a perfect target for my following objective: to transform a corporate or mainstream media sample into alternative media.

The magazine, while maintaining an influential role as a leading cultural and media entity, has only had eight women of identifiable ethnic or racial minorities—excluding Latina female celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez and Eva Longoria—on the cover in the last ten years. This is eight women out of 139 covers since July 2000. The celebrities included are: Nicki Minaj in November 2011, Kim Kardashian in August 2011, Rihanna in July 2011, Kim Kardashian again in November 2009, Rihanna again in March 2008, Beyonce in December 2007, Beyonce again in February 2006, and Halle Berry in December 2002.

As well, the only ‘overweight’ or heavyset female to be featured on the magazine’s cover is singer Adele, in December 2011, and that was with excessive amounts of digital editing. Since the magazine caters exclusively to successful, sexually-free, fashionable, metropolitan women, it is interesting that there has been no one of Asian or Indian descent on the cover for the past eleven years – implying these demographics do not fit the bill.

When looking at Cosmopolitan, one is struck by the façade it adopts in trying to present itself as a magazine for the “new woman”—a woman that is successful, has a job, is perhaps postponing children, and who will make the first move on a date, while still conforming to the traditional standards of femininity. She may no longer be a homemaker who caters to her husband, but she certainly will still wear stilettos, lip gloss, and her long hair down. She is still bombarded with articles that inform her of how to “snag a man”, except now the idea of desperation is replaced by the fun of being sexually available, without encouraging promiscuity.

All about HIM. Image courtesy of Jesse Lawson (

The articles are explicitly sexual, with every issue offering how best to please a boyfriend/fiancé/husband, from the painstakingly romantic, like lighting candles, to the pornographic, such as step-by-step oral sex instructions. Since this is a woman’s magazine, it would be an interesting experiment to subvert it into actually being about women, dealing with women’s issues, because not all women see relationships as the apex of their life experience.

In my proposed subverted, alternative issue of Cosmopolitan, there is an Indian woman on the cover. Aside from the fact that she is the only woman of her ethnicity to be featured in at least the past eleven years, she is also an intellectual and fiercely creative. Mindy Kaling, while playing a narcissistic, air-headed customer service representative on the television show The Office (where she is also one of the Executive Producers, a title held historically by very few women working in television), is also a respected comedian who has recently published a hilarious book. She is attractive, but her body is of a natural and healthy weight, and she is not dressed in skimpy outfits like the majority of Cosmopolitan cover girls. She is not considered a sex symbol by mainstream standards.

In constructing an alternative version of the most mainstream of women’s magazines, a look at Adela Licona’s article “(B)orderlands’ Rhetorics and Representations: The Transformative Potential of Feminist Third-Space Scholarship and Zines” is important. The subverted Cosmo is intended to have been produced by “authors [who] self-identify as feminist, seek to build and mobilize community, and work to forge alliances across lines of difference for purposes of pursuing agendas that are framed in terms of social justice and equity”[1].

If this is a magazine designed by women for women, then it should be out with patriarchal sentiments that are masquerading as women’s liberation. The new magazine would not deal with fashion and beauty, because there are far more important things to be discussed than these artifices. Instead, like Licona’s ‘zines, it would detail articles about “(the lack of) child care, issues of mental health, body image, poverty, rape, safety, spirituality, colour, sex(ualities), gender, and the confines and artificiality of a dominant dichotomous social order”[2].

The first headline on the reworked cover is “Rape Crisis: Targets & Tactics—How Victim-Blaming Hurts Women,” because rape is subject that is so taboo, despite the fact that the victims of rape are almost exclusively women. Cosmopolitan is currently doing a series of articles about rapes occurring on college campuses in the United States, but these are never headlines. In this alternative version, such an important issue is not relegated to the back pages, because this version offers “third-space subjects a powerful site for self and Other representation without the reductive, phallogocentrism”[3]. The subheading about victim-blaming is important, because it forces women to confront the fact that perhaps they have misjudged other females on the basis of appearance, perhaps they have echoed the sentiments that a raped woman “asked for it.”

Comedian, author and Executive Producer Mindy Kaling

Since Cosmopolitan claims it is about women claiming their sexuality as their own, it is only fair to look at what happens when rapists decide that that reclaimed sexuality belongs to them instead. Rape is an issue that it often relegated to feminist alternative magazines and blogs, as well as activist displays like Slutwalk, but this would make it an issue for everyone, a way for every woman to protect herself, and since it is featured in a well-known magazine, it would hopefully give more women the courage to come forth about her rape, and realize that it was not her fault.

