The year is 1886.
President Grover Cleveland, dedicates the Statue of Liberty.
A general strike sets off The Haymarket Riot, which eventually wins workers an eight-hour workday.
Pharmacist John Pemberton invents Coca Cola.
These events pale, however, in comparison to the launch of Cosmopolitan Magazine. Prior to Cosmo’s advent, women committed to having their insecurities substantiated and their bodies critiqued were forced to turn to such subpar sources as clergy-members and the medical establishment. But in 1886, on the cusp of the golden age of mass circulation, Cosmo set out to prove that neither God nor Science could match the game-changing authority of Other Women’s Judgement as Codified via The Written Word. Within a year, the magazine’s circulation had climbed to 25,000 and its cultural impact was palpable in such critical spheres as relationship quizzes, sex position injunctions, and overall crippling self-hatred.
Since there’s no way, barring a basic Google search, to know what these first Cosmopolitan magazine issues looked like, we are forced to assume that an article like this might have appeared:
Ladies, do you think of your garments as a mere obstacle to marital relations? Don’t be so quick to disrobe! There are naughty ways your clothing can help heat up amorous congress.
“Partial nudity builds anticipation,” says distinguished physician Charles Chestin McGill, “However, if you take advantage of this sex counsel you jeopardize the sanctity of your family, the reputation of your husband, and your own mental health. Plus, you can use clothing and accessories as props to enhance tactile sensations. Also, your uterus is a living creature that wanders throughout your body.” He offers the following steamy advice:
Have your guy put his arms around you from behind. Press back into him until you can almost feel his manhood through the pronounced hump of your bustle.
Give him a long look at you in your bathing costume. No man can resist the unique drapery of a soggy pair of pantaloons.
Let him lick the brass buttons on your bloomer suit. The swell of your breasts beneath it will be virtually imperceptible.
Use the ribbons on your bonnet to bind his hands while you chastely flutter your eyelashes against his.
Spurred by this auspicious beginning, over more than a century, Cosmo has continued to reflect the sexual mores of each epoch, as well as to set beauty trends and, as we shall see, enforce heteronormative gender conformity not through marginalization of the other as the layperson might naturally assume, but by way of treacherous acceptance and commodification, all while consistently providing readers with super simple fashion combos that never fail.
While it bears noting that at least half a dozen events occurred between 1886 and for example, President Abraham Lincoln was exhumed and reinterred in concrete, we’ll jump ahead to a 1957 issue of Cosmopolitan that is of particular note. On the cover, Audrey Hepburn gazes, doe-eyed from beneath these actual headlines:
How Ten Famous People Stay Fit
A List of Safe Diets
In perusing, one feels like an anthropologist having unearthed a text from an altogether foreign society. In seems that in 1957, women were coached to emulate celebrities, remain vigilant about their weight, and shoulder the burden of overseeing their mate’s sexual hardihood. What an alien time 1957 must have been!
In the swinging ‘70s, one begins to note Cosmopolitan’s attention to what feminist theorist and existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir refers to as “The Other.” To quote de Beauvoir:
“The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself… [Woman] is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her… he is the Subject – she is the Other… No group ever sets itself up as the One without setting up the Other over against itself. In small-town eyes all persons not belonging to the village are ‘strangers’ and suspect; Jews are ‘different’ for the anti-Semite, Negroes are ‘inferior’ for American racists, aborigines are ‘natives’ for colonists, proletarians are the ‘lower class’ for the privileged.”
Had Cosmo profiled de Beauvoir (and we’re not saying they didn’t) the profile would have read as follows:
Hair swept away from her enviable cheekbones, Simone de Beauvoir looks sophisticated, sucking on a slim cigarette.
“Sartre loves this cafe,” she says, referring to her smoldering Marxist lover. When asked if the rumors about their polyamorous relationship are true, de Beauvoir shrugs her bony, European shoulders. “My opinion on this subject is that all choices, agreements and refusals should be made independently of institutions, conventions and motives of self-aggrandizement,” she laughs, earning an appreciative glance from a passing waiter. If this is what a French diet of red wine and rich fromage gets you, we want in! Tres French Chic!
