Media, The Cosmopolitan Woman, and

The Cosmopolitan Critic

Above are Cosmopolotan covers through the ages. Note the way the women on the cover are posed, the way they are dressed, and their age-ranges. All the covers are extremely bright, and each woman is wearing a tight, cleavage exposing outfit. All the women are smiling and and in their mid-twenties or early thirties. One cover has a man on it, and he and his female companion are in a pose suggesting a relationship. Furthermore, the women's heads are always covering the Cosmopolitan text.


Cosmopolitan began in 1886 as a basic general interest magazine.  Then came the 1960s.  Peace, love, and sexual liberation became the norm.  Helen Gurley Brown, an author, became editor-in-chief of the failing Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1965 and made it into the "must-read for young, sexy single chicks".  Its popularity skyrocketed and it eventually became the number-one-selling monthly magazine on newsstands.  Helen had a unique vision for the magazine.  She wanted it to reach out to the new generation of women that emerged during the sixties- the women who were working men's jobs and having premarital sex.   "I wanted my magazine to be their best friend, a platform from which I could tell them what I'd learned and talk about all the things that hadn't been discussed before.  I wanted to tell the truth:  that sex is one of the three best things out there, and I don't even know what the other two are," Helen said.   Since then, the magazine has acted as an important agent of social change, encouraging women to pursue their wants in all aspects of life, both sexual and professional. 

Cosmo is known as being outrageous, but how far is too far?  With blurbs on its covers such as “100 Naughty Sex Questions”, “What Men Find HOT”,  “The Sex Angle that Intensifies Female Pleasure”, “Own His Orgasm”, “Wicked Things Other Women Do In Bed”, and “First, Take Off His Pants”, is Cosmopolitan pushing the envelope too much?  Many, including conservatives and feminists both, have criticized Cosmopolitan over the years for a variety of reasons.  Conservatives were disgusted at the blatant sexuality of the magazine, while feminists hated the emphasis on pleasing men and beauty.  

Today, even with its many critics, Cosmopolitan Magazine is one of the most popular magazines in the United States and throughout the world. Aimed mainly at women age twenty and up, this magazine dictates the popular trends and ideals among its readers. It covers topics relating to sex, men, beauty, and style for women. The purpose of my Anthropology of Media project is to analyze and explore the "Cosmopolitan Woman" that purchases and reads Cosmopolitan Magazine each month. What leads her to pick Cosmo out of the slew of magazines on newsstands?  Is it the provocative blurbs?  The friendly, sexy poses of the famous, hip women?  Is it their dazzling smiles, or the promise of their sincere advice inside the magazine? What do these blurbs say about the culture the readers of Cosmo?  More importantly, is the Cosmopolitan Woman representative of feminine liberation?  Or is she instead restricted by men and society's demands for physical, sexual, and professional perfection?  

My project will explore the success of Cosmopolitan and its fan base.  I will illuminate the community that can be found within the solitude of its perfectly glossy pages by comparing the covers of Cosmopolitan magazines, focusing on the layout and text blurbs on covers from July 2010 to November 2010.  Utilizing a wide array of sources both scholarly and primary, I will create an in depth illustration of today's media-infused Cosmopolitan woman, explain how she has evolved throughout history, and make speculations as to what may be in store for her in the future.  Additionally, I will evaluate the femininity and sexuality of Cosmopolitan, questioning the materiality of its content in terms of true female liberation in the modern day.  


This video gives a behind-the-scenes look at Jessica Alba's photoshoot for the September 2010 cover.


What, exactly, does Cosmopolitan Magazine itself mean to the young women who purchase it each month?  It is these women, after all, who have made Cosmo the most popular women's magazine in America.  Why does the twenty-something, Cosmopolitan women choose this particular magazine over its competitors, like Glamour or Marie Claire? Her choice of literature certainly has something to say about her values, opinions, and sexuality.  The Cosmopolitan woman sees the magazine on newsstands, and is immediately attracted to its wild, eye-catching blurbs.  Perhaps she wants to learn about the "Wicked Things Other Women Do in Bed", or how to "Get Killer Abs in 6 Minutes a Day" (October and November 2010 Issues). Perhaps she thinks that this information will somehow transform her life, or maybe she just wants to learn about good sex and how to get nice abs.  Either way, Cosmo has become an important part of many women's lives. "Cosmopolitan is the life stylist for millions of fun fearless females who want to be the best they can be in every area of their lives," according to  The covers of Cosmopolitan suggest a fun, fearless and sexually uninhibited image.  The women on the covers are typically young and middle aged famous women.  They are dressed up and looking very feminine, smiling to the world in a come-hither fashion.  Their airbrushed bodies are surrounded by sexually explicit "blurbs" in flamboyant typefaces, fonts, and colors.  Below are blurbs from  Cosmopolitan issues from July 2010 through November 2010.  


