Re-reading Cosmopolitan

This week brought news that the US retail giant Wal-Mart has removed Cosmopolitan magazine from its checkout stands because of concerns expressed by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. Cosmo, it complained,

targets young girls by placing former Disney stars on its covers, despite the enclosed sexually erotic articles which describe risky sexual acts like public, intoxicated, or anal sex in detail.

The NCOSE might sound like a feminist organisation, but in fact it is a conservative religious pressure group whose original name was ‘Morality in Media Inc’. On learning of its deal with Wal-Mart, a number of feminists leapt immediately to Cosmo’s defence, arguing that the magazine

empowers women to embrace their sexuality and frequently encourages women to enjoy sex because it’s pleasurable and because women are deserving of that pleasure.

But there were also some feminists whose reaction was to say ‘hang on a minute—of course we shouldn’t support the religious Right, but wasn’t there a time when feminists were also critical of mainstream women’s magazines?’

The answer to that question is yes: criticism of mainstream women’s magazines was a recurring theme in second wave writing and, to some extent, second wave activism.

One memorable early action, undertaken by activists in New York City in 1970, was a sit-in at the offices of the Ladies Home Journal. The protesters (who included Susan Brownmiller and Gloria Steinem) demanded that the publishers hire an all-female editorial team to replace the existing, almost entirely male one, commission more content from women writers and pay them more, employ non-white women in proportion to their numbers in the population and provide on-site nurseries for women with children. Instead of endless articles about beauty and housework, they suggested publishing pieces on subjects like ‘how to get a divorce’, ‘how to have an orgasm’, ‘what to say to your draft-age son’ (this was the era of the Vietnam War) and ‘how detergents harm our rivers and streams’ (a nod to the emerging environmentalist movement, but also a jab at the cosy relationship between women’s magazines and the advertisers of products like shampoo and laundry soap).

These demands were (predictably) not met, but the women were permitted to edit a section of the magazine later that year, and in 1973 it got its first female editor-in-chief, Leonore Hershey. Meanwhile, dissatisfaction with the conventional formula based on fashion spreads, beauty advice and ‘how to get/keep/please a man’ tips prompted feminists in various places to set up alternative magazines—titles like Ms in the US, Spare Rib in the UK and Emma in Germany. Though they did include political content, these publications weren’t aimed exclusively at women who were active in feminist politics: they set out to attract a mass audience, and at their peak all achieved large circulations.

The place of Cosmopolitan in this history is complicated. It did attract feminist criticism, but not for exactly the same reasons as the Ladies Home Journal and its ilk, because it wasn’t the same kind of publication. On the contrary, it too was conceived as a ‘modern’ alternative to the traditional woman’s magazine. The iconic status it still has now—the status which led NCOSE and Wal-Mart to single it out from all the other titles sold at checkouts—can be related to its emergence at a transitional moment in the mid-1960s, when the sexual revolution was underway and the feminist second wave was about to break. In some ways the impulse behind it was genuinely (albeit never radically) feminist; in others it was not feminist at all.

Actually it’s not quite true to say that Cosmopolitan emerged in the mid-1960s. It was first established in the 1880s, but by the 1960s it was failing. Picture1The editor who turned its fortunes around, after pitching a rescue plan to its publisher, the Hearst Corporation, was Helen Gurley Brown, a former advertising copywriter who had also written, in 1962, a bestselling book entitled Sex and the Single Girl.  Whereas most women’s magazines targeted women who either had, or hoped soon to have, husbands and children, Brown’s proposal for Cosmopolitan channelled the same spirit as her book: she wanted to target women who were financially independent and sexually ‘liberated’ with ‘a variety of short pieces…that explore the single life, and contain frank discussions of sex, pregnancy, married men, work and money’.

This formula, centred on the kind of subject-matter other women’s magazines shied away from, eventually made Cosmopolitan a global market leader. Its success reflected some contemporary social trends whose significance Brown had grasped early on. More middle-class women were getting more education, and working to support themselves for longer before they married; more marriages were ending in divorce; the old, extremely censorious attitudes to pre- and extra-marital sex were changing, and the availability of reliable contraception (in particular, the pill—it was meant to be prescribed only to married women but there were ways to circumvent that) was reducing the risk of unwanted pregnancy. Brown saw that these developments had created a market for a new kind of woman’s magazine. And while the creation of Cosmopolitan pre-dated the second wave, in some respects—particularly the emphasis placed on women’s financial independence, their professional aspirations and their freedom to pursue sexual pleasure outside marriage—it anticipated the demands of the women’s movement.

In other respects, however, Brown’s ideas were closer to those of another high-profile magazine boss of the time, Playboy’s Hugh Hefner. Though she championed women’s sexual freedom, she also shared Hefner’s tendency to equate female sexual pleasure with the ability to please a man. That was reflected in the kind of sex advice for which Cosmopolitan became (in)famous, as well as in the highly sexualised images she selected for the magazine’s cover. (‘If you’re not a sex object’, she once wrote, ‘you’re in trouble’.) Picture3She also believed that women who wanted to get ahead at work could and should use their sexual allure to enlist men’s support or buy their patronage. (Sex and the Single Girl presents her own younger self as having slept her way out of the typing pool and into an advertising career.) And she took it for granted that the ‘fun, fearless female’ who was Cosmo’s target reader would need to pay constant attention to staying slim, youthful and well-groomed in order to attract an ‘eligible’ man. The single life might be fun, but successful women didn’t plan to be single forever.

