Cosmopolitan magazine holds a spot as one of the most successful women's magazines of all time. In the late 1990s it boasted a circulation of 2.4 million readers in the United States, and an impressive 29 editions in other languages. Its distinctive, come-hither covers seem designed more to catch a man's eye than any potential female newsstand browser, and inside its pages features give women very specific advice on how to lure—and keep—a man. Yet the Cosmopolitan ideology—revolutionary in the 1960s, fitting in perfectly with the liberated-women zeitgeist of the 1970s, and setting the big-haired tone of the 1980s—was the creation of one very female mind: Helen Gurley Brown. The author of the bestselling Sex and the Single Girl (1962), as Cosmopolitan editor, Brown deployed her array of self-improvement strategies into a monthly format that made her name synonymous with the magazine and enshrined Cosmo, as it came to be called, in popular print journalism's hall of fame.
By tying the consciousness of the sexual revolution of the 1960s—brought about in part by the launch of the oral contraceptive pill on the United States market in 1960—with an accessible, affordable magazine format, Cosmopolitan succeeded beyond anyone's vision. The periodical had actually been in existence since 1886 as a general-interest literary magazine; it was a Hearst Corporation holding after 1905, and for years found success with a high-caliber output of fiction. The "Cosmopolitan Girl" originally referred to the illustrated covers of the pre-World War II era; the term would take on an entirely different meaning a few decades later. In the 1950s Cosmopolitan began to focus more on attracting female readers with less fiction and more editorial features on women's problems. Circulation, however, continued to plummet.
Helen Gurley Brown had already attained a certain level of notoriety in the United States with her 1962 book Sex and the Single Girl. The onetime advertising copywriter had penned a chatty but frank little how-to guide for young single women aspiring to be glamorous urban sophisticates; Sex and the Single Girl dovetailed perfectly with the trend of a greater number of female college graduates in the postwar boom years, a lessening of stigmas attached to unmarried women living on their own, and a delay in the average age of marriage. Brown posited that it was not only okay to be single, but a happy and emotionally healthy way to live—a revolutionary idea at the time, to say the least. The book's tacit acknowledgment that sex occurred regularly between single, consenting adults outside of the bonds of matrimony was even more radical. Brown tried to find a backer for a magazine of her own after the runaway success of Sex ; she planned to name it Femme and aim it at new young working women. Instead Hearst hired her to revamp the moribund Cosmopolitan, which was near death at the time. With almost no journalism experience Brown became its first female editor.
The first revamped Cosmo in July of 1965 launched a new era in women's magazines. It addressed sex in frank terms and gave readers a barrage of upbeat self-improvement tips for sex, work, and the physical self. Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, termed Cosmopolitan the first of "the new wave of post-women's movement magazines" that depicted women as sexual beings. Compared to its predecessors among women's service magazines, Cosmopolitan, wrote Wolf, set forth "an aspiration, individualist, can-do tone that says that you should be your best and nothing should get in your way…. But the formula must also include an element that contradicts and then undermines the overall prowoman fare" with anxiety-proving articles about cellulite, breast size, and wrinkles.
Brown always focused her magazine's editorial slant on the reader she termed "the mouseburger." Clearly a self-referential term, Brown defined it for Glenn Collins of the New York Times in 1982: "A mouseburger is a young woman who is not very prepossessing," Brown said. "She is not beautiful. She is poor, has no family connections, and she is not a razzle-dazzle ball of charm and fire. She is a kind of waif." With a heavy editorial emphasis on sex and dating features, tell-all stories, and beauty and diet tips, Cosmopolitan had become an American institution by the 1970s, and the term "Cosmo Girl" seemed synonymous with the ultra-liberated woman in her twenties who had several "beaus," a well-paying job, and a hedonistic lifestyle. The magazine also introduced the male centerfold with a much-publicized spread of actor Burt Reynolds in its April 1972 issue.
