Tuesday, 28 February 2012

'Dear women - we hate you. Now please buy our magazine.'

If you want to upset your eardrums and fire up your spirit with a little light debate, you can't do worse than today's edition of Woman's Hour on the BBC, which today was all about one woman: the editor of Cosmopolitan.
Louise Court has helmed the magazine since 2007, a magazine built upon the foundation of being for 'fun, fearless females' realising, with Cosmo's help, their full potential to be 'the best they can be', a line peddled by Court in the debate. Set to prove her wrong was the co-editor of the latest hot blog on the block The Vagenda, designed to lampoon the dens of hypocrisy and low self esteem that are womens' magazines and set to encourage a new generation of internet-literate feminists. Internet being the key here - Court's starting shot was that Cosmo's readership was in six figures. A pretty weak and pretty shot to fire at a blog that is three weeks old. Yes, that's right. The Vagenda team are making a splash, thanks to their hilarious content that in turns tickles the funny bone and touches a nerve. 
Court, in an article for the Guardian back in 2007, where she responded to a Daily Mail article wondering about whether it was time to kill off her publication. Court chose to see this not as a serious (albeit by the Mail) yet hypocritical (given the Mail's love of hating on women too) question about the value of her magazine, but rather picked up on what wonderful PR it did for her magazine's mission to shock, awe and get free PR. Very slick. 
Now, five years later, Court is back in the saddle of her high horse, riding a new campaign trail of Cosmo's new attempt to push a 'feminism' campaign. Oh yes. The magazine that thinks the most important thing we need to know about Christina Hendricks - actress, body image champion and alternative beauty goddess - is how she chased and got her husband, is trying to galvanise us into feminism. 
After I've finished choking on my own hand at the irony of this effort, I tuned in to listen to the co-editor of The Vagenda (and the presenter of Woman's Hour) undermine this goal by pointing out how heavily Court's magazine leans on the idea that by fixing her body a woman fixes all her problems. The perfect beach body will get your everything in life (if what you want is a pervy male boss and a husband who only cares about your looks), whereas a secure mental state is less desireable, and a happy relationship means more to you than financial security independent from a man. Ironic again that Christina Hendricks, whose most famous role is of a '60s housewife, is Cosmo's cover girl. Court, in the course of the interview, doesn't make any effort to bring us round to her or her way of thinking, instead leaning on extensive consumer research, suggesting that women who don't like her agenda should shut up, and, most significantly, talking about the age range of her readership. 
This is a key one with me,  and has been talked about before in my run-in with the editor of Company magazine. Compare the cover of this month's Cosmo with the cover of the most recent edition of Nuts. 
(Images via Google)
That's a lot of cleavage for a magazine that's supposedly about empowering women to be the best they can be. But hey, at least Christina's not naked. That would totally conflict with Cosmo's other message - style, fashion and looking good enough in clothes to convince some luckless sod to get you out of them.
But fashion aside, that's a heck of a lot of boobs for a non-top shelf magazine. And inside it just gets worse - the amount of sex tips in a magazine like Cosmo or its hornier little sister, More, is on a par with that of their lad counterparts, yet the idea of putting womens' magazines on the top shelf is preposterous. True, Cosmo hasn't made a habit of putting this much chest on its cover in a good while, but it's no lie that in recent months there has been a lot more, well, 'club-wear' and 'come hither' poses. Just who is this cover, and others like it, meant to attract? And just what is a cover like this saying to the girls outside of Cosmo's intended age range?
Court rightly notes that the age range of her magazine's readership veers from teens to menopausal, going through everything from puberty to divorce, and thus their content is intended to appeal to women at all stages of life. But one thing they seem to have missed is this - whatever stage of life they're at, women have confidence issues. From young women with body hangups to older women sad about relationship breakdowns, the idea that, as Court claims from a showreel of letters she received from grateful readers, women still come to Cosmo for comfort is a scary thought. If I was a recent divorce and saw this month's Cosmo cover, I'd spend the night binge-eating, bawling that I don't have a rack like Christina as that would definitely help me keep a man, and reminiscing in between trips to the bathroom to dry heave my feelings up how good sex in the office used to be before I got a) fired and b) dumped. 
If I was a teenage girl flipping through Cosmo, I'd no doubt be bulk-buying Veet wax strips, fake tan and condoms, while wondering how best I can sneak into an office to do some flirting, or into a bar to attempt the same. Caitlin Moran notes the ridiculous pointlessness of a 13-year-old girl taking advice on grooming from a magazine aimed at sexually active twentysomethings; when girls should be spending their money on sweets, paperbacks and glittery nail varnish if they're feeling daring, they are instead doing upkeep and maintenance on a body that, for a good while (we hope) only they will see naked. They should be focusing first on coming to terms with it, accepting it and appreciating it, before they expect someone else to do that for them.
Court would no doubt sniff at this and dismiss the idea on the grounds that it's not her and her team's job to sell to teens and boost their self-esteem. But they are the ones who are buying your magazines, love. I stopped buying Cosmo, More, Glamour and their ilk when I grew half a brain cell and realised I'd far rather read something that doesn't treat my life like some sort of glossy, trivial joke. Nuts' tagline is all about fun, as is Cosmo's, but Nuts is pitching adult fun to lads, while Cosmo is pitching the same fun to anyone tall enough to reach the second shelf. Besides, even if you aren't selling to the fragile teen market, there's something deeply, deeply wrong about a health and beauty page pushing positive body image juxtaposed with an ad for plastic surgery
So, aside from the excessive use of exclamation marks, what's my issue with Cosmo? Aside from the fact that Court will no doubt laugh in my face if I ever quote Savage Garden ('I believe that beauty magazines promote low self esteem') and wave a back issue in her face, I hate the fact that it seems to think that, because it has a niche position in womens' lives, whether they love or hate the magazine, it is entitled to its position. I get that there's a recession on, and I get that it's a tough time for print. But what I don't get is why a magazine that has gained such power from its readers' adoration has so little consideration for enticing more of them, respecting the ones they have, or remembering that the little girls reading their magazines will grow into the massively insecure self-abusers that need their help now. Far from being fun and fearless, these females are now afraid of being overlooked by men, and sneered at by women like Court.
So listen up, Cosmo. You're right - you have a niche position in womens' lives as one of the cornerstones of the female media contribution. You have a dedicated, loving readership who more than outnumber your critics. And you have impressive celebrity backing for your campaign. So now I urge you to stop pushing the worldwide agenda that has resulted in women like Katie Price becoming feminist icons. Stop publishing content about loving your body just the way it is next to adverts for plastic surgery. Stop beginning every sex advice section with a 'him first' mentality. And acknowledge that when, in an argument you find the best defence is a good offence, perhaps consider that some things you do are pretty indefensible. 

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