July 2010

99 New Sex Facts:  Every Forbidden Fascinating Detail You Want to Know…and Only Cosmo Will Tell You
The #1 Love Instinct You Should Ignore
What Men Find Hot:  They Rate Their Favorite Looks
H'wood Heartbreak "LeAnn Rimes Stole My Husband"
20 Naughty Things to Do in the Dark
Shakira: Why She Won't Be Tamed by Marriage 
8 Foods That Keep You Slim All Summer
The Sexy Secret to Making Smart Decisions
VAGINAS UNDER ATTACK: Don't Let a Greedy Gyno Talk You Into This Horrible Mistake

August 2010

NAUGHTY, NAUGHTY SEX POLL: It's Official: We Got 2,000 Men to Reveal, "Do This, Not That" in Bed
Together Forever?  How to Still Flirt With Him
Feel Sexier Instantly: 50 Quick Tricks
Two Lists Every Cosmo Girl Needs
Catching Up With Britney Spears
The Sex Angle That Intensifies Female Pleasure (Call it G-Spot Geometry)
Inhaled the Whole Pizza? How Not to Gain Pounds After a Pig-Out
Sex Extras
*Give Off a Good-in-Bed Vibe
*Sex During Your Period (It's So Worth It)

September 2010

GUY SEX CONFESSIONS: 37 Things He Doesn't Have the Balls to Tell You
The Touch That Calms Him During a Fight
Untamed Va-jay-jays: Guess What Sexy Style is Back
283 Fall Looks
Jessica Alba: How She Keeps Her Career and Love Life on Fire
Seduce Him!  This Sexy Move Works From 20 Feet Away
10 Songs Proven To Boost Happiness
PLUS: Slim Your Thighs in 6 Minutes a Day

October 2010

Naughtiest SEX Q&A: 100 Answers in 20 Words or Less. We Tell You Every Crazy, Dirty Thing You're Dying to Know.  
The Part of You He's Craving More Of
Own His Orgasm (What Men Secretly Want Right Before Blast Off)
5 Signs He's THE ONE
Lauren Conrad: She Finally Lost the Drama and Found Real Love
Is He STD-Free? How to Check. 
-Fall's Cutest Coats
-25 Beat New Beauty Buys

November 2010

FIRST TAKE OFF HIS PANTS: Next, Treat Him to the Sexy Strokes He's Been Craving All ALong…but Won't Ask For
The One Time to Always Tell Him "I Love You"
"Sh*t My Boyfriend Says": Girls Vent About the Most Du,b-Ass Stuff They've Heard From Guys
What Your Turns Ons Reveal
Katy Perry: On Russell, Cleavage, and Staying on Top
Wicked Things Other Women Do in Bed (Our Naughtiest Sex Poll)
Are You Too Big of a Bitch--to Yourself? 
PLUS Get Killer Abs in 6 Minutes a Day
(Cosmopolitan Issues July 2010-November 2010)

The cover construction and overtly sexual blurbs draw it's loyal readers in, however it is the source of disgust for many critics.  One sociological website documents the transformation of Cosmo from a general interest magazine to the sexually explicit magazine that it is today, citing Helen Gurley Brown's takeover as the catalyst in the magazine's change. It quotes Kurt Vonnegut as saying that Cosmopolitan was a "sex manual", and elaborating that "Indeed, browsing through the cover art of the past few years gives one the impression that there are an infinite number of sex positions. It is hard to feel sexually liberated while reading a magazine that talks about the vagina (or Hoo-Ha) like it’s something you can buy at a pet store. They have also been criticized for perpetuating a nearly impossible standard of beauty and for retouching models to make them appear thinner. Today Cosmopolitan retains almost no remnants of its origins. It is fascinating to see how it has shifted with the culture and how our culture has changed because of it" (McGuire,Guest Post: The Evolution of Cosmopolitan Magazine). In this exerpt, Cosmopolitan is framed in a negative light.  Disdain can also be seen in the comments on the article from "feminists" who criticize Cosmo and its blurbs.  The women writing obviously do not identify themselves as Cosmopolitan Women, yet they still seem  "fun and fearless", or liberated, enough to publicly pick apart the popular magazine.  Below are several comments in response to the blog post on the website:


sapphirecat  7:51 pm on April 27, 2010 | # | Reply
Recently, supermarkets in my area have started obscuring the cover of Cosmo on the racks. Of course, most of the issues have “SEX” in huge, heavy letters, along with something about pleasing yourself or your man…
Kalani  12:01 am on May 2, 2010 | # | Reply
It’s not that it’s “all just sex manuals”, it’s that it dumbs down everything, including sex, and encourages women to be something that many of us have no intention of being– such as uninterested in things besides clothes and men. And not honest relationships, but manipulative tactics, bad advice, and a VERY strong focus on changing oneself for someone else.
amy  12:24 pm on April 27, 2010 | # | Reply
“She brought with her the message of sexual freedom for single women, and started replacing the cover illustrations with photos of young models in minimal clothing.” It’s hilarious that sexual freedom for women means *women* wear very little and are there to be looked at. Sexual freedom for straight men usually implies that they’re free to look at and desire *women*, not free to turn *themselves* into sex objects. Faux liberation strikes again.

After several more Cosmo-bashing comments I finally found something amazing…a response from a Cosmo Woman herself!  


Christie  9:50 am on May 3, 2010 | # | Reply
Hello! Christie, the Senior Web Editor for, here. I think it’s great you dug up those old covers…and it’s an interesting post! For those of you interested in seeing more, I just wanted to pass on our online Cosmo Cover Gallery, which has covers from the past 10 years.


Christie certainly has a lot of her identity invented in the magazine, as she works there. Her "fun and fearless" attitude shines through in a way, because she is remaining professional while trying to defend her magazine, and indirectly, her character.  No one seemed to want to fight with the Christie the Cosmo Woman.  The only response to her post was this:


d henderson  10:41 pm on May 21, 2010 | # | Reply
We really enjoy the older Cosmopolitan magazines. Stunning covers and great literature combined! They should bring back the illustrated cover and excellent literature. Make it smarter. Thanks for the excellent post. You can see some great vintage Cosmo covers here: &
(Comments on McGuire,Guest Post: The Evolution of Cosmopolitan Magazine).


A Cosmopolitan Cover from the 1800s.


A Cosmopolitan Cover from 1957, "devoted to the well-being of you and your family".


Here is the February 1970 issue of Cosmopolitan, under the influence of Helen Gurley Brown. It is at this point that sexuality became a main issue in the magazine, and the Cosmopolitan Woman was born.
Here is a Cosmopolitan cover from July 1980, thirty years ago. The font of the text on the cover is plain and very organized relative to modern covers.The content is also more sexually tame.