Yet the reality was somewhat different: Cosmopolitan's demographics were rooted in the lower income brackets, attracting readers with little college education who held low-paying, usually clerical jobs. The "Cosmo Girl" on the cover and the few vampy fashion pages inside reflected this—the Cosmo style was far different from the more restrained, elegant, or avant-garde look of its journalistic sisters like Vogue or even Mademoiselle, which focused on a more middle class readership. Though often a top model or celebrity, the women on Cosmo's covers were usually shown in half-or three-quarter-length body shots, often by Francesco Scavullo for several years, to show off the low-cut evening wear. The hair was far more overdone—read "big"—than usual for women's magazines, and skimpy beaded gowns alternated with lamé and halter tops, a distinctly downmarket style. The requisite "bedroom eyes" and pouty mouth completed the "Cosmo Girl" cover shot.
Framing the cover model were teasing blurbs written by Brown's husband, a film producer, such as "You've Cheated. Do You Ever Tell?" Blurbs also trumpeted the pull-out "Bedside Astrology Guide," an annual feature, and articles like "How to Close the Deal"—how to get your boyfriend to agree to marriage. "Irma Kurtz's Agony Column" placated readers with true-life write-in questions and answers from readers with often outrageous personal problems borne of their own bad decisions. "The magazine allows women the impression of a pseudo-sexual liberation and a vicarious participation in the life of an imaginary 'swinging single' woman," wrote Ellen McCracken in her book Decoding Women's Magazines. "Although most readers will never dress or behave as the magazine urges, Cosmopolitan offers them momentary opportunity to transgress the predominant sexual mores in the privacy of their homes."
By 1981 Cosmopolitan's circulation had quadruped its 1965 figures. Brown never seemed surprised that her magazine had succeeded so well. As she told Roxanne Roberts in the Washington Post, "Cosmo really is this basic message: Just do what's there every day, and one thing will finally lead to another and you'll get to be somebody…. I believe most 20-year-old women think they're not pretty enough, smart enough, they don't have enough sex appeal, they don't have the job they want, they've still got some problems with their family," Brown told Roberts. "All that raw material is there to be turned into something wonderful. I just think of my life. If I can do it, anybody can."
For 16 years the magazine, under Brown's editorship, was one of the Hearst chain's top performers. At one point in the 1980s it had the highest number of advertising pages of all women's magazines in the United States. Most of the copies—about 2.5 million—were purchased at the newsstand, an impulse buy and thus more profitable for Hearst than the discounted subscription price, and its "pass-around" rate was also much higher than its competition.
Not surprisingly, Cosmopolitan has always been a particular target of feminist ire. As early as 1970 it appeared in the Appendix of the classic tome Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement on the "Drop Dead List." But Brown defended her magazine in the 1982 interview with Collins of the New York Times. "Cosmo predated the women's movement, and I have always said my message is for the woman who loves men but who doesn't want to live through them…. I sometimes think feminists don't read what I write. I am for total equality. My relevance is that I deal with reality." The reality was that sometimes women did sleep with their bosses, or date married men, or use psychological ruses to maintain a relationship or force a marriage, and Cosmopolitan was one of the few women's magazines to write about such issues in non-judgmental terms. It was criticized, however, for failing to address safe-sex issues after the advent of AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) in the 1980s.
Helen Gurley Brown retired in 1997 after an interim joint-editorship with the launch editor of Marie Claire, Bonnie Fuller. A Cosmopolitan -ized version of the French original, Marie Claire is the closest American offering on the newsstands to Cosmopolitan, but features a more sophisticated, Elle -type fashion slant. "The Hearst move was about acknowledging change," noted Mediaweek's Barbara Lippert, describing Brown as almost a relic from a quainter, more innocent age. "These days, however, everybody's negotiating a new, much more complicated set of questions than how to land a man … the whole Little Miss Secretary Achiever thing is anathema to some twentysomethings, who are more interested in cybersex and the single girl," Lippert wrote. Both the age and the income level of Cosmopolitan's average American reader had climbed somewhat, and a higher percentage of married women now read it. By the time of Brown's retirement, Cosmopolitan was an international phenomenon, with 29 editions in several different languages. The 1960s-era themes of sexual liberation seemed to catch on most successfully in the newly "de-Communized" countries of the Eastern Bloc, where equal rights for women had once been a hallmark of their legal, social, and economic systems. "Think of it," wrote the Washington Post's Roberts. "Cosmo girls everywhere. Like McDonald's with cleavage."
