Can feminism feed into patriarchy? A response to the Walmart/Cosmo debate

by Hanna Nicholls

Several weeks ago, Walmart and the National Centre on Sexual Exploitation announced they would no longer sell Cosmopolitan magazine at the checkout of 5,000 Walmart locations. In a joint statement, Walmart and the NCOSE insist that Cosmo “places women’s value primarily on their ability to sexually satisfy a man and therefore plays into the same culture where men view and treat women as inanimate sex objects.” Since the announcement, a polarizing debate has risen about the state of female sexuality in our contemporary culture. In an opinion piece for CNN titled  “What Walmart doesn’t get about #MeToo,” Melissa Blake argues:

Cosmo is much more than the supposedly smutty sex bible this move by Walmart implies. It’s a teaching tool and it totally embraces the needs of its readers. And it asks and swiftly answers the question: What does it mean to be a woman in 2018? The 2018 woman is empowered. She’s emboldened to go for what she wants – both in her work and in her relationships – so why can’t that be celebrated instead of demonized?

Although Melissa Blake is not wrong, she is not right, either. She is, for example, correct in bringing attention to the double standards that exist between women’s magazines like Cosmo and men’s magazines like Sports Illustrated, and how this continues to go unaddressed even after the decision most recently made by Walmart and the NCOSE.  She is even right in saying that Cosmo may indeed serve as a teaching tool for young women, but what is it teaching and what values is it perpetuating?

Cosmo may operate under a guise of feminism and female empowerment, but, like many popular culture platforms, it uses stereotypical images of femininity and female sexuality to promote a brand of feminism that does little to empower women in the way it claims to.

In our contemporary climate, pop culture and media are how many women and young girls learn about feminism, their sexuality and how to embrace it. We are constantly bombarded with images of seemingly sexually confident and in control women (think Kim Kardashian’s endless Instagram feed of sexually explicit selfies) who teach viewers that it’s OK to be sexually confident and free. And that is so important. Women have certainly reached a freer sexual code in recent years, but contemporary feminism and representations of female sexuality continue to be laden with classic constructions of femininity under patriarchy. These images cater to the male gaze, and continue to teach women that their value lies within their bodies.

These images promote a brand of feminism in which the hypersexualized woman is powerful and in control. But how can women be powerful and in control when the same ideals that were once oppressive now define that empowerment and power? Magazines like Cosmo, which Melissa Blake situates as a valuable teaching tool, continue to play into a culture in which female sexuality is constructed by heterosexual-male visions of what femininity and sexuality look like. Such images create unrealistic ideals and perceptions of femininity and sexuality by prioritizing a specific kind of sexual empowerment. In this way, these images negate experiences that lie outside of that cis-gendered definition.

This is not to say that women who consider themselves to be sexually free are not; different things empower different people, but it becomes problematic when our culture perpetuates a narrow definition of empowered sexuality. It’s not difficult to see what this definition looks like: megastars like Kim Kardashian, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande and Fergie are perfect embodiments of such. Kim Kardashian’s sexually charged photos, Fergie’s incredibly problematic anthem of female empowerment that is MILF$, and Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj’s Side to Side, all promote a vision of feminism in which it is powerful to cater to the male gaze.

Circling back to the Walmart/Cosmo debate, Melissa Blake is right in saying that Cosmo and similar platforms serve as a teaching tool, but we need to be critical of exactly what they are teaching. We need to be critical of the images that are promoted as feminist and empowering. Cosmo may encourage women to explore their sexuality, and they may report on critical issues like sexual assault and reproductive rights, but that does not excuse them from feeding into the patriarchal values that continue to undermine the contemporary feminist movement.  

The reality of our current climate is that women continue to move through a patriarchal culture that oppresses them. #MeToo and #Time’sUp have impacted the conversation of gender inequality and rampant sexual harassment in all industries in meaningful ways, but there are still gains that need to be made. Our justice system does little to protect women who are sexually assaulted, rape culture and slut-shaming continue to shape women’s sexual experiences both in the media and real life, and the sexualization of women, particularly women of colour, continues to dominate platforms like Cosmo that Melissa Blake and others slate as such important teaching tools. Teaching women and men the underpinnings of patriarchal culture is critical to this movement, and the recent move by Walmart and NCOSE brings our attention to exactly that necessity.

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