The Globalization of Sex: A Look at Cosmopolitan Magazine

by Aleksandra Solak

From detailed sex coverage, to fashion, to health and fitness, to pop culture and entertainment, the ever-so-provocative women’s interest magazine, Cosmopolitan, is the largest magazine in the world–with 58 international editions, printed in 34 different languages and distributed in over 100 countries  ( Targeting a demographic of women 18-34, Cosmopolitan has proven to be the best-selling magazine in its category. However, not all cultures are equally open to the content which Cosmopolitan offers, so how does the content vary across cultures?In order to answer this question, I conducted a comparative analysis based on nine April 2009 Cosmopolitaneditionsincluding US, UK, Italian, Indian, Polish, Mexican, South African, Australian and Korean. I analyzed the magazines in terms of the cover and editorial content. The comparative analysis is supplemented by relevant insights from globalization and intercultural studies.

A Brief History of the Magazine

Founded in 1886 by Schlicht & Field, Cosmopolitan initially was intended to be a family magazine. William Randolph Hearst then bought the publication in 1905, and the magazine continued to be a general-interest magazine for men and women until its renaissance in the 60’s. Enter Helen Gurley Brown. As the magazine was on the brink of demise, the young flashy author of Sex and the Single Girl gave the publication a prominent face-lift in 1965 (Benjamin: 2009).  With envelope pushing sexual content, fashion, gossip and entertainment, the magazine makeover was as successful as her book, fueling the fire for the so-called sexual revolution Thus, it is not surprising that the magazine is still the world’s number one women’s magazine and has an incredibly expansive circulation. It emanates the spirit of the “fun fearless female” touching upon every day, and not-so-every day, female experiences, which garners readership even amidst the decline of periodicals we are facing today.

However, it is important to delve into the cross-cultural differences of Cosmopolitan magazine. In their article, Cross-Cultural Differences in Sexual Advertising Content in a Transnational Women’s Magazine (2005) Nelson and Paek undertake a quantitative study to decipher the cross-cultural differences in the portrayal of women and sexuality in Cosmopolitan advertising. Another study germane to my research was one done by Helena Kopnina (2007) on three editions–French, British and Russian–of Vogue magazine, analyzing culture, fashion and advertising. Like these researchers, I use comparative analysis as a methodological approach, analyzing various international editions of Cosmopolitan.

We have all heard the proverb, don’t judge a book by its cover. However, in terms of magazines, that proverb certainly is meaningless. Unlike a book, which usually contains a continuous narrative, a magazine is intended to be episodic, full of anecdotes and visuals. A book cover does not say much about the internal content, whereas a magazine cover typically serves as a table of contents. And when a reader is debating which glossy-paged magazine to choose, usually the cover makes all the difference, in turn acting as the selling agent. What makes the cover such a powerful selling agent is the harmonious balance of picture, layout and content-related headlines, which drives the emotional appeal and essentially sells the magazine. With a well-established magazine like Cosmopolitan, the layout of the cover is quite predictable. Every monthly US issue contains a centered medium shot of a cover girl, either a famous celebrity or a model, with the title Cosmopolitan above the pictorial and subsidiary headlines bordering the page on the left, right and bottom. However, Cosmopolitan is not only published for the US audience. As previously stated, there are 58 editions of Cosmopolitan distributed in over 100 countries. Thus, how does Cosmopolitan vary internationally? Is the same formulaic template applied to every edition of the magazine? And are the cover girls reflective of the region? In order to start answering these questions, we must assess various editions of Cosmopolitan covers. As mentioned above, we will look at the April 2009 issues of the US, UK, Australian, Indian, Polish, Mexican, South African, Korean and Italian editions.

According to Table 1, an American celebrity graces 5 out of the total of 9 covers. However, just from analyzing the month of April 2009 alone, one cannot consider this a truism for every month. Thus to support the 44.4% American cover girl rate for the nine magazines, the cover girls of March 2009 are presented in Table 1 as well, with 6 out of 9 being American celebrities, that’s 66.6%. This would result in an average of 55.5% of the total covers form March 2009 and April 2009 having an American starlet on the cover. Again, the covers vary from regional celebrities to global celebrities from month to month; however, it is undeniable that famous American females who are considered “global” celebrities generally dominate Cosmopolitan magazine covers. In a New York Times article by David Carr on the international translation of Cosmopolitan, George J. Green, president of Hearst International said, “honoring local idiosyncrasy is critical” (Carr 2: 2002). However, according to the presented data, in terms of the cover for the past two months, there is a clear dominance of American presence and the “local idiosyncrasy” seems to only hold true for India for the two consecutive months. In addition Green mentions that, “Things American are not viewed as negatively as we might read about…There’s a huge appetite for these magazines out there” (Carr 1: 2002).

