Most women we know can only stomach Cosmpolitan Magazine if they read it ironically and pretend it's The Onion for ladies. (How are tips like "Draw an attention-grabbing circle around your nipples using rhinestones and body glue for a special night in" not genius parody? Ugh.) But to say the maniacally sex-obsessed magazine is successful is a major understatement: Cosmo is the number-one-selling monthly magazine in the U.S. and has 64 international editions in countries like Kazakhstan, where women aren't so used to reading about the various X-rated activities you can do with a doughnut. "If all the Cosmo readers from around the world came together," a recent Cosmo South Africa article noted, "this group would form the 16th-largest country in the world."
Cosmo's international editions vary according to their consumer base — for example, Cosmo France is artsy while Cosmo Kazakhstan focuses on career and travel — but every editor Edith Zimmerman met while researching the "global juggernaut" seemed convinced she was a feminist missionary:
The magazine recently tried to cement its mythology through a two-minute Web video called "The Cosmo Effect." Onscreen text asks viewers if they take for granted that they can have it all ("dream job, independence, dreamy guy, fun fearless attitude, baby") or, if they prefer, a modified version of "it all" ("sexy single life" and "a great pair of heels"). Because not so long ago, the video explains, women's choices were limited. Until "one woman's vision changed the world."
Is it possible that post-Helen Gurly Brown Cosmo actually makes women feel empowered? (When they're not too busy having fifteen-minute-long orgasms, that is.) Apparently:
"Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world," Fira Basuki Baskoro, the editor of Cosmo Indonesia, said over a lunch of salad and paella. "When Cosmo came to Indonesia, it changed the way the Indonesian woman thinks. Before Cosmo, it was taboo for women to talk about sex openly."
White told me that during a 2010 trip to New Delhi, the editor of Cosmo India correlated a rise in love marriages over arranged marriages to Cosmo's influence. "I don't know if this is true statistically," White said, but "Cosmo has been very, very popular there. And I'd like to think that one of the messages we're delivering to women is: You don't have to marry the guy your parents told you to marry. You should marry who you want to marry. You can have a job if you'd like. You can have a career if you want. These choices are open to you today."
When asked via e-mail if there were statistics to back up this correlation, the editor of Cosmo India, Nandini Bhalla, politely evaded the question but provided more interesting anecdotes. "When we launched in 1996, we were flooded with letters — women wanted to know if kissing could cause pregnancy. They were clueless about the basics of having sex, and they had a million questions about what was right and wrong. The Cosmo team actually tackled these questions personally — writing back to readers with answers or carrying stories that tackled their concerns. Indian parents are usually conservative about sexual matters, and friends were often equally ignorant, so Cosmo was the only one with reliable information."
It's great that Cosmo readers are actually learning lessons beyond how to make a whipped cream bikini, but let's call a spade a spade (or a vibrator a vibrator?) here: as Zimmerman points out, "for all of the magazines' differences, Cosmo is still pushing 'the same standards of beauty' around the world." The same sexy baby-faced starlets grace international covers and the magazine is curiously quaint about sex and relationships: almost every article assumes the reader is sleeping with her boyfriend or husband and not a casual hookup. (And forget about the LBBTQ community; the only woman-on-woman activity Cosmo seems interested in is the male gazey threesome fantasy.)
So while Cosmo editors might genuinely think they're helping their country's women — it's hard to feel cynical when the editor of Cosmo Kazakhstan says, "this is what Cosmo keeps telling them: You are strong, you can control your life, you can earn as much as men do and you can have sex before marriage and not be condemned by society" — it's doubtful that the first female president of Kazakhstan will credit Cosmo for her success. Women might not only read Cosmo for the sex tips, but most subscribe because they want to embody a semi-empowered but not-so-subversive lifestyle. "When I would read Cosmo, all it made me want to do was grow up, wear a pretty dress, nice heels, move to the city and have an awesome life," a 28-year-old U.S. senior editor said. "And I just don't think that's a bad thing to want, you know?"
99 Ways to Be Naughty in Kazakhstan — How Cosmo Conquered the World [New York Times Magazine]