If Things Have Changed for Women, Why Are We Still Reading the Same Crap?

Publications aimed at young women still pick at the same insecurities they did in 1939.
Publish date:
September 15, 2011
sexism, magazines

When I was back in the US this summer, I picked up a copy of "Cupid’s Book" in an antique store. A thick pamphlet, Cupid’s Book was handed out to American brides in 1939, an advertorial in the guise of starter advice for the modern woman.

Inside, sections titled, "The Problem of Domesticating Loveliness" and "The Gay Informality of Luncheon" are interspersed with advice such as "Don’t permit knees to part when descending stairs" and advertisements for Clorox bleach.

I was reading this, chuckling to myself about how regressive it was, until I stumbled across a story on a modern women's magazine website entitled "The one text you should never send a guy: It'll make him so >:/" which read:

This morning tons of guys were tweeting about their pet peeves, using the trending topic #WaysToPissMeOff. A recurring theme was texting etiquette and things that bothered them about texting with a woman. And as we read through their tweets, we noticed something really interesting and surprising: We expected them to be venting about how we ladies tend to write long texts and get pissed when they use one-word responses. But in fact, it was the opposite. The majority of the men said it pissed them off when they sent a long message and the girl sent back a short text.

The piece might include an emoticon and be about smartphones but it is written in essentially the same way as a story in Cupid’s Book which explains the results of a questionnaire sent to new husbands:

The key question asked the husbands was: "If you could make one change in your wife and only one, what would it be?’ The answer sent in by the greatest number of husbands should be pasted in the drawer of every bride’s dressing table, for an overwhelming majority of them said: ‘I wish my wife would pay more attention to her appearance."

It isn't news that this magazine (which, by the way, is the largest women’s magazine in the world, published in 34 languages) sometimes doles out regressive advice to women, but I am shocked at just how similar the language is. I’m also surprised to find that with all of the changes in the past 70 years, we still have the same exact insecurities being exploited in stories which are just thinly veiled advertisements for spray cleaners and skin creams.

I snorted with disbelief when I read in Cupid's Book the impossible-to-follow advice “Being genuinely excited about the other fellow makes you irresistible.” But number two on the current list of eight things guys notice was “If Your Smile Is Genuine" which tells women that "Sometimes your eyes crinkle a bit when you grin. Most men are good at distinguishing the vibe of this kind of smile, which says you’re relaxed and fun.”

Both sound ridiculous when you take them out of their context, but this is the kind of language that sticks with a woman and inhibits her ability to see herself clearly. I can remember whole passages from magazines I read when I was young and though I cringe to think about them, they have had a lasting impact on everything from how I look at men to how often I pluck my eyebrows.

We seem to think that because we are "post-feminist," revisiting this kind of advice is just harmless fun, but looking at something like this makes me wonder.

The problems for women in 1939 stemmed from not having a voice. We have much more than they did in that regard, but despite our advancements, women are still losing out when it comes to management and leadership and that makes a difference. Because while we may be contributing more than men, we are not influencing in the way we should be.

In the end, it seems like women's voices are really only echoing back to other women and are not influencing society as a whole. And I think this is the kind of language -- the pre-feminist kind that we think is OK to revisit because we are supposedly post-feminist -- that helps to keep it that way.