This viewpoint is glossed as follows by Kopnina, who draws on Appadurai’s notion of ‘ethnoscapes’ as well as Said’s concept of Orientalism:

‘A manner of regularized writing, vision, and study, dominated by imperatives, perspectives, and ideological biases ostensibly suited to the Orient.’ The Orient in turn, exists for the West, and is constructed by and in relation to the West. It is a mirror image perceived as inferior and alien (‘‘Other’’) to the West. In the global world, many “ethnoscapes” cross and intertwine, creating fields of difference or rather perceived difference (Kopnina 2007: 66).

In her essay, The World According to Vogue, Kopnina states that the “representation of ‘the Other’ or exoticism are good selling points in the global market” (Kopnina 2007: 66). This may seem a bit ambiguous in the case of Cosmopolitan. While there is a holistic focus on idiosyncratic cultural production, and the editorial content is in fact tailored to the local not global (as will be explained later), 55.5% of the magazine covers contain an American icon. Since the cover is really the selling point of the magazine, what is it that draws multi-cultural readers to the magazine and its overtly American persona? An explanation for this is reverse-Orientalism or Americanism (not the same as Americanization). In other words, the world may be looking at the US through similarly distorted lenses. In the mass media Americans are very stereotyped, especially on the basis of American celebrities. So while Disney darling Lindsay Lohan evolved into a “hot mess”—a reckless cocaine addict with an eating disorder, completely throwing her career away—this does not serve as a basis of judgment for all Americans. Hence in other cultures this interest in the “Other,” in regards to the US, arises. This provides an explanation for the popularity of American cover girls in Cosmopolitan as it provides a glimpse to the strange and the unknown for other cultures.

Another view related to the mass consumption of the multi-cultural magazine is Appadurai’s concept of “ethnoscapes” and the imagination. In Modernity at Large (1996), Appadurai explains that the rise of electronic mediation and mass migration in the world impel the work of the imagination. Conjoined, these two “have produced a new order of instability in the world today because images as well as people are in constant, though not necessarily overlapping, circulation” (quoted in Allison 2006: 177). As migration has increased, it has diffused the imagination into daily life and caused people “to rely more on images of place, identity and sociality that become, or blur into, their experience of the world” (Allison 2006: 179). Thus, as people are migrating all over the world, it can be inferred that international periodicals such as Cosmopolitan magazine, are a part of those images which people rely on to stimulate the global imagination, wherever their current location may be. These migratory “ethnoscapes”—the landscapes of group identity—are what essentially create deterritorialization, and the individuals desire contact with their “imagined” homeland, hence they turn to a publication like Cosmopolitan as a mean to stimulate those images. For example, someone from India who now lives in the UK, may go online to check out the latest edition on Cosmopolitan and catch up with the latest trends, sex and beauty advice, and celebrity gossip going on in India. Yet the magazine’s content is not solely Indian produced, but international as well. Thus diasporic Indians receive both the local and global content, in turn blending their experience of the world.

Sex, Fashion and Regional Content

Sexuality is ubiquitous across societies, a desire to which all humans are drawn regardless of societal taboos. However, as Schur points out, “The persisting challenge is, and will continue to be, that of establishing our sexuality within a context of values and social conditions that encourages personal and collective well being,” leaving the question of the relation between sex and society unanswered (Schur 1988: 5). Not only is the question of the relation between sex and society unanswered, but also in many ways we constantly grapple with the notion of how sexuality varies across cultures. While in some cultures, typically the US and parts of Europe, sex has become “naturalized” and “demystified,” in other cultures sex is still very much a forbidden and avoided topic. Anna K. and Robert T. Francoeur (1974) introduced the concept of hot and cool sex cultures, drawing on McLuhan’s theory of hot and cool mediums, which allows us to categorize sex in different cultures. Hot sex attitudes are focused on genital sex, are primarily concerned with possessing, conquering and performing, dehumanize women, segregate sexuality from life, equate marital fidelity with genital exclusivity and sexual intercourse with intimacy. On the other hand, cool culture attitudes express trust and openness, non-possessiveness between male and female, lack of double standards, and restoration of sex as communication (Bundy 1975: 1040). Using Francoeur’s model, I will apply the concept of hot and cold sex cultures to each edition of Cosmopolitan analyzed in this essay.

