Kate Upton’s breasts are tied up tight with two white strings—encased in the sheer white of a mini-dress falling well above her knees. Her eyes are smoldering and shaded, her shell-pink fingernails graze her bronzed collar bone. She’s blonde and hot. She knows you want to be too. Between the crook of Kate’s right elbow and jutted hipbone, the headline reads; “Suprising Times He Really Needs You.” Across her hourglass torso“feel more pleasure!” screams. “Are you letting your dream life get away?” ask the ruffles of her hemline. Streaming beneath the marigold letters that spell out Cosmopolitan: “25 ways to kiss a naked man,” “Every single inch of him;)” “Falls sexiest lingerie, ponytails, & boots,” “8 very naughty new positions.” These are the headlines of one of America’s best selling female magazines. Behind the shimmer of glass bottled perfume and 500-dollar handbags, what are its pages selling? What do the glossy pages say about our feminine identities?
Cosmopolitan’s trademarked slogan reads “Fun Fearless Females.” The bubblegum pink cover of this month’s magazine is the perfect example of “enlightened feminism.” Embracing the modern woman as “fearless,” Cosmo sells Girl Power. Readers from age 14-40 (yes, there’s a Cosmogirl magazine too) learn to use beauty as power. They climb corporate ladders. They are educated in lengthy featured articles about date rape and workplace sexism. They take control in the bedroom and demand the right to climax. Multiple times. This magazine is about strength and “real” women and getting everything you deserve! All of these creams and calorie burners and bras sewn with sweet bows will make you into the best woman you can be. There’s even a 2-page spread on “Sh*t Politicians Say About Women”—featuring the bold printed blood-boiling ignorance of Paul Ryan, Todd Aiken, and Rick Santorum in the comments each made about rape. From the closet to the voting booth, Cosmo’s got the modern woman covered. You will find no advertisements for wedding rings or baby toys. This is a how-to pamphlet for the independent female.
In Susan Douglas’ piece Girls Gone Antifeminist, the Cosmopolitan script of enlightened feminism is summed up; “Because women are now ‘equal’ and the battle is over and won, we are now free to embrace things we used to see as sexist, including hypergirliness…Thank God girls and women can turn their backs on stick-in-the-mud feminism and now we can jiggle our way into that awesome party. Now that women allegedly have the same sexual freedom as men, they actually prefer to be sex objects because it’s liberating.” This explains the “25 ways to blow his mind with your mouth” article and the “Chic, femme bedroom he won’t hate” page.
In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1920s revolutionary feminist novel titled Herland, a nation composed entirely of sinewy, working, women without sex drive took center stage. Written from the perspective of three “civilized” male intruders, the society is a Utopian maze. Though the men eventually find women to woo into marriage partnership, they cannot convince them to participate in frequent and “purposeless” sex. The women are determined to mate only when it is in season—logical and strong in their convictions. When the surly character Terry forces himself upon his unwilling lover, a wave of women captures, imprisons, and exiles him. His male comrade declares; “In a court in our country he would have been held quite within his rights… But this was not our country; it was theirs…They were incapable of understanding a man’s needs, a man’s desires, a man’s point of view” (113). Today, in a classroom full of college women raising their fists to participate, this excerpt outlining marital rape is met with outrage. “Men are not animals. They need to control themselves,” we say. We reserve the right to wear mini skirts and lipstick and high heels and never be called “tramps.” When it comes to sexual advances,“Yes” is not the default answer. We are in control—of our bodies and our minds.
And yet…every other headline is speckled with ways to please him. He needs us. You’ve got a date on Friday night? Are you going to wear that dress that makes your butt look amazing?
In the 21st century, we read Herland and we believe we have more in common with those independent women who created a female nation-state and did away with men. We connect the dots to in vitro fertilization, politicians fighting for our votes, and suit-wearing female CEOs. We tell ourselves that a woman today in the position of Terry’s resistant wife would not be shunned or questioned—instead she would be embraced by rape kits and expedited court proceedings and friends and family to see her through the divorce. But what about those mediated voices in the backs of our minds? What about those headlines? “Why wasn’t she trying to please him?” “ What if she knew about the pleasure she could get out of those 8 positions?”
Running around the track tonight, matched stride for stride with my 20-something boyfriend, I recognized my own hypocrisy. I am a feminist longing for that shade of gray between the two extremes of feminism: the one who presents extreme see-through sexuality as freedom, and the one who wears a shapeless shift and never shaves. I am independent. I believe in equal rights for women. I’ve been told since age 5 that I “can be anything I want to be.” I am an athlete, outspoken, and headstrong. Still, I will spend $3.99 on a Cosmopolitan magazine every other month. I will wear spandex and take pride in the thighs I’ve sculpted. I will continue to daydream about weddings and motherhood and a family of the future. Like so many of the girls and women that surround me, I will try to have it all. Will we fall like dominoes, incapable of finding that middle ground between Herland and American paternalism?