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.