February 26, 2014

The anti-self-esteem climate of the 1980s, seen from Cosmopolitan magazine

We can learn a lot about how people's mindsets change by looking at things that are the most pandering. High culture also reflects the broader changes in society, but its creators are less concerned with what most people want -- if they like it, good, they recognize my genius; if not, well screw 'em. The more that they're trying to draw in and hook a target audience, the better they have to know what makes that audience tick. For them, it's not some pointless academic debate -- if they're wrong, they're out of business.

Last year I took a look at how adolescent / young adult female nature has changed since the '80s, using the covers of Seventeen magazine. (Here is the last of three posts, which links to the first two.) What about women who are more grown up, say in their 20s and 30s?

Have a look at this cover of Cosmopolitan from 1986. I didn't search for every issue from that year or the years around it -- I was just poking around Google Images and it came up. But the fact that even one issue could try to hook readers this way shows how different the world used to be. Click to enlarge.

Now, we tend to think of Cosmo as the cheerleading guru for the modern slutty career gal, and yet read the text.

"Man-shortage statistics lie. He's out there if you don't insist he be older and more successful."

AKA, you're no princess yourself, so lower your standards and learn to settle.

"When you're ashamed of what you do with men. Is the pleasure worth the pain?"

Look how far we have devolved -- back in the '80s, the word "shame" in a sexual context could be sincerely printed on the cover of Cosmo, without dismissive scare quotes. It's not preaching fire and brimstone, but trying to reach fallen women on an understanding level.

Also note the assumption that women got pleasure from men, all without having to read inside about 50 TRICKS FOR BETTER SEX -- TONIGHT! Women's bodies were not as numb to human touch as they are these days. I don't think it's because men were better at giving it to them either, else the mags today would advertise "how to get your boyfriend to give it to you better."

"What's right and wrong in a morally muddled world? A guide to behavior in the Eighties."

Notice, they didn't say "how to get through" this topsy-turvy world of ours, in a purely utilitarian tone. The reader wanted to know about the rightness or wrongness of her behavior, and perhaps of other's. This meant she was prepared to hear that what she was doing was wrong.

"It's not easy being green. Overcoming jealousy."

Calling a girl "jealous" these days is the ultimate dismissive insult. "Whatever -- you're just jealous." And here we see the main megaphone of the sexual revolution accusing the audience of being jealous, not to dismiss them but to make them want to improve their character.

Young women back then were prepared to have their self-esteem challenged just by glancing over the cover of Cosmo. No easy ego-stroking about how you treat people, no empty reassurance that 2014 will be your best year ever, and no glib dismissal of anyone who doesn't like you as jealous -- read inside about 5 PAINLESS WAYS TO GET OVER THE HATERS.

One of the benefits of growing up in a rising-crime period is that you don't think being naive is cool. Being sheltered and clueless will make you an easier target for robbers, rapists, serial killers, kidnappers, drug dealers, and cult recruiters. The socially outgoing environment of rising-crime times gives you another set of reasons why being clueless is bad -- if you don't know or care about how others view you, how are you supposed to fit in with a crowd or belong to a community?

Losing your naivete means being prepared to hear harsh things about yourself, albeit in a sympathetic tone, and taking a practical approach to improving -- not wallowing in self-pity like an attention whore.

With falling crime rates and a cocooning orientation toward other people, kids these days think it's better to block out the potentially distressing reality about the moral quality of their behavior, and how others respond to them. After all, what cost will they pay for ignorance? They're locked indoors all day, so criminals can't exploit their cluelessness. They want to interact as little as possible with their peers, so any ostracism would be out of sight, out of mind. And they don't really think that much of their peers anyway -- "I mean, some of them are kind of cool, but not as cool as me, and that's what really matters." So who cares what a bunch of losers thinks anyway?

If you want to teach young people a little humility, you have to shove them out there into an unsupervised peer group, and let them experience ("learn") first-hand that they aren't as supremely awesome as they think they are, and that that doesn't mean the end of the world.


  1. I love articles like this. The least you can do is post links to new blog entries at MPC. We miss you!

  2. I had no idea Agnostic had a posting career. I'm just a professional lurker there.

  3. Granted, I haven't perused the pages of Cosmopolitan in some time now, but the cover stories seem more adult-oriented than the headlines I see nowadays. Is the entire culture more juvenile in falling-crime times?

  4. It also helped that Helen Gurley Brown was also pretty level-headed about male-female relationships, at least compared to the editors of women's magazines today. I didn't think much of her when she was alive, but like a number of other people from that era, I've come to appreciate her more with the passing years.

  5. There was a cultural shift around 92-93. People noticed it while it was going on and called it "dumbing down". You can see it in things as diverse as Sports Illustrated and college courses.

  6. Helen Gurley Brown was born in the early '20s, along with Sloan Wilson and Betty Friedan. They were children during the Jazz Age, whereas the Boomers were children during the cocooning / Dr. Spock heyday of the Mid-century. Your formative years are very, uh, formative.

  7. Notice how pouty lips look fetching with skillful shiny makeup? Must be what today's trout-lips think they look like. And I miss big hair on girls.


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