These attitudes would soon attract criticism from women more closely linked to the nascent feminist movement, including Betty Friedan (whose own book denouncing compulsory domesticity, The Feminine Mystique, was published a year after Sex and the Single Girl). And the criticism would continue throughout Brown’s long career. When she died in 2012 at the age of 90, the director of the organisation Women in Media summed up the general feminist consensus by first acknowledging her achievements as a woman who had gained real power and influence in the male-dominated publishing industry, and then offering the opinion that the magazine she created was

one of the most body-shaming, insecurity-provoking, long-lasting sexist media products of the last 100 years.

In that context, there is indeed something a bit jarring about recent feminist defences of Cosmopolitan. Of course, there is also something jarring—not to say nauseating—about NCOSE’s press release hailing the removal of the magazine from Wal-Mart’s checkouts as a feminist triumph:

This is what real change looks like in our #MeToo culture, and NCOSE is proud to work with a major corporation like Walmart to combat sexually exploitative influences in our society.

The opportunistic hijacking of #MeToo by a thoroughly patriarchal (religious, conservative, male-headed) pressure group is especially repulsive. But do we really have to rush to embrace whatever conservatives attack?

The feminists of the second wave didn’t think so. Their movement emerged in opposition both to traditional patriarchal values and to the differently-patriarchal attitudes women had encountered in the leftist counterculture of the 1960s. It urged women to put their own experiences and desires at the centre and make their own social and sexual revolution. In that endeavour, generally speaking, it saw mainstream women’s magazines—whether they addressed themselves to Betty Friedan’s domesticated housewife or to Helen Gurley Brown’s ‘fun fearless female’—as more of a hindrance than a help.

OnPicture4e important element of the second wave analysis was economic: it pointed out that all these publications were designed largely as vehicles for commercial advertising, and as such they would be bound to promote a far-from radical idea of what it means to be a woman. That argument hasn’t become irrelevant in the 21st century, as some of this week’s commentary acknowledged: ‘if Cosmo was truly interested in women’s liberation and empowerment’, noted one writer,

it wouldn’t be focused on selling women thousands of dollars worth of products, clothing, and cosmetics aimed at “fixing” invented flaws and “wrong” bodies.

We don’t have to choose between the pro-family conservative sexual politics of the NCOSE and Wal-Mart and the consumerist, body-shaming, insecurity-provoking, sexually-objectifying pseudo-empowerment peddled by magazines like Cosmopolitan. Like the feminists who came before us, we can surely be critical of both.


For more on women’s magazines in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, follow Kate Long’s regular Vintage Mag Tweets (find her on Twitter @volewriter).

If you’re interested in the academic work second wave feminists produced on the subject of women’s magazines, here are a few classic references:

Ros Ballaster, Margaret Beetham, Elizabeth Frazer and Sandra Hebron, Women’s Worlds: Ideology, Femininity and the Women’s Magazine. Macmillan, 1991.
Marjorie Ferguson, Forever Feminine: Women’s Magazines and the Cult of Femininity. Heinemann, 1983.
Janice Winship, Inside Women’s Magazines. Pandora, 1987.




Comic books v. ‘Women’s Lib’

Many men felt threatened by second wave feminism—including some of America’s most successful comic book creators. Guest blogger Sydney Heifler explains how 1970s romance comic books became a vehicle for anti-feminist propaganda.

In March 1971, the Marvel romance comic My Love featured a story by Stan Lee entitled “No Man is My Master”. The central character is a young woman named Bev, who goes out on a date with Nick. Nick makes fun of Bev, orders her food for her, and won’t even call her by her name. At the end of the date, when she asks him if he treats all women like this, he tells her that “chicks are weak little creatures… and that’s the way I like it.”

No Man is My Master, My Love vol. 1 issue 10 (New York DC, March 1, 1971),Initially Bev accepts this, but after a girlfriend takes her to a Female Freedom Rally where the speaker declares that women “must be equal to men in every way”, she decides she’s had enough. In future she will date only “gentle” men who treat her as an equal. But she finds she doesn’t enjoy these dates. She can’t decide where she wants to go, and when a man asks permission to kiss her she becomes angry with him. Bev is confused: “I’ve got my freedom… No man can push me around… So what’s the big deal?”

Her question is answered at another Female Freedom meeting, where a speech urging comic 3women to demand equal wages and benefits convinces Bev she’s made a mistake: “Female Freedom isn’t about dates—or romance! It’s for job equality—and things like that!” She stops dating “nice” men and waits for Nick to contact her. The story ends with Nick telling her “Me Tarzan, you Jane!”—to which Bev responds, “And that’s the way it was meant to be!”

During the 1970s, many popular romance comic books produced by major imprints like Marvel responded to the growing visibility of second wave feminism by regularly publishing stories about—to use their own term—“Women’s Lib”. Invariably written by men, these stories presented the new feminist movement as a threat. Often they adopted the position taken in “No Man is My Master”, expressing support for moderate forms of ‘equality feminism’ while associating the more radical Women’s Liberation Movement with misguided and dangerous extremism. Women who acted on the insight that “the personal is political” by demanding equality in the home, or in romantic relationships with men, would soon discover that “liberation” did not bring happiness.

That was the moral of “Bride and Broom,” written by Jack Oleck in 1971 for the romance comic book Young Love. Bride and Broom Young Love, issue 90 1971It begins with the heroine, a young wife, wondering how the romance of “bride and groom” had turned so quickly into the drudgery of “bride and broom”. Dissatisfied with her domestic role, she participates in a Women’s Liberation march where a cop arrests her for blocking traffic. The cop mocks the movement, saying that women don’t know when they’re well off: she has a husband, what more can she want?

