Laziness, vanity, and the ‘reach-around’: Why men read Cosmo

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

In The Second Sex, feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir wrote that of all the myths surrounding womanhood, “none is more firmly anchored in masculine hearts than that of the feminine ‘mystery.’ ... [It] permits an easy explanation of all that appears inexplicable…. Instead of admitting his ignorance, [man] perceives the presence of a ‘mystery’ outside himself: an alibi, indeed, that flatters laziness and vanity at once.”

Every man I know, myself included, is to some degree a fan of the magazine Cosmopolitan. And while Beauvoir may have railed against the concept of the feminine mystique, calling it an excuse for male ignorance and egotism, after combing through the last 50 years of Cosmopolitan, I think the magazine does quite a bit more to defray than perpetuate the idea that women are an utterly unsolvable mystery.

Beauvoir died in 1986 — exactly 100 years after Cosmopolitan began circulating. It began as a family magazine with a section devoted to women’s interest, which included articles on fashion, household maintenance, cooking, and childrearing. Sometime thereafter it dropped all the “family” stuff and sought to capture as its audience solely women. It’s a fantastic lens through which to examine American (feminine) culture since the 1950s — and like women themselves, the details have changed drastically, but the magazine’s overarching allure endures.

Fifty years ago, Cosmo was mostly illustrated fiction, publishing stories of romance and intrigue with titles like “Third Temptation,” “February Affair,” and my personal favorite, “The Caged Dove” (tagline: “An enchanted isle, a beautiful princess, and a handsome fisherman. In such a setting, lovers may easily defy tradition, or even break the law”). All have the same brand of antique charm and contrived exuberance as the phrase “IN TECHNICOLOR!”

There were feature articles as well: profiles of Mary Martin, Susan Hayward, Doris Day, and Edward R. Murrow, to name a few. In January of ’56 Cosmo published an article instructing families on how to make ends meet on $10,000 a year. (Turns out it was tongue-in-cheek, because the “$10,000-a-year man moves in the upper stratum of his community. He lives in a comfortable house, drives a nice car, sends his children to good schools. His less fortunate neighbors are likely to remark wistfully that they wish they had his money.”) That March, Cosmo notified its readers that scientists could identify in cells under a microscope nifty little bundles called chromosomes that divulged the cell’s sex.

But the nonfiction wasn’t all laughably quaint by today’s standards. In July ’56 it published a psychological examination of teenage suicide, a day-in-the-life feature on President Eisenhower, and a starkly relevant piece called “Moslem Wife.” However, even the magazine’s most worldly and ambitious articles, from a 21st-century vantage point, seem sugar-coated: “Married at fourteen, Fatima Suei’s status is lowly and her life hard by Western standards. But in the evening hours she is queen of her happy desert household.”

Cosmopolitan in the ’50s reveals a triangulated feminine identity, one that is defined in relation to other, masculine ones (husbands and children). One article profiles a woman coping with her husband’s mental illness. The story revolves around the woman, with the understanding that the woman revolves around her man. The advertisements exemplify this — for a brassiere: “She was the Miss that Cupid’s arrow missed. Luckily she hit on Peter Pan 7–11. Now she’s a hit…and Mrs.!”; for a hygienic product: “ ‘I found the secret to a happy marriage!’ says Mrs. David Rosen who now uses ZONITE to douche!”

The ’60s and ’70s began to reverse this tradition. Cosmo began exploring the growing acceptance of divorce, with articles like “How to get a divorce” and “Second marriage: Is he remarriageable?” Eventually, articles explicitly acknowledged women’s sexual autonomy, such as “Is he really so special? How to get over a love affair,” and “The artful sex lives of divorced mothers.” Articles about sexual exploitation and safety increased, too: “How to say no to a rapist and survive,” and a piece on Victorianism that details that period’s human trafficking problem; beneath the prim façade, girls from poor families were often whisked off to Belgium and peddled as virginal prostitutes. This development seems to respond to the ironic situation in which American women found themselves in the ’60s and ’70s. Freed from chattel status in marriage, they had to come to terms with a society in which their personal safety was never guaranteed.

In the 1980s, Cosmopolitan started to address racier topics; one advice column dished on abortion and offered tips for first-time anal sex. Ads for home pregnancy tests evidence the continued acceptance of female sexual agency.

However, judging from the content in Cosmo, women in the ’80s went through an identity crisis. Women were welcome in the workplace, but reconciling their femininity with an arena so eminently masculine seems to have been a challenge. Many of the styles and products shown in Cosmo during that decade equate business success with a mitigation of womanhood, be it jackets with gigantic shoulder pads or maxi pads that wouldn’t leak during important business meetings. One ad explicitly comments on the shifting relationship between the business world and American women. An antique image of a woman serving lunch to businessmen around a giant table is overlaid with the message, “Virginia Slims remembers when the business world first called upon women to serve.” And gazing out at the reader from the bottom of the page is a modern woman enjoying her slender cigarette.

Cosmo of the ’90s looks and reads a great deal like modern Cosmo. It centered on sex, but not in the grave manner of the ’60s and ’70s or with the ’80s’ focus on personal consequences. Instead, it treated sex with an attitude commonplace among men, as a fascinating and frolicsome fact of life. For the first time, the magazine portrayed women as sexual initiators rather than merely objects of sexual pursuit.

Nowadays, the magazine has a reputation for offering the raciest sex tips and advice, and it has gotten into the habit of trying to top itself with exotic and extravagant sexual positions and techniques. The most notoriously daring of these is the “reach-around,” a piece of sexual sleight-of-finger that I am too shy to detail at this time.

More than ever, the magazine now features articles on men as a collective, what they want, how they think, and what they find irresistible; it’s as if women now venture to understand the masculine mystique. And all the men I know, myself included, like to read Cosmopolitan for a similar reason — not to demystify women, but to demystify ourselves, to defog our perpetually cloudy understanding of the fairer sex, laziness and vanity be damned.