Women's magazines gave birth to feminism, right? So why do they look like guides to improving your sex techniques so a man will want to marry you?
For me it's always been something like the car-accident syndrome. I try to avert my eyes — I look the other way — I tell myself it's bad forme — I know I'll feel worse for giving in — and then suddenly, reflexively, I look anyway. I can't help it.
I'm talking about the glossy women's magazines on the checkout shelves at the grocery store. They really are revolting. I've never been a regular reader of any of them. The cheap perfume always gives me a headache (would they have to advertise Chanel No. 5 that way? I think not) and after a few stimulating pages about pink sequins and purses just for cell phones, my brain feels like a bowl of oatmeal. I think the glossies actually kill off a few brain cells each time you look at them. Their business must be dependent on slowly leeching the intelligence out of their readers so they'll buy issue after issue without ever noticing that they always say the exact same thing.
But sometimes even I am weak and can't help it. My last episode was somewhat excusable. I got a horrible stomach flu, was hospitalized and IV’d, and by the time I had regained the ability to read I wasn't strong enough for anything more than mind candy. (My more pressing assignments for school, like The Critique of Pure Reason, would have made me relapse for sure.) So my kind-hearted friends, addressing my need, bestowed on me their used glossies for my entertainment. Remarkably enough, they didn't make me worse, except for the headache.
However, even in my feeble and pathetic state, I gradually became aware of something interesting that I'd never noticed before — maybe just because I'd never examined so many glossies at once. The sexual revolution was supposedly facilitated by these women's magazines; Ms. in particular. They brought the top-flight intellectual ideas down to the common woman and empowered her. They taught her to pursue an education. They taught her to cultivate a career. They taught her not to rely solely on men. They taught her that marriage is not the cosmic fulfillment of her life. They taught her to pursue her own sexual satisfaction. Right? I couldn't help but think, though, that all these glossies were really saying the exact opposite; they just claimed so authoritatively to support women's rights that it didn't occur to any of us to argue.
Some weeks after my recovery (I'm fine now, thanks) I thought that perhaps this insight was just post-puking delirium. So I made a trip to the front registers of my friendly neighborhood Walmart to pick up some recent issues and see what they had to say. It turns out that my supposed delirium was really a moment of critical acumen. All the magazines I found conveyed one powerful message: Improve your sex techniques so that a man will want to marry you and make your life complete! No joke. I'll give you real examples.
First we'll take the ubiquitous Cosmopolitan, featuring in January a sultry (and brunette) Cameron Diaz on the cover. Three choice headlines read:
"Sex Tricks That Only Cosmo Would Know: 20 Earth-Quaking Moves That Will Make Him Plead for Mercy — and Beg for More"
"When Not to Do It on the First Date: 19,000 Guys Reveal the New Romance Rules"
"6 Words That Will Make Him Worship You"
A whole fountain of sarcasm springs to mind, but I'll try to restrain myself. Allow me simply to paraphrase the titles to state more clearly the subtext:
"Your Sexual Satisfaction Is Irrelevant: How to Let Him Know That He Can Ignore You as Long as He's Happy!"
"Guys Still Set All the Rules: Women Follow Docilely Like Sheep"
"You're Not Good Enough By Yourself: Lies to Help Change That"
Excuse me. This is feminism?
The others are just the same. February's Mademoiselle lands on the startling insight that delaying sex may actually improve a relationship. (Gee, why didn't I think of that?) As the author remarked, with evident amazement, "For a whopping one-third of our respondents, not before the 10th date." This is followed by an article on what convinces men to marry. (After all, what kind of desirable stud would consent to marriage unless you tricked or threatened him into it?) One real romantic figured he was ready for the Big M once he moved in with his girlfriend. "A couple months into it," he said, "I realized it wasn't as big a deal as I thought it would be. It was like living with my best friend. It just made me want to take the next step and get on with my life." How inspirational. Wouldn't that look nice on a greeting card? To Mlle.'s credit, it does have an article on careers — what to do if your boss is passing you over for a promotion. But given the amount of time you're supposed to invest in the "200 best shoes, bags and fashion hits for spring" so you can guilt-trip the man of your choice into matrimony, how can you be expected to get any work done?