As she sits in jail pondering the injustice of women’s situation, she becomes increasingly angry and emotional; she is still angry when she learns that the cop has paid her bail. He says he’s been feeling guilty, and she lets him take her out for coffee. As they talk, he promises to try to learn about feminism, but she has to be “quiet” and not make any more “waves”. This conversation makes her feel calmer: “Suddenly, I wasn’t mad anymore. We women—we’re such softies.” She goes home to cook dinner for her husband, who turns out to be none other than the cop. The story ends with her addressing the reader:

How could I be angry? Sure he was a man, and he had a lot of old-fashioned notions, but he loves me.

Other Women’s Lib stories focused on “career girls” rather than frustrated housewives. “Call Me Ms.,” Love and Romance no 21 1975 - 1 In “Call Me Ms”, which appeared in Love and Romance in 1975, we meet Miss Robins, an ambitious feminist who refuses to let love get in the way of her career in advertising. One day, she objects to being ogled by a new client. He tells her he hasn’t come to “hassle with a chick who happens to have nice legs!”, and that if she doesn’t believe women should be attractive for men, he won’t let her work on the lip cream campaign. After she agrees to his terms, he apologizes for his behaviour, but adds that “Any girl who looks like you should expect men to admire them!” His words have an immediate effect: “He really likes me”, she muses; ‘I wonder if he’s married or engaged or anything…” By the end of the story he is engaged—to Miss Robins, who vows that marriage will always come before her career.

These stories continued a long tradition of using romance comic books to teach women about their roles and responsibilities. During World War II, when comic books came “Call Me Ms.,” Love and Romance no 21 1975 - 2under the influence of the US government via the Writers’ War Board, there were many stories of women finding true love when they went out to work to help the war effort (while those who did not join the workforce were unlucky in love). Towards the end of the war, the message was reversed: women who stayed at home found true love and happiness, while those who insisted on independence led miserable lives.

This message hardly changed during the 1950s and 1960s. Plotlines focused on marriage and the importance of finding a husband. Sexual relations were also touched on—women were only supposed to have sex once married. There was particular concern about teenage girls, who were gaining more independence through a booming youth culture. Romance comic books warned that their lives would be ruined if they kissed too freely or married too young. They also made clear that working outside the home was only acceptable for a young woman waiting to find a husband or a young wife waiting to have a child. “Call Me Ms.,” Love and Romance no 21 1975 - 3Women who tried to pursue careers either saw the error of their ways and got married by the end of the story, or else they came to understand that they were doomed to a life of loneliness.

In the 1960s feminists began to challenge this view of women’s role, and stories like the ones described above were the comic book industry’s response. This wasn’t just an insignificant fringe movement: Women’s Lib stories were written by famous comic book creators like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, they were produced by leading publishers like Marvel and Charlton, and they were read by large numbers of young women.

Today these stories have been largely forgotten: they are rarely discussed by historians of comic books, and when they do receive attention it is often very uncritical, downplaying or denying their anti-feminism. This may be, in part, because so much comic book analysis has been produced by fans, who are reluctant to criticize revered figures like Lee and Kirby. But academics have also portrayed the Women’s Lib stories of the 1970s as good-faith attempts by sympathetic male authors to come to terms with the new feminist movement.

comic 2That wasn’t how they were seen by actual feminists at the time. In 1971, the women of the Liberation News Service reprinted and responded to “No Man is My Master!” through the counterculture newspaper the Berkeley Barb. “Comics”, they observed, “are becoming increasingly political. We’re reprinting ‘No Man Is My Master’ not because it’s so unusual but because it is a good example of what Marvel Comics is up to”.

To contemporary feminist commentators it was clear that what the industry was up to was not supporting Women’s Liberation, but on the contrary, trying to undermine it. This anti-feminism should be acknowledged as part of comic book history—something to be critically analysed, not erased and put aside.





Courting controversy: the second wave on love and romance

Last week, the French newspaper Le Monde published a letter signed by a hundred women (including the actress Catherine Deneuve), which said that men’s freedom to pester (‘importuner’) women was ‘indispensable for sexual freedom’.  ‘How French!’ said the English-speaking pundits—but in fact plenty of English-speakers have expressed the same fear about #metoo. If men can’t try their luck in all the time-honoured ways, how will anyone in future ever have sex?

Faced with this question, a lot of women have answered: ‘don’t be ridiculous! Harassment is unwanted sexual attention, not any sexual attention. Do you think we can’t tell flirting from stalking, or consensual sex from assault?’

As put by opponents of #metoo, the question is indeed ridiculous (or at the very least, disingenuous). But the answer, arguably, isn’t quite as straightforward as the précis above might imply. What passes for ‘normal’ heterosexual courtship does have some features in common with harassment—in particular, the assumption that the male role is active and the female one passive. Both sexes learn that it’s men’s job to take the initiative, while women should not appear too interested initially in case they seem either desperate or slutty. On the assumption that their resistance is token, however—there to be overcome—men are expected to keep trying until eventually the woman gives in. As Jameela Jamil wrote recently:

Our society, the internet, and even our most mainstream media, constantly perpetuate the idea that men do not need to worry about what our needs and boundaries are. They just need technical consent, however that consent is acquired.