Collins, Glenn. "At 60, Helen Gurley Brown Talks about Life and Love." New York Times. September 19, 1982, 68.
"Cosmopolitan." In American Mass-Market Magazines, edited by Alan Nourie and Barbara Nourie. Westport, Connecticut, Green-wood Press, 1990.
"Cosmopolitan." In Women's Periodicals in the United States: Consumer Magazines, edited by Kathleen T. Endress and Therese L. Lueck. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 311-317.
Ferguson, Marjorie. "Cosmopolitan: The Cross-Cultural Cult Message." Forever Feminine. London, Heinemann, 1982.
Lippert, Barbara. "Gurley Show." Mediaweek. March 4, 1996, MR40.
McCracken, Ellen. "Cosmopolitan: Pseudo-liberation, VicariousEroticism, and Traditional Moral Values." In Decoding Women's Magazines: From Mademoiselle to Ms. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1993.
Roberts, Roxanne. "The Oldest Living Cosmo Girl." Washington Post. January 31, 1996, D1.
Though it was originally founded in 1883 as a general interest periodical, Cosmopolitan magazine was revamped in 1965 as a journal devoted to the interests of the modern young career woman. Since that time, it has become one of the nation's most successful magazines. The "Cosmo girl," as the magazine refers to its readership, is confident, independent, glamorous, and sexual. Though many feminists have criticized the magazine for projecting an image of modern womanhood that is shallow and stereotyped, Cosmopolitan's sassy style still attracts readers in the twenty-first century.
Cosmopolitan was the creation of Helen Gurley Brown (1922–), who in 1962 wrote a controversial bestseller called Sexand the Single Girl. Daring for its time, the book openly discussed women as sexual beings and asserted that women could choose to remain single and still be happy and sexually active. Based on the success of the book, Brown and her husband, David Brown, approached the Hearst Corporation in 1965 and were allowed to take over an aging magazine known as Cosmopolitan. The Browns changed everything but the name of the magazine.
Cosmopolitan soon came to represent the changing role of women in the new, sexually permissive society of the 1970s. With its focus on relationships, career, sex, and beauty, Cosmo became notorious for its racy covers, featuring articles with titles like "How to Please Your Man in Bed," "Land That Man, Ace Your Job, and Look Your Sexiest Ever!," and "The Bedside Astrologer." Circulation rose rapidly, helped along by such outrageous "firsts" as a nude pinup of actor Burt Reynolds (1936–), which appeared in a 1972 issue. By 2000, circulation had reached almost three million in the United States, and versions of Cosmo were being published in thirty-one countries around the world, including Japan, Poland, and Chile.
For More Information
Brown, Helen Gurley. "HGB Remembers the Cosmo Years." Cosmopolitan. (February 1997): pp. 344–47.
Brown, Helen Gurley. I'm Wild Again: Snippets from My Life and a FewBrazen Thoughts. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.
"Cosmopolitan." iVillage.http://cosmo.women.com/cos (accessed March 18, 2002).
cos·mo·pol·i·tan / ˌkäzməˈpälitn/ • adj. familiar with and at ease in many different countries and cultures. ∎ including people from many different countries. ∎ having an exciting and glamorous character associated with travel and a mixture of cultures: their designs became a byword for cosmopolitan chic. ∎ (of a plant or animal) found all over the world. • n. 1. a cosmopolitan person. ∎ a cosmopolitan organism or species. 2. a cocktail typically made with vodka, Cointreau, cranberry juice, and lime juice. DERIVATIVES: cos·mo·pol·i·tan·ism / -ˌizəm/ n. cos·mo·pol·i·tan·ize / -ˌīz/ v.