Thursday, October 04, 2007

Is Reading Cosmo Sexist?

Zoe Margolis argues that women can't lay the blame on men for lingering sexism and the oppression of women. Women are contributing to the patriarchy too. How? By being consumers of women's magazines; the kinds that line the checkout counter racks, reminding women that the issues they really need to pay attention to are diets, plastic surgery, shoes, and what other women are doing about their diets, plastic surgery, and shoes. She concludes:

"If women choose to support this misogyny while competing with one another to be the most beautiful, or obtain the better man, or make more money through using their bodies as a commodity, the chance for there to be a more equal society is diminished. How can there be equality while women are still known and valued purely for their appearance?

There's only one choice to be made here. A lifestyle choice, if you will. Women need to realise they do have the power to change things. And by holding onto their money next time they are in the newsagents and not purchasing that pretty cover that's shouting at them offering the latest "celebrity" news, they'll be making the right choice."

She may be onto something here. In talking about sexism in my political philosophy classes, I usually have students compare the covers of recent issues of both Cosmopolitan and Maxm. Our discussions reveal that both magazines are usually dealing the same subjects in big, bold font, with similarly clad, thin, women on the front. I was heartened to see that folks down at our sister university in Eugene are doing similar analyses.

Some students usually object that these particular magazines are harmless fun. They are certainly not as bad as hardcore pornography that obviously degrades women. People who think magazines such as Cosmo or Elle or Marie Claire rob women of dignity have to look hard to make their case, the critics say.

It is true that what counts as the objectification of human beings, and of women in particular, is a complicated issue. Indeed, its not clear that objectification is always morally wrong, even sexual objectification. Martha Nussbaum is particularly good on this point. But she makes a startling judgement as a result.

Some of the worst pornography, she says, may actually be something considered fairly tame nowadays: Playboy Magazine. Playboy is particularly noxious because it inserts layouts of naked women in the middle of a magazine filled with stories about clothes, cars, video games, and other accessories that successful and powerful men should have. The context of those photos in the middle of all that "gear" suggests that women are just so much more stuff to have. Indeed, one men's magazine is so blatant as to be named "Stuff"-- with the subheading "Sexy Girls Fun Gadgets". For Nussbaum, these kinds of magazines make it clear that women are objects for the use and pleasure of men.

But if you look just at the cover of Cosmo, the message is not that different from Playboy. Cosmo doesn't even have the excuse that it occasionally has good articles.



At 5:20 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it obviously is for male readers, though I've less certain about female readers. I sometimes correct female friends who call adult women "girls," themselves included. But I don't think their doing so is sexist as much as exacerbating a problem that they maybe failed to recognize to begin with. It might help to find an analagous phenomenon in another instance of oppresion. The closest one I can think of off the top of my head is the use of "nigga". Are blacks being racist when they use it, or are they just helping a problem survive? When I hear a black man say "nigga," my initial reaction isn't that he's racist as much as unhelpful. Maybe the same goes for female readers of magazines like Cosmo. Of course, if women know and understand the problems that Cosmo lends itself to, then perhaps they are being sexist.


p.s. I worked for a bike taxi service in downtown Portland this summer and often times women would complain about how much their feet hurt because of their shoes. When I asked why they didn't just wear comfortable shoes when they went out, I was given the coldest looks and remarks, as if they were accusing me of questioning the legitimacy of their sexual objectification.

At 7:03 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Galen: Do you think that women cannot be sexist? I would tend to think they can be. That is, I think we should ask if women or people of color act in ways that perpetuate patriarchy or racism. If we think of patriarchy as a system that creates gender roles for individuals to perform, and these roles are structured in such a way to give the male roles more abitrary power and priviledge, then it would seem women can certainly perform their assigned role and support the structure by doing so. Women can, and do, frequently objectify themselves and other women.

At 8:01 PM , Blogger Jake said...

I think the fact that these magazines are in checkout stands is key. I agree that supporting either Maxim or Cosmo or any of their twins perpetuates the objectification of women, but is all the blame to be put on individual men or women who I assume like me need to eat every once in a while, requiring them to go to the store and stand in line where these magazines are displayed.(I realize there are alternatives, but for arguments sake lets focus on supermarkets) When I go to Freddy’s I always try to stand in the “Family Friendly” section to avoid them, but I find it somewhat ridiculous that I have to stand in the children’s section to avoid feeling like an moron. So should these stores that could just as easily, although it would mean making less money, stock slightly more intelligent material be held responsible, and more important, can anything actually be done about this?

At 11:26 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Jake: You raise a good point. I tend to think that individual boycotts like the one advocated in the article tend not to be that effective and usually just make people feel better about themselves.

I wonder what kind of monkeywrenching techniques could be done that would screw up sales of these kinds of magazines. Back in the 1980s and 90s, I remember radical feminist groups walking into bookstores and throwing red paint all over the "men's section" in the magazine racks.

On a different note: I remember a few years ago when I was teaching in Mexico, shopping in the local supermarket, and passing the book and magazine section; it was stocked with cheap translations of Nietzsche, Rousseau, Dostoyevski, and Tolstoy. Now I don't know if those were selling. And there was all kind of trash being sold next to them. I can't imagine Freddy's selling Penguin Classics next to Cosmo.

