When I was a kid, as in a pretty little kid, we had Playboy magazines in the house. We had a lot of magazines in the house. With a dad in advertising, a plethora of free subscriptions was one of the perks.
The way my father tells the story now, my brother, then probably six or seven, was poking around in the basement with a friend with my dad nearby, when the boys came across an old, withered stack of the Playboys. His friend was fascinated. Jeff, evidently, not so much.
“Don’t you want to look?!” the boy asked.
“Eh,” my brother shrugged. “I’ve seen it.”
Not so long after, I had graduated from a Fourth Grade Nothing to a sixth grade Judy Blume addict, having read everything she had published at least six times. When Forever became all the rage, I raced to the elementary school library only to find it absent. My mother drove me to the public library to take it out, and yet, oddly, we couldn’t find it among the Judy Blume books there either.
I still remember the librarian looking down at me, looking up at my mom, looking down at me again (I was very small for 11), then saying, “that’s in the adult section. Are you sure you want her reading that?”
“My daughter can read any book in the library that she’d like at any time,” my mother said firmly but kindly. “If you can show us where to find it I’d greatly appreciate it.”
Obviously, neither of these are stories that all families are going to have–or agree with. I was decidedly raised by two parents who were unabashedly liberal in their views that anything that could be published, printed, or read was not off-limits.
My parents’ feeling, as I understand it now, is that words are not dangerous. Not when accompanied by thoughtful parenting, open discussions, and a chance for growth. Even a book about a 17 year old naming her boyfriend’s penis “Ralph.” Even a magazine featuring a naked Sagittarius named Bambi, whose “likes” include sunsets, nice people, and evidently, wearing only a fire hat and holding a hose.
As my kids get older I’m going to have to navigate these same waters. I understand a lot has changed since I was a kid. With these here internets, there is even more access to content that can be discovered unsupervised, without the benefit of a conversation; to say nothing of what you can find by hitting two buttons on your remote control at any time of day or night.
But I also see that as an essential demand to me to continue to keep the lines of communication open, to let my girls know that they can ask questions about anything, any time, and I will do the best to give an honest answer.
All of this is backstory so you can understand my reaction to an email I received last night.
It came from an unfamiliar name, addressed “to a concerned parent.” (Me and the 250 other bloggers and publishers who were openly copied on the email. Were you one?) I tend to be skeptical of emails addressed this way, because unless I’ve opted into a petition or publicly discussed my topics of concern, eh…don’t tell me what I’m concerned about. I’ll tell you.
But those are my authority issues popping up.
In any case, the ominous subject line read: A Warning To All Moms About Cosmopolitan Magazine.
The author, a mom, introduced herself by telling us I’m a model in Los Angeles who has seen, firsthand, the damage that magazines like Cosmopolitan can do to a young girl’s self-esteem — and how influential and detrimental the advice from Cosmo can be.
She goes on:
I’ve received hundreds of letters from young girls about the disastrous effects Cosmo magazine has had on their life choices and self-confidence…Therefore, I’ve started a movement to protect young girls from the inappropriate and sexual nature of these magazines.
Her goal is to distribute Cosmo in a non-transparent bag essentially classifying it as pornography, and ban its sale to anyone under 18.
I checked out her website to learn more, and see that 33,000 people have already signed her petition. Parents, I’m sure a lot like me, who are worried about their kids growing up before their time, in age that sexualizes young girls too early.
And yet something made me bristle about the entire effort.
I tried super hard to figure out what was bugging me. Clearly she’s well-intended, as a mother. And she is guided by the values of born-again Christanity, which she is entitled to. So even assuming her motives are pure, there is something way off about the too-simple correlation between Cosmo and “disastrous effects.”
While I’ve discussed at length the challenges of stereotypes, shameless airbrushing, and negative messages about girls in the media, I don’t think that Cosmo is singularly responsible for the degradation of our nation’s youth.
(The next thing you know it your son is playing for money in a pinch back suit. And listening to some big out-of-town Jasper here to talk about horse race gamblin’!)
Some of these disastrous effects of the Hearst publication, according to her website, included examples like an 11 year-old girl doing some pretty…advanced sexual things “because she read about them in Cosmo.”
And I thought, waiiiiit just a minute here.