The phrase ‘sex sells’ is very common in the business world, and the bottom line is that in most cases it is true. Even in the case of Cosmopolitan magazine, the publication did not achieve world status when it was initially a family magazine. Once revamped, with its sexy makeover by Helen Gurley Brown in 1965, not only did it become the largest women’s interest magazine in the world but completely proved that sex in fact does sell. It is in this growing “sexual commerce we see the ease with which depersonalized sexuality becomes a market commodity” (Schur 1988: 80). And while Cosmopolitan has many other areas of focus such as fashion, entertainment and beauty, the “sex” aspect of it is what it’s known for–even if it is 6 pages of very toned down sexual content hidden amidst 348 pages (as in the Korean edition). The clearly hot sex culture, Korea, has by far the thickest edition of the magazine with 348 pages, while the rest range from 112 pages to 266. The beef of the magazine seems to be the fashion, with some beauty and 6 pages of sex. Now by sex, I mean two articles: one about how to sleep (literally) with your partner in bed, so that you will have a good night’s sleep, and the second an interpretation of what it might mean if you have a sex dream with someone other than your partner. The former story was also in the Polish edition in the relationship advice section, in addition to the sex component. The Indian and Polish versions had the same sex section, which had to do with “His Biggest Sex Secrets.” Thus, I am not convinced they are cool sex cultures, as it is evident that there is still this traditional focus on the man i.e. he will let you know his secrets so that you can please him better. The Mexican edition does this as well with their article on “Secrets of Male Ecstasy.”

On the other hand, the UK and Italian editions have a high focus on the woman in that the sex section is about orgasmic female satisfaction. Similarly with the South African edition, which is very female liberating entitled, “Steal his sexual style,” expressing the demise of stereotypes and the double standard. Thus all three of these would be considered cool sex cultures. The US edition also seems to express the same cool sex culture facets with the story being about “Sex That Brings You Closer,” which focuses on the equality of the partners and communication. The most provocative of them all (for the month of April at least) is certainly the Australian edition. With nudity, sex position graphics, and descriptive sex instructions, Australia tops the list as far as sexuality goes. There is however an article about stimulating a man, granted that it comes after “girl on top” domination–again reverberating partner equality. What is interesting is that from a cover perspective, Australia contains just a minimal inconspicuous sexual reference. In the sub-heading, which is usually dedicated to a sexual tagline, it says, “Multiple shoe-gasms! The new season styles from $69.95.” Then down in the lower right-hand corner in small text it says, “Sex Express: Climb Aboard and Get There Quickly.” All of the other editions have the sex sub-heading loud and clear in the usual spot–upper left corner. Thus it is interesting that the most sexually provocative edition of all the magazines appears the most innocent from the cover.

Aside from the sexual content, another very important editorial component of the magazine is fashion. According to Kopnina, “The meaning of fashion symbols is often said to be ‘undercoded’, in a sense that fashion leaves lots of room for interpretation and contextual analysis” (Kopnina 2007: 370). This vague meaning of fashion is the reason why in each edition, fashion is such a large component of the magazine. It is undeniable that fashion has become very global. Many scholars argue that this fashion globalization was a result of the consumer revolution and consumer capitalism, however, “it is not fully understood as a feature of the temporal rhythms of industrial and post-industrial societies” (Appadurai 1996: 75). In this specific case study, the global fashion component is the one aspect which does not vary among the magazines. The latest fashion trends and this season’s must-haves are pretty much the same in all of the editions, of course with the dominant styles coming from the fashion capitals of the world: US, UK, France, Italy and Korea. The reason for this fashion globality is its “undercoding.” To the average modern consumer, in a capitalist nation, fashion is no longer regional, but individual. People adopt trends from all over the world, but their personal style is very much individualized, which is drawn from fashion magazines like Cosmopolitan. Thus consumers can either adopt the fashion the trends presented, or go in the non-conformist direction and do the opposite; either is considered in some aspect stylish. Hence, fashion not only has become very globalized, but individualized as well. However, with this focus on American cover girls and global fashion, where is the regional content?

While it may seem that Cosmopolitan is very Americanized (after all, it is an American publication), it does integrate regional content into the magazine. The bulk of this is in the real stories, confessions, various anecdotes, local celebrities and local faces in advertisements. All of these are in some way localized so that it is, for example, the Polish edition of Cosmopolitan, not just Cosmopolitan translated in Polish. Benjamin Compaine addresses the mistaken perceptions of global media drowning out local content by saying, “Absolutely not. Most media—like politics—are inherently local. Global firms peddle wholly homogenous content across the markets at their peril” (Compaine 2002: 22). Thus in the case of Cosmopolitan, the integration of the regional content and regionally customized provocative themes, along with global fashion and selective American content is what allows the magazine to prevail and remain the world’s largest women’s interest magazine.