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In Virtue/Vice, Dr. Christine B. Whelan blogs about news, books, scientific and psychological research and her general musings about virtue and vice in our everyday lives.

 

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February 14th, 2011

Why Women’s Magazines May Be Harmful to Your Relationship

 
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womensmagazines-flashWriting about the repetition in men’s magazines earlier this week made me look back at my research on men’s and women’s magazines from more than a decade ago. A few points to note:

1) Repetition isn’t anything new in the gendered magazine world. Cosmopolitan has been doing it for ages. In the January 1990 issue, a cover story announces: ‘Go North Young Woman! Alaska is Teeming with Eligible Men.’ The article features AlaskaMen magazine, a catalog of eligible bachelors hoping to find a mate. As Cosmo explains, “America’s last frontier is teeming with bachelors.” Just five years later, it seems the lonely guys in Alaska put in another bid. In April 1995 issue, Cosmopolitan called: “Go North, Young Woman! (Alaska is Where the Men Are).”

2) Gendered magazines offer highly stylized guides to the good life-and play on our insecurities. Stories of romance, love-at-first sight and mind-blowing passion abound. Few readers will have a great deal of experience with events like these, but they wish they did, and read avidly. While the average 31-year-old, middle-income Cosmo reader does not lead a life of threesomes, micro-mini-skirts, office affairs and celebrity-run-ins, the particular insecurities about men and relationships are noteworthy: As relationships moved in a direction of instant gratification rather than commitment over time, sexual advice and bedroom etiquette became increasingly important.

3) A content analysis of relationship advice in Cosmopolitan shows a move away from long-term relationship advice. The most noticeable difference between 1965 and 2000 issues of Cosmopolitan is the switch in focus from long-term to shorter-term commitments to men. In 1965 there were 32 articles that primarily dealt with a woman’s relationship with a man. Of those, 28 articles focused on marriage and four articles focused on dating. In percentage terms, during 1965, 87.5% of the articles about relationships focused on marriage. In 2000, there is a striking reversal. Of the 116 articles about relationships with men, only 6 articles-or 5%-focused on marriage.

In the 1960s, Cosmopolitan offered advice on how to be a good wife, where to find a marriageable man, and how to convince a man to marry. Thirty-five years later, Cosmopolitan completely switched its focus, publishing more than 100 articles on short- and medium-term relationships and just six articles on marriage. Articles include stories of the “Worst Dates Ever,” “Six Fantasies That Could Ruin Your Relationship,” “The Morning After: How to Squash His Post-Nooky Paranoia” and “Ways Women Got Men Back Who Dumped Them.” One of the most telling articles of this shortened time horizon shift was titled “How to Mesmerize a Man at: Six Minutes, Six Weeks, Six Months.”

With no mention of six years, or sixty years, the message is clear. Relationships come and go, but Cosmopolitan will give you advice on how to attract men for whatever short-term period you would like them in your life. The emphasis is on the myopic, immediate pleasures of sex, rather than the longer-term delayed gratification seeking greater rewards in the future. Yet there is a desire for more substantial relationships, and an inability to outline the path to get there. In 1965, Cosmopolitan‘s how-to guides for happy marriage involved sharing, trust, kindness and compromise. While Cosmopolitan is no doubt still in favour of those relationship qualities, the how-to element in 2000 focused on the physical, rather than the emotional, aspects of gender relationships.

2010 Cosmopolitan is no different: The four featured articles on relationships on the Cosmo site today include “My Online Boyfriend Wasn’t Real,” “7 Signs He’s Playing You,” “The Body Language of Liars,” and “The Hidden Danger of Breakups.”

4) Marriage becomes a negative-not positive-relationship between 1965 and 2000. In addition to the decline of marriage as a stated topic of articles in Cosmopolitan, there is also an increase in negative articles about marriage. In 1965, of the 28 articles discussing marriage, 82% talked about the union in positive or neutral tones, with articles about how to improve a marriage or how to encourage a man to propose. Negative articles about marriage-including articles on divorce, abuse and adultery-made up 18% of the articles. In 2000, of the six articles that dealt with marriage, four were focused on divorce, adultery and abuse. In percentage terms, that means 66% of articles in the 2000 Cosmopolitans discussed marriage in a negative light.

For example, in 1970, when 81% of articles on marriage were of a positive or neutral variety, headlines included “Each Marriages Has a Secret Contract. What’s Yours, Baby?” with advice about compromise and what each part of the couple can offer to the union. Another piece, titled, “How to Get Married if You’re Over 30,” advised the reader on everything from how to furnish an apartment, what kind of pets to have, how to be mysterious, how not to complain and how not to be ‘totally self-sufficient’ in order to snare a husband. There is a sense of desperation to enter the blissful union of marriage. While none of the 13 positive or neutral articles make marriage sound perfectly dreamy-problems are more interesting to read about that perfection-and all of them tend to have a tinge of panic, the importance of the marital partnership is stressed in each issue.

Contrast that with 1995, where of 19 articles on marriage, 13-68% focus on marital dissolution rather than reward. These articles include headlines such as this cover story from April 1995: “You’re Happily Married But Have the Hots For That Guy in the Gym. Do You Dare Fool Around?” Or, even more negative pieces about adultery and divorce, including, “The Dark Side of Bridehood,” “Congratulations, and Welcome to Hell — Is This Any Way to Get Married,” “My, What a Wonderful Divorce We’re Having” and ‘”I Got My Married Man-and Then I Didn’t Want Him.”‘

And in 2010 it’s more of the same negative stuff: A search on the Cosmo site for “marriage” turns up the following stories

Marriage Meltdown “I never wanted to get married,” Meg said…

My live-in boyfriend freaks out every time I bring up marriage Why does he balk? Am I wasting my time?

Is he a total mama’s boy? We’ve talked about marriage, but he’s very close to his mom…

Bottom Line: As I’ve written before, put down the women’s magazine: It may be harmful to your relationship.

 
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The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Matt

    The overwhelming theme is pretty obvious, if you think about it, and entirely predictable, too. “How to maintain all your insecurities, and add a few new ones, so as to induce in yourself the overwhelming desire to bankrupt yourself buying clothes and cosmetics that you think will make everything better.”

    Which…hey, here’s an ad for cosmetics, right on the facing page! Who’da thunk it? :)

    Magazines exist, not to sell their content to their readers, but to sell their readers to their advertisers. In the case of “men’s” or “women’s” magazines, what they’re selling is mostly their readers’ insecurities. So expecting their advice to make you happy is sort of like going into a car dealership and wondering why nobody there will sell you a bus pass.

  • Tom Gibbons

    Your piece reminded me of a great article from The Onion:”Bleary-Eyed Cosmopolitan Staffer Cranks Out 10 Billionth Way To Bring Out The Animal In Your Man”

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/blearyeyed-cosmopolitan-staffer-cranks-out-10-bill,3986/

  • Zbridget

    I am in my 40′s now, but remember reading Cosmo in my 20′s, never subscribed, but picked it up once in a while. I never really took the articles that seriously-I liked the fashion, other girl stuff…I don’t know that the Cosmo girl is a real person.

    You forgot to mention the frequent features about sex- “88 ways to make a man wild in bed” types of articles.

    I never took Cosmo seriously, do young women today do so?

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