Glamour was the one that actually made me laugh out loud. It couldn't convey more explicitly contradictory messages if it tried. (The supreme contradictions, I must admit, go to the middle-aged mom magazines, like Ladies' Home Journal: "47 Chocolate Fudge Truffle Creme Desserts That Even Karen Carpenter Couldn't Resist!" "Shed 115 Pounds by Valentine's Day Through Starvation and Insomnia!" ...you get the idea.) The upper half of Glamour's cover declared, "Let's Talk About Sex." The three topics-of-the-month were: "23 Erotic Ways to Make Sex With Him Sweeter"; "Sex and Size: Is He Too Big? Are You? How to Maximize Your Pleasure Match" and "Top 5 Things Never To Do Before a Big Date." You gotta give them credit — they didn't split the infinitive on that last one. But the lower half of the cover read: "Da-Da-Ta-Da — The Glamour Bride Guide 2000: 'I Do' Dresses, Hair and Big Day Dos and Don'ts; Plus: How I Met My 'Marry Me' Man." What, the 23 ways to make sex sweeter aren't enough to make him Propose?
The same old tired articles appear across the board. Vogue devotes a whole issue to the history of the supermodel, a good way to insure widespread insecurity and massive investment in beauty products. Even Mode, which showed some initial promise for breaking the glossy mold, gave in to preach its own variation on the theme: Fat girls can have great sex too!
Tell me something. With articles like that, do they really expect me to believe that we've come a long way, baby? You know, at least back in the 40s women could contribute to the war effort at the factory and in the victory garden, and in the 50s they could do housework. Now all they can do, apparently, is obsess over body odor and pray that their bedroom technique is worth the hefty price of marital fidelity. I see no evidence in these mags for 30 years of triumphant feminism. As far as I can tell, real feminism hasn't hit these magazines at all yet. They're just operating under a new version of women-as-sex-objects. The really pathetic part is that they agree to it!
Now let's do a little compare-and-contrast. Keep in mind that these magazines think that women's lives ought to consist of two parts: 1) working in a manner indistinguishable from men, and 2) being great in bed. Tell me if you think that is more enlightened than, say, this passage I ran across the other day, which I think is worth quoting at length:
Before you can develop your inner resources of beauty, you have to understand what a woman is and what your assets as a woman are. First of all, you are an individual and creative human being — completely unique among millions of other unique and creative human individuals. What you are and have to give to the world is your own and yours only. Each of us can take precious pride in this fact.
Next, you must remember that you need and want love. Perhaps this love is best found in marriage and motherhood, yet finding and giving love are not restricted to this field. Many women have lived rich and satisfying lives without having been married. However, every woman should believe and accept the fact that she wishes to marry. Her chances of finding enduring love are better if she accepts the fact of this wish. Yet no woman can restrict her love to her husband and children. As she becomes emotionally mature, her love spreads out of the home into those lives that surround her.
Third, you should remember that woman are dependent on men, just as men are dependent on women. Women and men, and individual men and women, have different needs and different qualities. None is complete; we all need others and are needed by others. Women and men are different, have different needs and resources. On the basis of this, the work they go into and the legal and economic status of men and women should be different. A man, for example, does not need the legal right to maternity leave from his job — a woman does. Married men with families need a higher salary rating than single, unmarried women. Both men and women have to work together toward creating the best conditions for each and for both to live happily in their work and home life.
Women often have more varied capacities than men and therefore can have and may need more factors in their lives than men. Women usually are the sustaining, patient factor in a relationship, whereas men are more adventurous. Your business as a woman is to hold life together, to link the generations, to sustain traditions as well as to demand better homes and schools for your children.
If you would be beautiful, try to develop the factors in your life that do most to satisfy your feminine nature — your need to have and give love, your need to nurture and protect, your need to sustain and support the work of your husband, boss, or business associates. And remember, the more attractive you appear and the deeper your sense of inward beauty, the greater will be the confidence others have in you.
Honestly, is there anything in there that you disagree with that isn't expressed, just a whole lot more crassly, in women's magazines these days? And doesn't this passage offer a much more positive vision of the role of women in the world and their interdependence with men? Isn't it just plain beautifully written? I wonder if it's any coincidence that it comes from Family Circle's Complete Book of Beauty and Charm, copyright 1961.
It's time to face the music, girls. Women's magazines like Cosmo and Glamour aren't journals of fashion or cosmetics or relationship counseling. They are pornography for women, plain and simple. Your mind and heart deserve better. Do yourself a favor and throw the glossies out.
Copyright 2000 Sarah E. Hinlicky. All rights reserved.