And as she points out, all too often it is acquired by way of pestering and badgering—the male prerogative defended in Le Monde as ‘indispensable for sexual freedom’.

Jamil also points out that these sexual scripts have to be learned, and one source from which we learn them is the cultural products we consume. She is particularly scathing about the sexism of popular music, with videos featuring scantily-clad women gyrating for ‘men who are sitting there on their arses, sometimes in outdoor winter layers’, and lyrics


In the past, Jamil suggests, popular culture idealised romantic love; today it glorifies naked sexual aggression. But reading this reminded me that feminists of the second wave were as critical of the ideology of romantic love as they were of sexual violence. Rather than seeing the two as opposites, feminists often made the argument that they were connected and mutually reinforcing.

In her 1974 book From Reverence to Rape: the Treatment of Women in the Movies, the film critic Molly Haskell wrote about the way women of her generation were induced (by, among other things, the movies they watched) to find pleasure in the idea of being overcome by the force of a man’s desire, and to see the manipulation of that desire as a source of power:

Those of us who were ambitious would use our femininity as Scarlett O’Hara [the heroine of Gone With The Wind] used hers; would flirt, tease, withhold sex, to get what we wanted. It would rarely occur to us to ask outright for a place on the starting line, to enter the ranks of competitive male activities and thereby lose our place on the pedestal and our ‘preferred’ passive position in the game of love. …We were guilty of conspiring in our own idealization—and our own oppression. For whatever else may have been our goals, we still assumed that the need men and women had for one another, and its satisfaction, was indissolubly linked to their roles as conqueror and conquered, and we accepted all the implications that followed from that first parsing of human nature into active and passive.

More than forty years on, the Le Monde letter–and other contributions to the anti-#metoo backlash–suggest that these attitudes have not withered away. Male ‘gallantry’ and feminine ‘wiles’ still have their defenders–though as feminists pointed out in the 1970s, these concepts presuppose that courtship is not a transaction between equals.

In 1984, Janice Radway published Reading the Romance, a now-classic feminist study of popular romance fiction. Rather than just analysing the books themselves, Radway sought out a community of regular romance readers in a midwestern American town she calls ‘Smithton’, and studied what they read, how they read, and what, by their own account, they got out of it. At the time, one of the most popular subgenres of romance fiction was what the industry called the ‘bodice ripper’, a new take on ‘gothic’ romance which was more sexually explicit—and more violent—than previous iterations. What flame-and-flower-2readers thought of this was among the questions Radway investigated.

She found that the Smithton women objected strongly to what they classified as rape scenes, but felt differently about scenes which involved, as one reader put it, ‘a little forceful persuasion’—even though the acts they put in that category would clearly, in the real world, have met the legal definition of rape. The distinction seemed to rest on their understanding of the man’s feelings for the heroine. If they were convinced that his use of force reflected, in Radway’s words, ‘his passion and her irresistibility’, they didn’t see it as abusive or unforgivable (though they also expected that as the story progressed his lust would give way to love, tenderness and the obligatory happy ending).

Radway discovered that the publishers of romance novels made a similar distinction in their advice for aspiring authors. One set of guidelines explained that a scene in which the hero raped the heroine could only be included on certain conditions, one being that ‘it must never be initiated with the violent motivation that exists in reality’. Women’s fantasy, the guidelines went on, was to ‘lose control’ with someone who really cared about them. If he didn’t care, it would be a ‘true rape’, and as such unacceptable to most readers.

Radway did not suggest—far from it, in fact—that the Smithton women were brainwashed dupes. What she did suggest, though, was that their way of making sense of romance fiction could be linked to their subordinate position. Like the heroines of gothic romance, they knew what it was to feel threatened, exploited or undervalued by men: what they got from their reading, Radway argued, was a way of reinterpreting hurtful or violent behaviour as an expression of men’s need and desire rather than their contempt.5293b8a343b464115800013e-1385412771-700x344

Many second-wave writings about the ideology of romantic love are reminiscent of what Marx said about religion (‘the opium of the people’). Though it gives comfort and pleasure to the oppressed, it is also an obstacle to the radical social change that would be needed to liberate them from oppression. As the #metoo debate continues, perhaps this is something we should think about. Do we just want men to become more sensitive seducers, or do we want to rewrite the traditional sexual script?






Before Cat Person: bad sex in second wave fiction

‘It is not every day’, wrote Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett in the Guardian this week, ‘that a short story goes viral’.  She was talking about Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person, published last week in the New Yorker, and subsequently shared, discussed and dissected by thousands of readers.

What has made Cat Person a sensation is not its literary qualities. It is basically, as Cosslett says,

a tale, straightforwardly told through the eyes of a young woman, of an unpleasant sexual encounter that she has with a somewhat ambiguous stranger who turns out to be actively unpleasant.

But the response it got from women readers was extraordinary.  Their comments emphasised its ‘relatability’, the way it resonated with their experiences and their feelings: some said it was as if Roupenian had read their minds. Among men, on the other hand, reactions ranged from simple bemusement (‘I don’t get it’, tweeted one, ‘it all seems very mundane’) to outright hostility. Which is perhaps unsurprising, given how unflatteringly the central male character is depicted:

During sex, he moved her through a series of positions with brusque efficiency, flipping her over, pushing her around, and she felt like a doll again, as she had outside the 7-Eleven, though not a precious one now—a doll made of rubber, flexible and resilient, a prop for the movie that was playing in his head. When she was on top, he slapped her thigh and said, “Yeah, yeah, you like that,” with an intonation that made it impossible to tell whether he meant it as a question, an observation, or an order, and when he turned her over he growled in her ear, “I always wanted to fuck a girl with nice tits,” and she had to smother her face in the pillow to keep from laughing again. At the end, when he was on top of her in missionary, he kept losing his erection, and every time he did he would say, aggressively, “You make my dick so hard,” as though lying about it could make it true. At last, after a frantic rabbity burst, he shuddered, came, and collapsed on her like a tree falling, and, crushed beneath him, she thought, brightly, This is the worst life decision I have ever made!

Many commentators have put the extreme responses–both positive and negative–down to the novelty or shock value of seeing heterosex depicted from the woman’s point of view. ‘If so many [women] feel this way’, asks Cosslett, ‘then why has it gone unsaid until now?’

Actually, it hasn’t gone unsaid until now. Cat Person is utterly contemporary in its language and its setting (it belongs to a world of dating apps, flirting by text and learning your moves from internet porn), but its depiction of sex–more specifically, of bad sex–reminds me strongly of some fictions that struck a similar chord with women in the 1970s.

In a 2003 article called ‘Beyond trashiness: the sexual language of 1970s feminist fiction‘, Meryl Altman discusses three novels written by American second wave feminists–Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972), Marge Piercy’s Small Changes (1973) and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973)–which became popular successes, selling enough copies outside the political subculture that produced them to ‘[carry] feminist revolutionary thought into millions of homes’. And the secret of their popularity, Altman suggests, was the way they approached the subject of sex.

They included lots of explicit heterosexual lovemaking, described from the women’s point of view, and they were forthright and clear that sexual satisfaction was important to women as well as men, that this was a reasonable and normal expectation – albeit an expectation often frustrated.

Among the recurring themes Altman identifies in these popular/feminist fictions are ‘the routine harassment and abuse of girls by boys and women by men’, ‘the expectation that [women] would both arouse and police desire’ and ‘an emphasis on sexual disappointment and male inadequacies, described in graphic detail’. Cat Person ticks the same boxes, especially the last. And just as commentators on it have been reminded of  Margaret Atwood’s aphorism ‘men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them’, so the 1970s novels very often depict men’s behaviour as simultaneously threatening and ridiculous.

Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, for instance, opens with the narrator Sasha telling her husband Frank that she has slept with another man. He responds by demanding sex (and reminding her that since they are married, she has no right to refuse):

I began to struggle in earnest. His breath on my neck made me very nervous. “Please, Frank, no fair.”
“Please, Frank, no fair,” he mimicked, adding, “bitch!”
…he pushed me onto one of the beds and deftly pinned my wrists over my head. With a wrench of his head he shook his glasses off; they dropped to the floor. I had a picture of myself as a comic-book victim, strangling on my own bra, which was flopping around my throat, and I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to laugh. But Frank looked so helpless without his glasses, dewy-eyed and unfocused, that bitch or no, I struggled not to laugh at him. …Instead I said, “I’ll scream!”
“Scream, then”, he mumbled. And, transferring both my wrists to one of his hands for an instant, he prepared with a minimum of undressing to rape me.

But then things take an unexpected turn:

There was no way out…to the accompaniment of my finally unsuppressible laughter, off we went on our last trip together.
This scene makes uncomfortable reading. Is what ultimately happens a rape, or isn’t it? It seems clear that Frank doesn’t care what Sasha wants, and is prepared to use force if he has to. She makes it so that he doesn’t have to, but her motives remain opaque: is she just resigned to the inevitable (‘there was no way out’), or does her anger give way to genuine affection, or pity?
51Stzakp-9L._SY346_What women want from sex, and how they negotiate between their own desires and others’ expectations or demands, are also questions explored in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. The resulting narrative, like Shulman’s, can be uncomfortable to read. After spending much of the novel pursuing what she refers to as ‘the zipless fuck’–a brief, anonymous sexual encounter unencumbered by emotional baggage–the heroine Isadora Wing finally gets to enact one of her favourite imaginary scenarios, having sex with a stranger on a train. But in real life she is not in control of the action, and she experiences the encounter as an assault. ‘I’d been offered my very own fantasy’, she reflects, ‘and instead of turning me on, it had revolted me!’
Like Cat Person, these second wave novels present us with female protagonists who have, as we say nowadays, ‘agency’–they are certainly not helpless victims, or passive creatures that things just happen to. Nor are they exemplary feminist heroines: though Marge Piercy’s characters are Political-with-a-capital-P, Shulman’s Sasha and Jong’s Isidora are not. They are on a quest for personal fulfilment, not trying to start a revolution. Nevertheless, their stories make clear that this quest exposes a woman to risks which men do not have to contend with, and that, in turn, exposes the limits of women’s freedom.PromQueen-cover01-330
Not only does Cat Person itself have precedents in 1970s fiction, its polarised reception echoes the way the earlier texts were talked about (albeit on a smaller scale, since the internet did not yet exist). One reviewer of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen wrote:
I daresay that not a woman reader will be really shocked and that the average man’s hair, regardless of length, will automatically stand on end from page to page.
Another suggested that
Men may curse, they may howl . . . yet men owe it to themselves to see themselves plain, as their wives and girlfriends perceive them.
Yet here we are in 2017 listening to another generation of men cursing and howling in response to another story portraying a man through a woman’s eyes. Has anything really changed since Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen?  Alix Kates Shulman asked that question herself in 1997, when the novel was reissued to mark its 25th anniversary:
Shall I rejoice that the novel, steadily in print since 1972, remains sufficiently alive to the times as to warrant a new, celebratory edition? Or should I bemoan the conditions that keep its social satire current?
Twenty years on, I think the answer is probably ‘both’. The reception of Cat Person suggests that there is still plenty to bemoan. But we should also acknowledge and celebrate the fact that women haven’t just been silent all this time. There’s a whole tradition of using fiction–comic, satirical and sexually explicit–to offer a critical female  perspective on heterosexual relations. And that evidently still packs a punch.

Political lesbianism revisited

Some second wave feminists argued that withdrawing from sexual relationships with men was a radical political act. Among those who took this position were the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, whose paper on the subject caused controversy in the late 1970s. In this post, guest blogger Sydney Heifler re-reads the debate.   

In the late 1970s, the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group presented a paper called ‘Political lesbianism: the case against heterosexuality’, which was later published in the feminist newsletter WIRES.*  It argued that women who were serious about feminism needed to stop having sexual relations of any kind with men. Why? Because heterosexual relationships support misogyny, full stop.

Large numbers of feminists, including lesbians, were critical of this argument. Many felt it reflected the misogynist logic of telling women how they should feel, and was unfair to straight women who had to figure out what heterosexual relationships meant for them on their terms. Others thought the proposed solution—political lesbianism—was simplistic and idealistic and couldn’t change the patriarchy. However, very few denied that heterosexual relationships were oppressive to women and problematic for feminism.

It would seem that this argument has died out. Sex, with or without a penis, is seen as liberating for women—a way to defy the idea that women are submissive.  If you look closely at today’s idea of heterosexual relationships, both as propagated in the mass media and as experienced by women personally, you can see that the issue isn’t dead. It is alive and well, and feminists still need to address it.

Even though modern women’s publications, such as Cosmo and Jezebel, would have readers think that sex has liberated the male-female relationship, their topics indicate otherwise: their writers are still excessively worried over whether or not any given woman knows how to properly swirl their tongue around a man’s penis and they think that exciting sex is bending over a sprinkler while the male partner takes the woman from behind. Women are writing these articles. Can we say that Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group was wrong?

As a heterosexual woman who has only ever had sexual and romantic relations with men, I believe that there are men out there whose don’t intend to oppress, and I don’t think every sexual act with a man is a form of oppression. That said, I also realize that all men, at least in the society I belong to, are privileged in some way by the patriarchal system. This privilege allows for oppression, which will reveal itself in a heterosexual relationship at some point. Half of the relationship, the man, has absorbed a sense of his own entitlement throughout his life. Misogyny has been pushed on him as much as it has on women.

In this sense, the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group was right. Feminists who participate in heterosexual relationships do confront a paradox. Does that make political lesbianism a viable option? A complete withdrawal from relationships with men would stop them from exploiting women on a personal level, but it wouldn’t change the system that grants them their privilege. (And in practice it would be impossible get all women to abandon heterosexual relationships.)

Maybe it’s time to change the heterosexual relationship and create new demands. The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group suggested that it’s better to fight sexism with other women than it is to fight with your male partner. But while this would free up more time to devote to the feminist cause (or simply to existing peacefully), would it block other kinds of feminist action aimed at changing men’s behaviour (like the actions Pat Mainardi described in 1970 in “The Politics of Housework” and making relationships between men and women equal?  (What would equality look like? It would surely look different from the heterosexual relationships we have today, or those we had in the 1970s.)

This line of reasoning poses a question which The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group answered with a resounding no, but which is still unresolved for many feminists today. Can men change, and will they? If not, then what?

*In 1981 Onlywomen Press published the text of ‘Political lesbianism’ along with the responses it attracted in WIRES, plus the LRFG’s responses to the debate, as Love Your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism. You can read the first part of it here.


Resist cock privilege! Free the clitoris!

Inspired by Anne Koedts The myth of the vaginal orgasm and Robin Morgans Goodbye to all that, guest blogger Santina Sorrenti presents a 21st century (waveless) feminist manifesto.

FRIGIDITY. Women, hold that word in your hands, put it in your pocket, keep it a secret. Ice-cold, lamenting, uninviting, unpenetrable for pleasure and lost in our heads–these are caws heard from men nearby as they stand in groups with their pint in hand stimulating each other’s erections by conversing about their “cock privilege”. A privilege that manifests itself in men’s ability to penetrate a woman both in bed and in her workplace.

It’s the 21st century, and still we cannot be legitimized as autonomous beings, whether we are a freak in the sheets or make money in the streets—these are the rhymes of (what we think is) sexual emancipation. We may feel more sexually liberated now than in the 1970s, but how much freer are we?

Our anatomy is still the same and still sabotaged the same. Our clitorises still exist but they are refuted, ignored, operated on and cut off. ‘Girls nights’ prevail, as we reflect on ideas that men consider whingeing and can’t bear to listen to. We speak about masturbation, our failed Tinder dates and the unpleasant experience of having sex with our lovers and still failing to cum to our senses. “But I love him so much”, exclaims my best friend. “But I love my clit more”, utters another who shows her desperate friends how to utilize sex toys after her husband goes off to work.

Wake up! Wake up! It’s 2017 but it still feels like 1970. It’s 7am and you have to get to work. You run your own business, you own your own ‘bachelor pad’ in the West End and drive yourself to the office where you manage a team of 150 people. Yet here is your boyfriend at 7am rubbing his erection against you even though you blatantly said NO three times. You feel imprisoned, you feel guilty and you feel annoyed. The fourth attempt is coming and you try to race to the shower but he pulls you close to him as he demands your affection and he promises to make you breakfast. You fall into the trap and there you are on your back thinking about all the tasks that need to be completed today at work. It’s hard to manage these thoughts as your boyfriend hovers over you while his cock revels in the privilege of being able to be pleasured, by your vagina NOT you. But at least you get some free breakfast that you do not have to labor for.

You get up and race to work, your body overworked and your clitoris underwhelmed. You arrive at your desk and open your Facebook feed only to be confronted with visuals and slogans or feminist memes that your friends persistently share. One promotes the hashtag #metoo, bringing awareness to the (male based) sexual violence that women continue to face. Another shows a girl taking selfies with men from whom she has faced street harassment. Click! Down the page you scroll. All you see is a barrage of activist slogans with one that reads ‘free the nipple’ displaying a picture of a woman posing topless with a refusal to have her nipples blurred out. Free the nipple? What is one nipple going to do?

In 1970 Anne Koedt’s ‘The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm’ spoke to the false assumptions made about female bodies. Women were described as ‘frigid’ because they were unable to orgasm from vaginal penetration. But it’s impossible! The vaginal canal has no sensitivity, only the clitoris does. We have been defined sexually in accordance with what pleases men. And nothing has changed. More than ever this idea is perpetuated through visual and media representations such as mainstream pornography and Hollywood films.It’s also pervasive in the school system, through heteronormative sex education classes, teen magazines and student gossip in the cafeteria.

Heteronormativity is such bore, it is a disease that infects every institution. It is strong and dominant but it has an inferiority complex. Men are scared. Worried that if they give power to the clitoris it will take over. That a giant clit will storm in and grant women equal pay, stop sexual harassment in the streets, put an end to home cooked meals and a clean house.

We must resist sexual submission. Goodbye to weekly sex. Goodbye to fulfilling his sexual fantasies. Goodbye to making sure you go down on him when he won’t even use his mouth on you. Hello to sexual explorations with other women and yourself. Hello to diffusing information on your latest self pleasing techniques to your girlfriends. Hello to refusing sex unless it is on your terms. Hello to meet-ups IN PERSON in the 21st century. Mobilizing, educating, getting your voices heard (but not just online).

Free your body! Free your anatomy! Free yourself from submission! Free yourself from alarm clocks in the form of erections! Free the psychologically ill women! Free your vagina! Free yourself through mental fantasy! Free your flesh! Free your hair! Free lesbianism! Free your mind! Free yourself from heteronormativity! Resist cock privilege! FREE THE CLITORIS!


The second wave v. Hugh Hefner

Note for readers new to ‘Re-reading the Second Wave’ : this blog is associated with a women’s studies course on second wave feminism, and it’s active during the half of the year when the course is running (roughly October to March). I explain why I started it here, and you can look at the course syllabus here. This is the first post of the 2017-18 session.

Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine, died last week at the age of 91. Many obituaries repeated his own claim to have been a leader in the field of women’s rights. As he told Esquire magazine in 2002:

I was a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism. That’s a part of history very few people know.

The fact that Hefner could get away with saying this suggests that even fewer people know much about the history of second wave feminism. Fortunately, some of the women who took issue with Hefner in the 1960s and 70s–when he was building his empire and they were building a new political movement–are still around to set the record straight.

Writing in the New York Times, Susan Brownmiller recounts that in 1970 she and Sally Kempton were invited to appear on The Dick Cavett show to discuss the new Women’s Liberation Movement. When they got there they discovered that Hugh Hefner was also a guest. Asked what Women’s Liberation was about, Brownmiller replied: ‘Hugh Hefner is my enemy’. She went on to explain: ‘women aren’t bunnies, they aren’t rabbits, they’re human beings’. And then she addressed Hefner directly: ‘the day you come out here with a cottontail attached to your rear…’

The point feminists like Brownmiller were making, a novel one at the time, was that treating women as sexual objects did nothing to advance their rights or their freedom: on the contrary, it was demeaning and dehumanising. Hefner never saw their point. Whenever he was accused of objectifying women he would say that women were by nature sex-objects, and that in treating them as such he was affirming their sexuality. He seems to have believed that female sexual desire was entirely passive, and that what gave women pleasure was pleasing men.

This was exactly the problem the women of the second wave had with the sexual revolution of the 1960s, in which many of them had participated–enthusiastically to begin with, since there was nothing conservative or ‘anti-sex’ about their philosophy, but with increasing dissatisfaction as they learnt from experience that the revolution wasn’t actually about women’s desires, women’s freedom or women’s pleasure.  It was all about men getting what they wanted from women. As Susan Brownmiller also notes in her New York Times piece, this was the real reason why Hefner supported abortion rights (a ‘progressive’ position for which many obituaries lauded him). The Playboy lifestyle was about sex without strings or commitment: if abortion was legal, women who became pregnant would have less power to demand that the father marry or support them.

Whatever he said to Esquire in 2002, in the 1970s Hefner knew very well that feminists considered him an enemy–and there is hard evidence that he felt the same about them. One of the most interesting personal testimonies published last week was Susan Braudy’s account of being commissioned to write a piece on the new Women’s Liberation Movement for Playboy in 1970, when she was an aspiring writer fresh out of college and not (yet) a feminist herself (though she would be by the end of the process). Initially  Braudy was told to make her piece ‘objective’ and ‘neutral’, explaining the facts about feminism rather than taking a position for or against it. She was told that if she did this, she wouldn’t be censored. When she first submitted her text the editors were pleased with it. But (as many of the feminists she interviewed had predicted), Hugh Hefner, the boss, had other ideas. He handed Braudy a memo, part of which read:

The women’s movement is rejecting the overall roles that men and women play in our society—the notion that there should be any differences between the sexes whatever other than the physiological ones. It is an extremely anti-sexual unnatural thing they are reaching for. It is now up to us to do a really expert, personal demolition job. …Doing a rather neutral piece on the pros and cons of feminism strikes me as being rather pointless for Playboy. What I’m interested in is the highly irrational, emotional, kookie trend that feminism has taken. These chicks are our natural enemy.

Not, you might think, the words of someone who was ‘a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism’.

Braudy was asked to make drastic changes which she could not agree to, and in the end she withdrew her article. Instead Playboy commissioned an overtly anti-feminist piece by a man, which appeared under the title ‘Up against the wall, male chauvinist pig!’ But the drama wasn’t quite over. After the piece appeared, a secretary at Playboy, Shelly Schlicker, was caught in the office at night, xeroxing Hefner’s memo about Braudy’s original article so that she could leak it to the press. For this act of feminist solidarity Schlicker was fired, but the underground press picked up her story and eventually it did get into the mainstream. For Braudy the consequences were positive: she was hired to write for Newsweek, one of the mainstream publications which had carried the story and thought it reflected well on her integrity.

Another ambitious young woman journalist had taken on Hugh Hefner and his growing business empire seven years earlier in 1963 (when there was not yet such a thing as the Women’s Liberation Movement, though the second wave was getting ready to break–this was also the year in which Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique). Gloria Steinem, who would later found Ms magazine, went undercover at the Playboy Club in New York City, gaining employment as a Bunny under the fictitious name of Marie Ochs (she also had to lie about her age–it was 28, whereas the upper limit for new Bunnies was 24) so that she could document the women’s working conditions.

Steinem’s report, ‘I was a Playboy Bunny’, was published in two parts in Show magazine, and later republished in a collection of her writings, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. (It was also made into a TV movie starring Kirstie Alley, entitled A Bunny’s Tale.)  I found re-reading it this week a fascinating experience, because although it documents the fact that Bunnies were routinely sexually harassed by customers (and makes clear that this was what they were there for), and also the outrageous fact that new employees were forced to undergo internal medical exams and STI testing (this policy did get changed after Steinem’s piece came out), it belongs to the era before feminists named sexual harassment as a distinct phenomenon, and the overall emphasis of the account falls less on the overtly sexualised aspects of the work than on the ways in which it resembled other forms of work done by women (Bunnies were essentially waitresses and cloakroom attendants in revealing and painful uniforms), and reproduced features of many workplaces where men as well as women are exploited (like punishing shift-work, insufficient breaks, crappy food, pay that was always less than the advertised rate, withheld tips, petty regulations you could be fined for infringing, and middle managers taking the flak for the bosses (in this case these intermediaries were women–‘Bunny Mothers’, the Aunt Lydias of Hefner’s regime)).

‘I was a Playboy Bunny’ is essentially a brilliant piece of muck-raking investigative journalism, of the sort male writers had done in other industries where exploitation was rife. But because Steinem’s access depended on being able to pose as a Bunny–which in turn required her to meet certain standards of youth and physical attractiveness–she got a rather different reception. She recalls that after the Show piece she lost several good assignments because someone who had dressed up in a corset, ears and a tail was not taken seriously–she was both trivialised and sexualised in much the same way as the women she was writing about. Throughout her career as a prominent spokeswoman for feminism she has often been confronted with publicity pictures from her short stint as a Bunny–despite his protestations to the contrary, Hugh Hefner did not forgive or forget. As recently as this year, she told the Guardian that she had regrets about doing the story.

Since the 1970s Hugh Hefner has come under critical scrutiny from other feminists for other reasons. There was the issue of Playboy’s use of underage models and its attempts to minimise the problem of child abuse editorially, as laid out in this piece by Samantha Berg in 2004; there was also the way Hefner treated the ‘playmates’ who lived with him in his mansion, recorded as entertainment for a reality TV show, but retold as a story of abuse by one of the woman concerned, Holly Madison, in her 2015 memoir Down the Rabbit Hole (in fact, while the tribute-writers were able to line up various women to praise Hefner after his death, quite a number have spoken out about the unpleasant realities of their experience with him).  And since the first rush of what Brownmiller aptly dubs ‘fawning tributes’, there have been a number of more bracing assessments from feminists like Liz Posner at Alternetthe Guardian’s Suzanne Moore, Glosswitch in the New Statesman, and Claire Heuchan in Glamour.

I’m glad to see these contemporary feminists contradicting the mainstream obituarists’ received view of Hefner as, yes, a womaniser in his youth and a bit of an old lech in his later years, but basically a liberal guy who supported the right causes. But I have seen people on social media saying that theirs is the anachronistic judgment of a more puritanical feminist generation.  It isn’t, and the pieces I’ve linked to by Susan Braudy, Susan Brownmiller and Gloria Steinem show it isn’t. The feminists of the second wave were onto Hugh Hefner, and critical of what he stood for, from the first. What we ought to remember isn’t his claim to have been ‘a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism’, it’s the statement he made 32 years earlier, in an internal memo rather than for public consumption, that ‘these chicks are our natural enemies’. He was right the first time.