Another blog poster wrote, "It appears to be creating and maintaining a flock of sheep that will keep looking at Cosmo as a necessary guide to life, all the time feeding messages along that the most important topics are removing body hair and doing crazy sexual things to “keep your man.”  This blog post is referring to the Cosmopolitan Women as the "flock of sheep" (Sanford, Cosmopolitan Magazine: Good Marketers, or an Audience Full of Sheep?).  I searched the internet for a place where I could find Cosmopolitan women (or "flock of sheep") in a group together, and I finally found it.  Cosmopolitan Magazine's Facebook page has over 600,000 fans.  These women like Cosmopolitan enough to "Like" it on Facebook, and can therefore be considered Cosmopolitan women.  Here I observed their cyber interaction, and commentary on covers and content.  The "profile pictures" of the Cosmopolitan Facebook page were all recent covers, and included were the five magazine covers I chose to analyze for my project.  "Liking" something on Facebook demonstrates your appreciation for it.  The July issue with Shakira on the cover was "Liked" by 202 people.  "i bought this mag. just cuz it had her on the cover ♥ :D" one woman commented.  Another excitedly wrote, "20 naughty things to do in the dark!!!!", commenting on one of the magazine's blurbs.  The August issue with Britney Spears on the cover was "Liked" by 215 people.  Most women commented on how photoshopped her head was, and how strange she looked.  "She doesnt look that pretty on this photo but she is beautiful in real life, BRITNEYMANIA" one wrote in response to the many negative comments about how "ugly" she was.  The September issue with Jessica Alba on the cover was "Liked" by 193 people.  One woman commented "Hot Mama....!!!!!!! yummy3x :-))".  "Sexy….." another woman wrote.   "wow she's back in shape after having her baby..fierce haha" another woman agreed.  The October issue with Lauren Conrad on the cover was "Liked" by 117 people. " I love this girl! She's cute, smart and a sweetheart. That's like the perfect combo. And she reps mark makeup, which btw is awesome. lol :D" a woman wrote.  This comment demonstrated a bit more depth than the others, however this was immediately followed by a sentence about how "awesome" her repping makeup is.  "just bought this one tonight, read it in a hour! love u cosmo!" someone else wrote.   The November issue with Katy Perry on the cover was "Liked" by 133 people.  "Fierce and sexy! whoah, her husband is so lucky" someone wrote.  Another agreed, "DAYYYUUUM sexiest girl to ever be on the cover! ♥" (   These comments demonstrate the importance of "sexiness", "fierceness","yumminess", and overall sexual appeal to the Cosmopolitan ladies.  Likewise, the blurbs and models on the cover of Cosmopolitan demonstrate the importance of these three attributes, manifested by their sexual explicitness, emphasis on sexual appeal to men, and physical appearance.  Perhaps, though, the importance of these things to Cosmopolitan Women is in fact a form on feminine liberation.  Sixty years ago, after all, such blurbs, poses, and social language among women would have been forbidden.  Maybe the critics of Cosmopolitan are the backwards ones- rejecting modern feminine liberation in favor of traditional conservative, or even moderate views.  


A picture from the Cosmo's Bikini Bash: note how the women all look very similar to Cosmo cover models with their big smiles and exposed bodies.


It is clear that women have enjoyed massive gains in their quest to equalize their rights and statuses with men over the years.  The feminist movement occurred in three waves:  the first was in the early 1900's relating to female suffrage, the second took place in the 1960s and 70s, as an attempt to shatter social and cultural inequalities, and the third began in the 1990s as a continuation of the second.  The latter two waves focused on issues of sexuality, family, and the workplace--all on a quest for a true and real type of feminine liberation.  

Cosmopolitan Magazine has held a controversial place in feminist history since it's makeover in 1965.  Cosmopolitan Magazine lovers and Cosmopolitan Magazine critics have remained pitted against each other; each claiming that they are experiencing a real liberation while the others are experiencing a faux liberation. This leads us to question the differentiation between real liberation and fake liberation in terms of femininity and sexuality.  Are the Cosmopolitan Women truly sexually liberated?  Or are they acting in submission to the desires of men with all the effort they put into their appearance and careful construction of sexual character?  What about female critics of Cosmopolitan--are they the real, liberated feminists?  Or are they simply not thinking deep enough, stuck in the simple feminist mentality that Cosmopolitan is over-sexualized?  Before we can understand the reality of modern feminine liberation, we must analyze the magazine itself.  Is it a manual?  Is thought involved in its creation and absorption into millions of youthful female minds?  We must also investigate why so many women find Cosmopolitan an appealing and preferred source of advice, and why others strongly disapprove of it.  Finally, we must question who the real feminists are:  the Cosmopolitan Women or the Cosmopolitan Critics?   