Between the ‘70s and the present, the magazine’s true-blue diet tips, emphasis on pleasing your man, and passive aggressive assurances that even if you’re different than your female cohort (say taller or smaller breasted), the magazine added Cosmo-approved ways to disguise your deformities.
1970: Sex and the Jewish Girl
1971: When He Wants You to Make the Orgy Scene
1972: The undiscovered joys of having a chinese lover
1974: Advice to Girls over 5 ft 7
1976: Is it true what they say about Jewish girls?
1980 Fasting The Ultimate and Best Diet. You can do it if you try!
Clearly, the magazine has a real hard-on for Jews. Take this (fictional) piece on Catching a Man from 1988.
“Ever wonder what that Jew at the receptionist’s desk has to smile about? While you spent last night at step aerobics before heading to your lonely studio to scarf a lean cuisine and live vicariously through Sam and Diane, she was spreading her legs for every guy in the office. Including your boss Christopher whose mother will choke on her third martini if he doesn’t bring home a debutant. But guess what? Christopher doesn’t care! He’s willing to turn over the keys to his parent’s yacht, give up his family home in the Hamptons, because Jewish girls like sex. A lot. According to Rabbi Isaac Ariel Goldgrubber, “In Judaism, sex is a mitzvah, a moral deed performed as a religious duty.” No wonder Jewish girls are so depraved. Lucky for you, we got the scoop, so you can borrow their sexual secrets but still stay on the right side of the Madonna/Whore divide, plus you get to keep your cute button nose.
Recently, Cosmo has set its ecumenical sights on a new target: lesbians. Some might call this progress. An astute reader will note that Cosmos’ journey to queer inclusivity was actually foreshadowed by the magazine’s trailblazing attention to the scrunchie as sexual aid. Any girl who came of age in the ‘90s recalls the magazine’s promise that wrapping a scrunchie around your boyfriend’s penis would help him maintain an erection — because what straight man isn’t aroused by hair accessories? However, a 2007 Cosmo addendum upped the ante, advising women to “stack six scrunchies on top of each other over his package, before removing them one by one using your lips.” One can only imagine the scrupulous, scientifically-sound testing through which Cosmo arrived at the number six. Seven scrunchies, for example, were found to trigger an erection lasting more than eight hours, which necessitated a trip to the emergency room or possibly to a Claire’s Boutique. Any culture hawk can tell you that the only women who actually wear scrunchies are lesbians (and the occasional American Apparel model).
So it came as no surprise to the observant Cosmo connoisseur when in 2014, the magazine, now in its one hundred and 28th year, introduced the groundbreaking, first-ever “Sex Position Guide for Lesbians, entitled 28 Mind Blowing Lesbian Sex Positions.” (To lesbians, these are just 28 Mind Blowing Sex Positions.)
In the accompanying pictorial, slim-hipped mud flap girls straddle each other, beneath captions like, “The Bridge to Pleasuretown” and “The Tawdry Tire-Swing.” In drawing after drawing, each ingenue’s long, silken hair skims the other’s lithe, Caucasian body. And just like that, the lesbians’ otherness is tamed; rendered palatable to the mainstream.
What a joy, nay, what a privilege for the 21st century lesbian to win the sort of individuality-squelching acceptance heretofore only allotted to straight women. Where previously, as marginalized, sexual deviants functioning on the outskirts of society, lesbians were forced to engage creatively with their sex partners, using meager tactics such as tuning into their partner’s unique bodies, sexually-charged verbal communication, and being open and responsive in the moment to set fire to their sex lives, now, like their lucky straight sisters, they can relax, let go of their exhausting idiosyncrasies, and move robotically through itemized lists of uninspired sex edicts compiled by disenchanted interns and poverty-stricken freelance writers who’ve shelved the novels they began in graduate school in favor of earning a living bolstering the sexist status quo. Truly, there is no mainstream endorsement of lesbianism more meaningful than its reduction to a list of sexual dos and don’ts. Finally, equality! Finally, Cosmo has come for the lesbians.
We must ask ourselves what is the benefit of equality and what is the cost? Also, what the fuck is a Tawdry Tire-swing?