The second headline is “Eating Disorders, the ‘Fashionable’ Fatality: Media’s Corruption of Women.” Eating disorders are rarely discussed in mainstream media, except for the occasional public service announcement or campaign, but mostly it is swept to the side. This is because it is very difficult in mainstream media to draw the line between “sexy skinny” and “scary skinny”. Again, in most women’s magazines, the females that are featured on the covers are often thin, and digitally enhanced or edited to appear even more so.

Despite magazines like Cosmopolitan telling women to love their bodies, they still run articles about weight loss, eliminating jiggling thighs, upper arm fat, and soft stomachs. This is because mainstream media profits off of society’s discontent with themselves, as well as the constant need to improve.

In Licona’s article, a feminist ‘zine called Tater Taught wrote that cosmetic surgery and enhancement is “a privilege in the context of late capitalism…an entrenched system of discipline and control as well as sanctioned and systematized violence carried out on the battleground of women’s bodies”[4]. The practice of using unrealistic images of females as a way to motivate women is a method of control and oppression, so that the female body becomes a commodity for the mainstream media, something that can be bought and sold, targeted for products that promise to deliver the impossible vision of perfection.

Function magazine, another example used in Licona’s article, boldly declared “WOMYN’S…sexuality is a commodity 4 CORPORATE AMERICA. Doesn’t this SCARE YOU? …Why is it attractive to look sooo HELPLESS?”[5]. This was a scream from feminists who felt that the ideals of femininity were in fact engineered by the people that dominate the mainstream market landscape—that is, the white, heterosexual male.

In positioning an article about eating disorders on the front page, the alternative version of Cosmopolitan is calling attention to a practice that is far too often excused. Certainly female celebrities are targeted if they appear dangerously underweight, but even those that are touted as healthy examples of the female body very rarely represent the average size of the North American woman. Since Cosmopolitan’s target audience is young women (those who write in to the magazine are usually between the ages of 18-35), the subject of eating disorders is one that should be given more of a voice, since body image is almost synonymous with female anxiety.

Since women’s magazines often sing the praises of healthy eating, as well, it is also important to draw attention to the increasing rates of the disease orthorexia, which is an eating disorder in which the sufferer is fixated on what they believe to be healthy eating, when in actuality they are depriving themselves of necessary nutrients.

The November, 2010 issue of Cosmo, circulated to 2.9 million in the US alone, tells women to take up gaming in order to get action

While Cosmopolitan applauds women who take charge of their (hetero)sexuality, this alternative version would emphasize a guilt-free lifestyle in all aspects, including eating. It would not offer recipes for chocolate cake that will please “your man” alongside exercises to “tame that muffin top”, stressing the mainstream dichotomy of masculinity and femininity, namely that masculine men are free to indulge, while feminine women must be content to abstain.

The third headline is titled “Queertopia: Giving a Voice to the Voiceless—Queering the Mainstream—FINALLY!,” and gives focus to a demographic of women that are neglected in mainstream media – that is bisexual, lesbian, and transgender females. Again, since Cosmopolitan is the most successful women’s magazine in North America, as well as having a British edition available for purchase in Canada and the United States, to be truly representative of all women, it should include issues related to women of all sexualities, not just the heterosexual norm.

Cosmopolitan articles usually focus on how to please male partners, offering countless sex tips, sexual positions, sexual games, etc. all targeted at opposite-sex couples. In the article “How to Queer Mainstream Media and Progressively Start a Revolution,” author Katrina C. Danger discusses how queer media is so often relegated to the status of alternative, and how the site where she blogs, Autostraddle, is referred to solely as a “lesbian blog”[6]. Lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people are so marginalized in the mainstream media, relegated to a flamboyant character on a television show or a plot twist in a film, that this subverted magazine would do what Danger is attempting to do with her writing, which is to make it accessible to other people, because sexuality is not the strict binary that so many people would like to believe [7].

