(NOTE: This draft has been lying about in the bin for weeks, but if it’s ever going to achieve near-perfection, it won’t be from fermenting in there. You can see the basic ideas, I just don’t have a hook to hang them on and give them perspective.)
FURTHER TO MY earlier essay about trade advertising in the 1960s and 70s, there was one other magazine whose trade-ad campaigns came at you relentlessly as you strolled through the railway depots and commuter stations, or thumbed through the NYTimes. That was Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan, an aggressively low-middlebrow sex-and-makeup rag that came out of the Hearst Building. During its high-water mark of the late 60s, early 70s, its man-catching ethos was at fierce loggerheads with a much fresher and weirder bit of popcult, Women’s Liberation.
Cosmo seldom addressed this pop-culture war in its pages, so far as I know, nor did its trade advertising ever discuss how its sensibility contrasted with that of Women’s Lib. (Ms. magazine wouldn’t really be a thing till early 1972.) Cosmo readers and women’s libbers inhabited two different galaxies altogether and neither one ever acknowledged the other.
This is somewhat paradoxical, because both camps were selling a Career Girl persona that liked to imagine itself as “Fun, Fearless, Female”—to use a 1990s Cosmopolitan slogan. It was a rivalry that went much deeper than the magazines’ public personae. At the root was a culture war that neither could openly discuss.
It made for many amusing ironies. Ms. featured actress Marlo Thomas as a contributor in the early years. Her TV persona in the 1960s “That Girl” sitcom—chic clothes, flip-hairdo, man-hungry and marriage-focused—was basically the Cosmo Girl.
And Cosmo definitely leveraged off the Women’s Lib movement—though mainly in the same crude and clownish way that Virginia Slims cigarettes did (“You’ve come a long way, baby!”). For cigarette advertising, “women’s rights” meant that dames could now smoke 100mm cigarettes in public. For Cosmopolitan, it was all about young women being actively sexual—we’ve got the Sexual Revolution now, baby, and the Pill! This was supposed to put them on a par with men.
Sex equality, thus = sexual equality. There’s too much to unpack in that equation; we leave it for another date.
The split between the Cosmo camp and Ms. faction was essentially a political war between Women’s Libbers, one so deep and ideological that neither side even acknowledged the other’s existence. One was deeply rooted in the 1950s and 60s culture of working girls who used sexual wiles to gain power. The other was rooted in journalism, academia, and abstruse theorizing about social dynamics. The first was loud and sometimes coarse, the second was snobbish and priggish.
Of course didn’t take much snobbishness to sneer at Cosmopolitan. Its cat-in-heat crudeness was all over the place, then as now. Even in the 1970s it was giving its readers tips ‘n’ tricks on sex foreplay. Its raunch wasn’t quite at the level of Penthouse’s Forum, but it was extraordinary for a magazine aimed at the same approximate demographic as Mademoiselle and Glamour. Cosmo called it being sexually “frank,” but it was widely perceived as being merely lowlife and lurid, and as abjectly unintellectual as its cosmetics advertisements and decolletage covers.
This social and cultural divide that could never be breached. Many a teenage girl of this era affected a distaste for fine clothes and grooming, lest she be mistaken for a dim-bulb Cosmo reader. No doubt the horrors of Cosmo propelled others into disheveled lesbianism, or at least priggish spinsterhood. Better to die single and childless, the middle-class, educated young woman mused, than to hunt for a man like a JAP or a Cosmo floozy.
I would argue that Cosmopolitan did far more to ruin relations between the sexes than Ms. or Feminism ever did. It made the heterosexual dating game tawdry and distasteful. It made catching a spouse (and seeking a home and family) something anyone should sneer at, if her ambitions were anything above the level of stewardess or cocktail waitress. A whole generation of women were born and raised under this pervasive yet unnatural mindset.
I recall, in the 80s, being asked by strangers if I were seeking a husband or looking forward to raising a family. I would go into an absolute cringe. What did they think I was? The sort of bimbo who read Cosmopolitan?