At 8:56 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

As to whether women can be sexist or not, I think it's an error to call women sexist. This does not mean that we don't internalize our oppression and act in accord with patriarchy. Philosophy of oppression literature argues the the "ist" terminology must be reserved for the people with power in oppression, otherwise there is no way to indicate who is at the top of the hierarchy. For the very same reason, although people of color can be co-opted, assimilate and be tokenized, it would be confusing to call them racist. Although most everyone is prejudiced, discriminates and is perhaps hateful toward some arbitrarily defined others, it's my view that it is important to maitain the "ist" (racist, sexist, etc.) for those folks with institutional power. By this argument, women cannot be sexist no matter how we participate in our own oppression, including what some radical feminists call "sleeping with the enemy."

At 11:26 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Anon: I'm happy to go along with the "ist" perspective, though I've often been unhappy with that understanding of sexism because I think it relies on a particular understanding of "power", which individuals may or may not have or wield, even if they do have access to those institutional channels. I do agree, however, with Peggy McIntosh's view of privilege as a set of unearned benefits we may not be aware of. But frankly, I think the problem is not really who or who is not sexist--or racist-- (a line of thinking that I think tends to promote bad faith and guilt) but to think along the lines of MLK and realize that its the system/insitutitional roles that are the problem to focus our energies on, not individuals per se.

I use "sexism" here in bell hooks' sense from "Feminism is for Everybody" which means something like participation in patriarchy. In that sense, I guess we are all sexist though some are situated, and invested, in those roles differently. That sense seems to be to be in line with MLK's understanding of social evils and how they need to be addressed.

At 11:37 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there a distinction between something being sexist and perpetuating patriarchy and someONE being sexist and perpetuating patriachy? We could either stipulate a more or less detailed definition and check all supposed cases of sexism and see if they're coextensive with at least one person being sexist, or we could use a looser definition and rely more on our (intuitionistic? phronetic?) ability to determine whether individual cases satisfy both. I don't think a strict definition will work because sexism can come in so many forms (e.g. un/intentional, non/referential, w/w/o knowledge of sexism in society, etc.). If we use the latter sort of def., then I can think of plausible counterexamples. If a young child mimics its sexist parents, is it being sexist or, say, instantiating sexism? I would say the latter.
It seems there will be obvious cases of women being sexist. E.g. being well read and yet insisting that women live primarily to marry and birth children. Keeping your def. of patriarchy in mind, I'm still not sure that the *average* reader of Cosmo is reading sexistly or if their reading is better described as merely an instance of sexism or patriarchy. Of course, I'm open to partial cases of the former, but if someone reads Cosmo and in doing so only perpetuates patriarchy, then I think the distinction is useful.


At 1:43 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand that the institutional systems are the problem however there are really clear examples of the ways in which institutional power is used by those with access to institutionial power to harm those with less or none. For example, men write rape laws. In Oregon, rape requires proof that the woman "vigorously resisted" and injury is often the required proof. I have a newspaper article which states that three young men were not charged with rape because the "alleged victim" had no injuries - charges were dropped. (Sex abuse requires a different set of fact to charge.) What is clear is that women would not have written such a rape law. Women may have written a law requiring men to prove they had consent, e.g. Finally, all the nodding to the fact that the institution is the problem does not alter the quality of women's lives. It is generally not other women who are raping women. And, by the way, bell hooks, in an Utne Reader article, thinks it's fine for faculty to have sex with their students. Since reading the article, I have been significantly more critical of what she says. I do like much of her theories but not all of them. We all have our blind spots.

At 10:50 PM , Blogger sary said...

first of all, thank you joseph orosco. I was referred to your blog by another professor and am very glad i checked it out. your thoughts bring up very important and interesting points and more questions.
second, i too have thought of ways to monkey-wrench the magazine selections. Most of the time i manage to make a very pointed remark about them, but sometimes their images and obsessions stick with me and manage to make me feel shitty.
I read once that more issues of the sports illustrated swimsuit edition were sold to women than were sold to men. To me, this illustrates one of two things: (1) that the women who bought the magazines thought they would make desirable gifts to the men in their life or (2) that the women bought them to illustrate to themselves the "ideals" they needed to aspire to. Both of these possiblities are "sexist", if you will. Yet it also appears that the word "sexist" has been overused and perhaps overstretched. I will not go into detail about my belief, other than to say that the English language is frustratingly restrictive oftimes.

by the way, joseph, do you believe providing facts of, for example, the overpresence of airbrushing be more effective, or would just plain old red paint do the job with these checkout cutdowns?

At 11:39 AM , Anonymous Theresa said...

Women can promote sexism in the way that they treat or classify other women, most often based on physical appearance. I see this most often when women react negatively toward other women who dress over-sexually, in fact, in outfits that would not look out of place on the cover of Cosmo. Women often refer to other women with terms like "hoochie mama," and other derogatory names, giving them dirty looks or generally disparaging them. I think this can be termed sexism because it promotes gender-based stereotyping. Women who react with such repulsion or disgust to a provocatively dressed woman are objectifying these women, reducing them to their physical appearance and rejecting them out of hand. This can be seen in college towns like Corvallis in more subtle ways, when women make disparaging remarks about sorority girls. We may feel, when making these remarks, that we're taking a feminist stand by rejecting women who have embraced attire that appears to cater to male sexual gratification, but by cutting down these women, we're also guilty of sexist reactions toward them.

