Cosmo always had its niche, being the magazine you had to sneakily read for the sex tips and avoid getting caught by your parents. Yet that Cosmo — silly, sex-obsessed Cosmo — was one of the big ASME winners last night, winning its first National Magazine Award in the personal service category for its piece, “Your Guide to Contraception.” How did that happen?
The answer, of course, is simple. Over the last year, American Cosmo has become secretly awesome — although you wouldn’t necessarily guess that was the case from the headlines. I can remember, distinctly, flipping through the January 2014 book on the newsstand. Lauren Conrad was on the cover, the headlines were a blur of sex tips and naughtiness. But inside there was an article by the excellent writer Ariel Schrag next to a lengthy piece about couples who’ve dealt with an abortion. There was a feature on lesbian lifestyles and culture, written in a tone that was very, very different from the Cosmo of the past, and it nearly felt like I was reading something smart and funny from Autostraddle. (Cosmo has always been a way hetero magazine, sort of like your drunken sorority sister, rooted in the idea of “pleasing your man.”) But the content shift didn’t happen overnight.
In Edith Zimmerman’s August 2012 New York Times Magazine article on Cosmo as a worldwide brand juggernaut, she points out the magazine’s trademark cover lines: “Its covers rarely fail to feature at least one bold, all-caps rendering of the word ‘sex.’ The August issue, for instance, offered ’52 Sex Tips’ and ‘When Your Vagina Acts Weird After Sex.’ A sampling of 2012 headlines includes ’50 Sex Tips,’ ’50 Kinky Sex Moves,’ ’99 Sex Questions’ and ‘His Best Sex Ever.'” Zimmerman argues that Cosmo has had a downmarket reputation among young American women in particular, citing the salacious sexy-sex headlines on the covers (often framing reality show B-listers) as a big part of that. The most interesting bit of Zimmerman’s piece was the assertion that Cosmo is maybe the only source of discussion around women’s issues in countries like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
In September 2012, Joanna Coles took over as Cosmo‘s editor-in-chief. She had a challenge ahead of her: under its previous head, Katie White, Cosmo was a titan, one of the few successful magazines out there. And in just a year and a half, Coles has seemingly kept the magazine’s signature, sunny vibe, at least on the cover.
But inside, it’s a different story. The former EIC of Marie Claire, Coles has added a newsy, feminist vibe to the Cosmo world, and while it may not be trumpeted next to seven sex positions, it’s there. They’ve run excellent reported features on victims of cyberbullying and how some young women are fighting back, and another piece entitled, “I Survived a Campus Shooting.” The content is also there online, with editor Amy Odell (formerly of The Cut and BuzzFeed) making the website into a place that’s fast, funny, and current, the sort of site that actually gets linked to these days.
But perhaps the most cheering news is of Cosmo‘s recent hire, Jill Filipovic, the editor of Feministe and a columnist for The Guardian — as, explicitly, a reporter covering politics and “the impact of policy on women’s rights.” (She’s already filed a piece on abortion in Brazil.) The focus on political issues affecting women today has had an effect on Cosmo‘s numbers, at least online; according to a recent article on Filipovic’s hiring in Capital New York, those numbers have doubled from 13 million in August 2013 to 25 million in March 2014.
Maybe smart content is the new sex tip? Coles hasn’t even been at the helm of the Cosmo ship for two years, and the changes that she’s making are fascinating to see. Balancing smart stuff with Cosmo‘s heritage seems like a challenge, but it’s there in the magazine. The rest of the media just needs to be talking about it more.