The alternative version of Cosmopolitan would seek to reveal “the multiplicity, fluidity, and even instability of sexual subjectivities across a spectrum of time and space…re-imagin[ing] a spectrum of sexuality and materializ[ing] the subversion of the dichotomous (mis)representations of sexual subjectivity”[8]. Within the magazine, there are often excerpts from erotica novels that position females in a position of submission, with males as the dominant aggressors. Instead, the alternative version would depict female-on-female erotica, or other queer story lines, because non-heterosexual people obviously have sexual needs and desires as well, which are not discussed in mainstream media.

The re-imagined magazine would allow equal opportunities to all sexualities. By still retaining the sexually suggestive nature that is inherent to Cosmopolitan magazine, it is still an accessible, marketable material, without drawing a “dichotomy of alternative vs. mainstream media or regarding ‘their’ media and ‘our’ media as mutually exclusive”[9].

The final headline on the cover page is “The F Word—Feminism: There, We Said It! How to be YOU, not an Object!” It is necessary to identify this magazine as a feminist magazine by using the actual word “feminism”, because it is so taboo in mainstream society, and thus can easily identify the reworked Cosmopolitan as an alternative medium. Since the word “feminism” conjures up images of bra-burning, hairy-legged, man-hating women, the cover of this magazine would be questioning that stereotype, since it would be a magazine directed at women and women’s issues, presented in an appealing format.

The mainstream version of the magazine claims that it is all for empowering women, which is why it developed such a sexually suggestive tone in the 1970s, when women’s liberation was creating waves. However, that message was lost and now, aside from the occasional article on masturbation, the articles on sex focus primarily on the pleasure of the man, on how a woman will rank on his sexual scale, how to keep him always desiring the reader. In this alternative version, women are encouraged to reclaim their sexuality, but not for the pleasure of men. They are applauded for their intellect, their humour, their imagination, their wit, but not to use these as tools to attract a member of the opposite sex.

Instead, they are acknowledged for these because they are personal achievements, ways to reclaim their self-worth, without having it dependent on the approval of someone else.

In Licona’s article, the magazine Mamasita poked fun at the practices of self-improvement spouted in magazines like Cosmopolitan, by running ads for a product called CAN, which promises to dissolve fat, enhance breast size, and generally feminize the body or get a full refund; printing articles that encourage girls to become hyper-feminized and childlike while also sexualized; and to practice pouting and appearing helpless10.

While these are all exaggerated examples of the subject matter in women’s magazines, they are certainly not far off the mark. This new version would expunge the articles on fashion and beauty, on man-baiting and women-hating, instead opting to print article with substance, dealing with issues like rape, abortion, abuse, queer politics, and free-thinking. These are articles that, according to mainstream media, apply only to those who identify as feminist, when in reality they apply to all females.

Cosmopolitan magazine is a magazine whose target demographic is young, often impressionable women. These readers have constantly been fed the ideas that they are not good enough, young enough, thin enough, pretty enough, sexy enough, etc., and this popular magazine does not attempt to dissuade them. Instead, it profits from the collective anxiety, by selling articles promising to make readers more desirable, attractive, fit, successful, and lovable. It is a constant contest to see which woman satisfies the most requirements as dictated by Cosmopolitan.

By reworking the magazine into something that appeals to women’s brains, values, and opinions rather than their insecurities, it becomes something that is alternative, because unfortunately no mainstream magazine completes these tasks. This alt version of the magazine is not attempting to sell its readers anything, but rather encourages them to communicate as people, as women – not as market targets, but as people with real, differentiated voices.

It is perhaps this aspect that makes this new proposed version of Cosmopolitan magazine the most alternative of all.

About the author: Annie Fitzgerald is a fourth year Communications and English student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. She has studied many articles and books on the subjects of feminism, gender biases, female sexual behavior, and eating disorders. After writing this essay for an alternative media class, she promptly cancelled her subscription to Cosmopolitan magazine.

[1] Adela C. Licona, “(B)orderlands and Rhetorics: The Transformative Potential of Feminist Third-Space Scholarships and Zines,” NWSA Journal, 17(2), 2005, 109.
[2] Licona, 110.
[3] Licona, 109.
[4] Licona, 117.
[5] Licona, 115.
[6] Katrina C. Danger, “How to Queer Mainstream Media and Progressively Start a Revolution Online,”, 2011.
[7] Danger, 2011.
[8] Licona, 112.
[9] Danger, 2011.
[10] Licona, 120.

Online resources:
Feministing / Ms. Magazine / Feminisms

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