At 5:54 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't imagine that "monkeywrenching" by destroying the merchandise sold by your local retailer is an effective message to anyone. Any store would clean up the vandalism immediately, destroying the effect of having other people 'read' the message that was intended. Especially if it's a small newsstand-type store, you're screwing people who have a very slim profit margin already, and if you're doing it at a large chain you're just being a nuisance.

There might be some visceral gain from such action, but there is no systemic progress. I would think that given the breadth and depth of the system that causes this kind of objectification, it would matter that strategies were effective and tactics were productive.

Of course women buy into the same system that objectifies them. We have to live in the world, and try to gain respect in it. And so we make choices every day, several times a day, about how to negotiate that terrain. It doesn't help to call women who choose to buy Cosmo unenlightened or sexist, or contributors to their own oppression, or even to blame the magazines for tailoring their offerings to what the public "want." We're commodities, all of us. Our bodies, our minds, our habits of spending especially, are all important to keeping the whole system operating.

Building communities of action, of solidarity, but most importantly of conversation about what is important, and why, and that offer alternative messages to the mainstream media is the only thing I've seen even scratch the surface. And it's hard, long, sometimes frustrating work.

At 10:45 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

I want to be clear that I'm not advocating monkey wrenching, only to say that its one exteme form of response to this issue and one that has been used by radical feminists groups in the past.

That said, I don't think that the best way to judge monkey wrenching as a tactic is by cost-benefit anaylsis. I think it can be an effective form of civil disobedience given the right contexts. Most forms of nonviolent direct action could be considered nuisances or place burdens on retailers. But that would be the point. The lunch counter protests of the civil rights movements were intended, for instance, to hurt restaurant owners, create a public nuisanace AND raise awareness. As MLK said, the point of nonviolent direct action is to create "crisis"--not to be nice. I agree that discussion, deliberation, and negotiation are preferred methods of dealing with social problems. But sometimes institutional power requires coercion against it--in those cases, nonviolent coercion is the way to go.

At 12:11 PM , Blogger sary said...

Forgive me for my pestering...but to clarify, as well:

I do not find monkey wrenching, and especially in a violent form, to be any more or equally effective. I do believe that "conversation"--if it is possible, open, aware, sensitive, and not just equal but focused on being able to bring women's real voices to light (which is difficult)--is the ideal way to solve issues. Yet that does not change how i feel every time i go to the grocery store and see those magazines. i would like nothing less than to pull a stunt that might open eyes and that would certainly make me feel better, more like i had a voice.

68% of women (in the last survey i read) said that they felt worse about themselves after reading Cosmo.

I agree that the constant commodification of role, people, bodies, and etc are what "make the system work"...and thats what i want to change. I don't like the system the way it is. i'm sure if more people thought that it was possible for the system to change, they would try. What if we didn't have to live in the system? I think thats half the problem: people (especially women) don't recognize that there is a theoretical existence outside of this.

And also, i must say, if nothing else than to make me feel better, that i believe magazines do not tailor to what the "public wants". Magazines sell things, and they tailor their content to sell things, by making them feel "less than", which then could be remedied by a "fixer" which can usually be bought. Therefore, tailoring is done in accordance to what the elite wants...and on and on.

i will agree to disagree, anonymous.

At 11:48 AM , Anonymous Faith said...

Hey there. Found my way here through Carnival of Feminists.

First off, thanks for this insightful piece. I personally never read Cosmo - it always gave me the willies in a vague way. I now better understand why!

Second: an alternative to red-paint monkeywrenching. How about printing up some small flyers, saying such things as "This magazine does not exist to help you. It's purpose is to make you feel bad, so you'll buy stuff to make you feel better!" And etc., explaining some of the points raised in this article. Stick these little papers between the pages of the mags. That way, you'll be reaching the women reading these magazines - the ones who are, after all, being hurt by them.

That's what I'm gonna do, anyway.

At 12:27 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Faith: Welcome! I hope you will stop by and share your ideas more often. I think the cards are a great idea! Subversive and subtle. I think a campaign around that needs to happen.

At 3:38 PM , Anonymous Galen said...

I was in Fred Meyer today and the Cosmo in the aisle read:

"John Mayer tells why all guys aren't a**holes"

Not only is Cosmo sexist, but its writers can't even quantify correctly.

At 3:24 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reading Cosmo recently I noticed there is an undercurrent of sexism towards men, also. Alongside the articles promoting e.g. shoes, better sex, and other issues there was an attitude of spurious description and condescending tone describing the male perspective. This is done with volunteer 'males' who present there view essentially in opposition to the 'female' view. These issues come across as 'womens issues that primarily women need to know about'. Men are ignorant of them and therefore subordinate.
It comes across as sort of strange backlash whilst still being sexist towards women.


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