Mar 13, 2012
Readers, I want to discuss a topic that we probably won't resolve today.
It's the subject of women (primarily, though not exclusively) being pressured to present themselves as "sexy." I'm not referring to bias-cut satin evening gowns on the red carpet or the cliched So-and-So Celebrity Reveals All come-on headline on the cover of Glamour. I'm talking about the relentless marketing of styles and attitudes derived from porn and prostitution. An adjective one often hears to describe this contemporary fashion/cultural phenomenon is "trashy," and to paraphrase former United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (in reference to pornography), we know it when we see it.
I often read contemporary fashion and style blogs that opine that feminism is about women getting to choose how they want to present themselves. If they want to wear clothes that reveal a lot of flesh, that's their business and nobody else's. If pole dancing and pin-up poses are back, it's because they're fun -- a sign of liberation.
Friends, I'm not anti-porn. I would like to see prostitution legalized and unionized. But I'm also aware -- now more than ever given the latest Rush Limbaugh/Rick Santorum anti-contraception brouhaha -- that we live in a very divided country (and world) and what feels like consensus in the Manhattan-based print media does not accurately reflect attitudes in Mississippi or Kansas.
This morning I was glancing through two issues of Cosmopolitan I happen to have in my possession. One is from 1991, the other from 2012.
I've always considered Cosmo a little sex-obsessed, judging from the issues I've glanced at in the dentist's office over the years, but it wasn't until I compared these two issues side by side that I realized just how much more sex-obsessed it has become. Cosmo presents itself as a raunchy female empowerment guide while displaying attitudes about sexual politics straight out of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Articles and captions like "The Walk That Drives Men Wild, "How to Outsmart the Office Bitch," and "She Hooked a Cosmo Bachelor" abound. Tongue in cheek? Perhaps.
It's all about being "hot," "sexy" (sexy being the most overused adjective here), and "badass." A What's Sexy Now feature maintains that "radiating composed self-assurance will always make you the hottest babe around." (my emphasis).
You've come a long way, baby?
It's not just the emphasis on sex, it's the smutty language, by which I mean, very specifically, words traditionally used to shame women, that calls my attention. What else can we make of the constant use of "naughty" (Naughty to whom?), "dirty," "shocking," two-timing" (to describe garments you can wear casual or "glam") and "skanky"?
Is this an example of using the language of the oppressor to empower an oppressed group, the way the gay community re-appropriated, and (arguably) defused, the word "queer" in the Nineteen-nineties? Is it meant to be ironic and playfully retrograde, or is something else going on?
I wonder if this is how young women are receiving these messages, I don't know; I'm not young and I'm not a woman. But many of you are, so I look to you -- mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, and lovers.
The letter from the Editor-in-Chief, Kate White, is entitled "Fun Fearless Females" but further on we find "Deadly Decisions: How Smart Women Put Themselves at Risk" about women being abducted and murdered. It's like those womens magazines that offer brownie recipes on one page while telling you how to shed those last ten pounds on another. Flirt fearlessly but beware the serial rapist on Craigslist!
In contrast, the Cosmo from 1991 is tame beyond belief, with articles like "Buttons Make the Difference," "Thirteen Healthy Healing Veggies," and "The Ideal Man: Is He Out There?"
The words one sees most often in 1991 are "love" (Like the Lingerie for Love fashion spread; or Kids Talk About Love article), "romance" and "beauty." The Why Don't You.... feature includes the (scandalous) suggestion "Kiss a man who isn't your beau," "Sing to him while you're slow dancing" and "Freeze your favorite candy bar -- delicious and long-lasting!"
In contrast, in 2012, you're encouraged to "turn your feet into total teases with peekaboo heels."
The empowerment I see in 2012 Cosmo is all surface sizzle -- the power to flirt, tease, taunt, and flaunt. Are we so post-feminist that we don't have to encourage women to focus on anything other than being hot in (and out of) bed?
Sexual power is real and there's nothing wrong with having it in our arsenal and using it. It's fun, especially when we're young. But women -- and I stress women because they're the ones who are encouraged to endlessly flaunt their sexuality in magazines like Cosmo -- have other powers they should be encouraged to develop. Yes or no?
You can see more pics from these two issues of Cosmopolitan here.
Readers, what do you make of our culture's contemporary focus on "sexy" style, as depicted in Cosmo and elsewhere (everywhere)? Do you consider it empowering, degrading, or something in-between? What happened over the last twenty years to get us to this point?