Mad about the boys: Why are the glossies all about men?

Open a women's magazine this month and you'll find relationship advice, sex tips – even a 'man manual'.

You have to wonder why Cosmopolitan felt the need to publish a "sexy" issue this month. Come on – this is a magazine that has built its entire reputation around sex – under it, over it, any way you might possibly want it. It launched in the UK in 1972 on the tsunami of the so-called sexual revolution. It is renowned for emblazoning the word on its covers. Sex is Cosmo's nuts and bolts, its bedrock, its DNA. Did the editor think not enough attention was being paid to nookie?

"It's not a 'sex' issue. It's a 'sex-y' issue," points out Louise Court, who has edited the title for three and a half years. "We thought it was fun. And Cosmo isn't just about sex, even though lots of people think it is." What else is it about? "It's about celebrating life, enjoying yourself, being a good friend and not living in a cocoon," she says.

It is also about men. Much has been made of Cosmo's critical role in sex education back when nice girls wouldn't dream of discussing anal sex over their own dead bodies, never mind tea and biscuits. But decades after Cosmo set out to emancipate bored women, it is still focused on men – and is as full of them as it ever has been: there were its infamous naked centrefold shoots; now there's also a dedicated 'Man Manual' section, to instruct readers in the art of deciphering "what's really on his mind"; and this month 'The Sex and the Single Girl' and 'Sex and the Not So Single Girl' columns have been expanded to a full page each, and readers can learn that men everywhere have the same three things on their minds: Wayne Rooney, barbecues and boobs.

Cosmopolitan is widely considered to be the original women's magazine, and is the second best selling in its market, behind its closest rival (much to Court's chagrin) Glamour, which launched in the UK in 2001 and is edited by Jo Elvin. So isn't it rather dispiriting to the modern woman that it is so retrograde in its agenda?

And it's not just Cosmo: in its wake, other glossies have embraced this prototype. The July issue of Glamour boasts cover lines including: 'Men's all new sex wish list', and 'Lily in Love' – as the chosen angle for its lead interview with the multi-award winning, global pop phenomenon that is Lily Allen. Company magazine's cover shouts 'OMG – Britain's sexiest men!' and More! reveals why the prodigiously successful pop star Rihanna "believes in love again".

So has feminism failed? As women still struggle to gain equal pay and equal representation in parliament, while faced with mass-market soft porn on the covers of glossy men's magazines, are Cosmo et al really suggesting that women should be so focused on men, on how to get one and then how keep him happy?

While Cosmopolitan, Company, Glamour and More! are high on the man factor, elsewhere women's magazines seem to have moved on: there are fashion magazines like Vogue and Elle, the gossip and fashion combos like Grazia and Stylist, and fitness magazines like Zest. Red and Psychologies very successfully plug into a renewed vigour for self-help-style emotional and mental wellbeing articles.

Yet this focus was what changed Cosmo's fortunes in the first place. The magazine's winning formula, really, is that regardless of any revamp it has always stuck to the plan envisaged by its American founding editor, Helen Gurley Brown, in 1965. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

"What is extraordinary about Helen," says Court, "is that more than 40 years ago she came up with this blueprint for a magazine which is not trend-driven. She totally got what women would always want to know about." At its launch in the United States in 1886, Cosmopolitan was a very different beast; it ran award-winning fiction and, later, investigative pieces, and remained hugely popular until the Fifties, when the magazine market turned away from general interest titles and sales slumped. It was not until 1965 that Helen Gurley Brown (widely credited as being the original Carrie Bradshaw) arrived to shake things up. She brought her editorial recipe to the UK in the early Seventies, and in time would launch almost 60 other international editions – over which she still presides at the age of 88.

Before Cosmo, Gurley Brown had written Sex and the Single Girl (hence the Carrie comparison), an advice book that encouraged financial independence and said it was OK to have sex before marriage. She also worked as a secretary in an advertising firm until she had proved herself as one of the best copywriters in the business. This gave her first-hand experience of working in the very worst of men's worlds, and makes her sound rather like Mad Men's Peggy Olsen.

Court thinks we've come a long way since the days of Mad Men. "If you're in your early twenties now compared to in the Sixties or Seventies, although women are still paid less overall than men, they totally think they can get to the top. In the Seventies it was just, "Oh, you'll be a secretary." The challenges of sexism haven't been won, but they've moved on."



Carrie and Peggy can be construed as inspirational in different ways, but ultimately both characters wanted one thing: a man. And there lies the uncomfortable dichotomy. Elsewhere, single women are depicted as desperate (Bridget Jones), predatory (Sex and the City's Samantha Jones), or doomed to singledom (Jennifer Aniston) – but in Cosmo they are celebrated.

Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl sold 2 million copies in three weeks in 1962. By today's standards it might sell even more: there are twice the number of single women in the UK than there were 30 years ago. Accordingly, Cosmo's sales are healthy: the last circulation figures (new ones are due in July) showed it was shifting 430,353 copies – despite a £3.40 cover price that is around 70 per cent higher than its £2 competitors – and the website has 618,000 unique users. In the same market, Glamour sells 515,281 copies a month and Company, Cosmo's other close rival, 240,035. The concept of these magazines may – to many modern women – seem to conflict with feminism. But someone is buying them.

All magazines pride themselves on engagement with readers, but Cosmo particularly so. Before the women's magazine market diversified independent young women might have defined themselves as "Cosmo Girls", and they still write in to the magazine in their thousands; and the chat forums on Cosmo's website are always buzzing. Many women credit Cosmo with giving them their first inkling of what sex was all about.

Court won't be drawn when I ask whether the magazine should have a lower age limit, but says firmly, "Sex is for grown-ups. We're talking to women in their twenties, and the important thing is the message: when we talk about sex we say it's something where you should feel in control and never to do something that doesn't feel right to you. Cosmo has a valid role in sex education, but that isn't our job. We're sending an empowering message to women."

Empowerment does not necessarily mean feminism – which remains a dirty word over at Cosmo, no doubt because it is too often, unfortunately, associated with hackneyed caricatures of the bra-burning feminist. The readers, when polled, said they didn't feel it described them, even though they believe in equality. Could it be that they think the word 'feminism' isn't man-friendly?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - London - £40K plus benefits - Salary negotiable

£38000 - £40000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: A leading consu...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£12 - £15 Hourly Rate: Sheridan Maine: Are you an experienced Accounts Assista...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Payable Clerk

£21,000 - £24,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a new opportunit...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat