The Cosmo Feminist

In May of this year, The Washington Post published a thoughtful review of a book that just came out, Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown, by Jennifer Scanlon. Brown was the founder of Cosmopolitan magazine and the author of the wildly popular Sex and the Single Girl. The reviewer is Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, and more recently, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot.

A great deal of this review is a discussion about the two “styles” of feminism: Betty Friedan’s “intellectual, ideological, group-oriented feminism against Brown’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, girl-power style.” I don’t recall Brown’s approach ever being thought of as a style of feminism in the 60s; in fact, it drew a lot of fire from Second Wave feminists for its emphasis on how a woman’s sexual persona. Brown was saying that a woman had the right to seek and give sexual pleasure, Second Wavers were ambivalent about sexual posturing because of the fear that it turned women into sexual objects.

What is ironic is that these days younger Third Wave feminists have more in common with Brown than with Friedan. They see Second Wave feminists as humorless party-poopers. They may be right, but why do they think their way of being feminist has more merit? As long as a woman is socialized into believing that it is her “duty” to be sexually alluring, she is going to run the risk of obsessing about how she looks more than how she thinks or acts.

What does it do to a woman when her every waking thought is about how she looks? Second Wavers wanted to liberate women from this tyranny. They were trying to make a point: women should be valued for who they are, not for what they look like. There’s no denying that they threw the baby out with the bathwater. But many Third Wave feminists don’t want to mess with the bathwater. They’re ignoring the unhealthy aspects of being appearance-conscious. They’re setting themselves up for negative self-images and the accompanying low self-esteem.

We need to find a happy medium between the Cosmo girl and the radical feminist. There’s nothing wrong with having a playful attitude toward makeup, hairstyles and fashion. But as Naomi Wolf says in her review: “What [today’s feminism lacks] is a grass-roots movement that will drive the political will. ‘Lipstick’ or lifestyle feminism won’t produce that movement alone.”

Followup: Online Q&A transcript with Naomi Wolf.