Manual for a Flock of Sheep

The sexually explicit blurbs on the cover of Cosmopolitan attract its readers, but what keeps them coming back every month?  Author Joke Hermes writes, "On the one hand, women's magazines are valued because they fit in easily with every day duties and obligations, whose execution they do not threaten because they are easy to put down.  On the other hand women's magazines need to provide a minimum of diversion and attractive to make them interesting enough to pick up"(Hermes, 64).  Perhaps there is no deeper meaning behind the mysterious attraction of young women to women's magazines like Cosmopolitan.  It is just something easy to read and easy to put down- no representation of any kind of greater liberation or, contrarily, social restriction, at all.  Despite the reasons behind why women actually read Cosmopolitan and magazines like it, it must penetrate into women's minds and subconsciously or consciously affect their behavior.  It seems as though both the Cosmopolitan Women and the Cosmopolitan Critics are part of a herd mentality.  The Cosmopolitan Women are embracing the "fun and fearless" image Cosmopolitan sells them.  Blog commenters described Cosmopolitan as a "manual", criticizing its use of "manipulative tactics" in relationships.  Perhaps the Cosmopolitan Critics are taking the magazine's advice too literally.  If, as Hermes suggests, the magazines are simply convenient parts of many women's days, then the Critic's accusations are unfounded.  The Cosmopolitan Women's comments on on the Cosmopolitan Facebook page are also lighthearted, leading us to wonder if maybe the women are simply having fun and taking control of their roles in relationships and beauty ideals. 

Life Philosophy and Liberation

Hermes suggests that women who read women's magazines do so because they allow them to imagine their "perfect selves".  The content of magazines like Cosmopolitan are in line with the "fantasies, anxieties, and preoccupations" of readers (Hermes, 64).  The Cosmopolitan women fantasize about liberation both sexually and in the workplace.  Cosmopolitan plays into the liberated woman's fantasies by suggesting she can have an amazing life in every facet.  For example, the September 2010 issue's cover has the blurb "Jessica Alba: How She Keeps Her Career and Love Life on Fire".  The Cosmopolitan woman, as her "perfect self", would have both a wonderful career and passionate love life.  In this way, the magazine allows her to fantasize about her perfect self-- liberating her from the notion that a woman can have either a successful business life or a happy life with a husband and children.  Cosmopolitan also addresses women's anxieties and worries.  In the October 2010 issue, "Is he STD Free? How to Check." was a main blurb on the cover.  This information is relevant and important for any sexually active female, and a woman's image of her "perfect self" is free of any potentially life-ruining sexually transmitted disease.  Furthermore, the twenty-something Cosmopolitan Woman, almost universally, is obsessed with body weight and tone.  Cosmopolitan satisfies this preoccupation with a blurb in the November 2010 issue "PLUS Get Killer Abs in 6 Minutes a Day".  Cosmopolitan satiates all of its reader's desires quickly and easily, allowing them hope to become the fantasy version of themselves.  

Transformation and the Quintessential Woman

The Cosmopolitan Woman's fantasies, anxieties, and preoccupations stem from a philosophy of life that suggests going against conservative societal constraints and limits is true feminine liberation.  On the other hand, Cosmopolitan's critics champion "great literature" and a different type of sexual liberation that does not involve "changing oneself for someone else".  Naomi Wolf reasons that the pressures of the beauty myth, society's fixation on physical perfection, is causing immense self hatred and self consciousness among women.  "And then the further the magazine guides the reader on her positive intellectual journey, the further it will drive her at the same time down the troubled route of her beauty addiction" (Wolf, 85). The "beauty addiction" Wolf writes about is the quest to become the flawless, quintessential woman.  Her beauty catapults her success in other areas of her life.  Likewise, the beauty of Cosmopolitan's cover models is emphasized along with the success they have experienced in their careers and personal lives.  They are the quintessential women--the women Cosmopolitan women strive to become. 


 The women--both Cosmopolitan readers and critics-- have stances on liberation disagreeing with one another.  The Cosmopolitan Women seem believe that modern feminine liberation is flaunted and encouraged by the magazine.  They see it as progressive sexual empowerment, the cool, audacious "best friend" that Helen Gurley Brown set out to emulate in 1965.  Cosmopolitan Critics, however, see the magazine as a degradation to femininity.  They consider it a step backward from past gains in sexual liberation, disapproving the emphasis on societal ideals of beauty and sexual attractiveness to men.  One thing is for certain: that both the Cosmopolitan Women and the Cosmopolitan Critics are in search of feminine and sexual empowerment and freedom.  If both continue to do so in the future, at least we will have women speaking their mind--a far cry from the social silence forced upon women in the past.



How does Cosmopolitan Magazine fit in on newsstands: in relation to other magazines and in appearance to readers?



A Glimpse of Cosmopolitan Magazine in thirty seconds...


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