If a fifth or sixth grader is exploring ways to please a man (yikes!) that also happen to be illegal in 14 states, the cause goes way the hell beyond a crappy article in a magazine.
Why isn’t she, like a lot of the fifth graders I bet you have raised, looking at an article like that and saying, “that’s terrible! That’s gross!”
Or, more importantly, “Mom…help me understand this article. Because it creeps me out.”
Which is what I imagine I would have said to my own mom at 11.
I’ve read with fascination the brilliant (seriously, brilliant) comments on my post this week about starting to give our children independence. It seems that letting go doesn’t happen without much risk assessment, frank discussions, and boundary setting. Also the trust that we’re raising our children to be good-decision makers, grounded in good values, even if they will sometimes make mistakes. Now obviously there are different implications when it comes to allowing kids to read the “sexy texting tips” in a (painfully ridiculous) magazine, but I imagine there are lot of similarities, and these are the kinds of boundaries we’ll have to figure out next.
My feeling, and what I’ll tell my girls, is that there are 800 reason that Cosmo is God-awful, and why I never pick it up in the nail salon, not even to peek. Very little has to do with the articles on sex positions or the word SEX sixteen times on the cover. I’m bugged by all the dieting and “perfect body” articles (as Rita Arens reminds me, there are plenty). And overall I think the entire premise that women live to please men is tiresome and obnoxious. Plus, frankly, the quality of most of the writing makes me die a little.
But then, I think that Bristol Palin’s upcoming show (working title: “Look! You too can be a happy teenage mom! Wheeee!”) is offensive too.
I always love AV Flox‘s smart take on topics around sex and censorship. As a fellow Blogher contributor we’ve had quite a few discussions (or rants) along these lines.When I asked her about it, she cleverly observed the gender inequalities of Cosmopolitan that go beyond the word “sex,” Why does the cover of Details talk about gadgets and getting ahead in one’s career when its female counterpart just talks about pleasuring men? Isn’t it funny that women are told from every angle to please him, make him want you, bend this way and that way, while guys are shown cool toys and helped kick ass? What’s up with that? How come you gotta wait for his call? How come you gotta have a one-night stand or anal when you don’t want to?
Then my favorite part:
Guess what! You don’t have to! And you don’t have to read this garbage, either!
And I guess that’s where I come out too.
You stick a magazine in a brown bag and you know what? Now it’s more exciting. Or…maybe it just pushes you elsewhere. Instead, you just turn on MTV and watch JWow having sex under the covers in the creepy greenish-grey light of a night vision camera. Or heck, just hit the internet. Lots of sexist, awful degrading, shocking content there too, or so I hear.
It’s pretty easy to Google “how to give a bj” and you don’t even have to pay $4.50 for it and smuggle it home in your backpack.
As for the boycott, the estimated monthly circulation of Cosmopolitan is 3 million a month (if you believe that people are still buying print media), and they claim 5 people read each issue. That’s a lot of eyeballs. However the median reader is 31.3 years old. (*Note: former media planner Christina corrects me that the median age is based on adults 18-49; 10% of the readership is above and below and not factored into that median age.)
The estimated monthly visits to Cosmopolitan.com, which does not come in a brown paper package, is 5 million unique visitors a month.
The estimated viewership of the premier episode of Jersey Shore was 7.6 million with a strong audience of “12-34 year olds.” In other words, the median viewer is well below 31.3 Also? No brown package.
Not sure how many albums Britney Spears sold to young girls when her airbrushed 18 year-old boobs were hanging out on the cover, but I’m sure we could look that up.
Also, how many Bratz dolls have been sold again?
Cosmo is not the problem. Cosmo is the result of the problem. And hiding it doesn’t make the problem go away.
Those girls with self-esteem issues? I guarantee they didn’t come exclusively from a single magazine.
My feeling is instead of reclassifying frivolous articles about sex positions as pornography, how about we spend more time actually teaching parents how to talk to their kids. How to bring up these subjects. How to instill self-esteem and definition beyond who you are to a guy. And for God’s sake, let’s talk about how to explain why the heck it’s never okay for 11 year-olds to think that they are, in any way shape or form, a consenting adult. And that sexting at 13 will get you grounded for four-hundred years.
Call me crazy, but I guess the way I see it, the editors of Cosmopolitan magazine are not raising my children.