Cosmopolitan magazine, originally named The Cosmopolitan, was launched in 1886 as a general-interest family magazine by Schlicht and Field Publishers. It changed publishers several times and eventually enjoyed success as a leading publisher of both serialized novels and short stories. The 1950s saw the rise of inexpensive paperbacks and television, and circulation declined for magazines like The Cosmopolitan. The magazine industry shifted from a focus on general-interest magazines to special-interest magazines aimed at specific populations.
In 1965, the Hearst Company, then publishers of The Cosmopolitan, were about to stop production of the magazine. At the time, Helen Gurley Brown was attempting to find a publisher for a brand new type of magazine for the modern woman. Brown was best known at the time for her bestselling novel, Sex and the Single Girl, a book that celebrated the single life of young women, and she wanted to launch a magazine that spoke to the women who had made her book a bestseller: young professional women trying to find their place in the modern world. The Hearst Company received a proposal from Brown and opted to turn the magazine over to her rather than cease production completely. Brown took over as the new editor, transforming The Cosmopolitan into Cosmopolitan, the magazine people recognize today. In the mid ’60s, however, a magazine for young single women that talked openly about sex and encouraged them to enjoy themselves as men did was considered shocking.
One of Brown’s first editorial decisions was to print a cover story about the birth control pill with the headline, “The new pill that makes women more responsive.” The headline promoted the idea that women would enjoy themselves more sexually if they did not have to worry about pregnancy. Cosmopolitan continued to print provocative articles and, in April 1972, the magazine featured a nearly nude centerfold of a minor actor, Burt Reynolds. The picture created a scandal, but also helped to push both Cosmopolitan and Burt Reynolds to the center of American popular culture.
Cosmopolitan, often referred to as Cosmo, remains a women’s fashion and beauty magazine that emphasizes a woman’s right to control her own sexuality and physical beauty. The magazine runs articles on current fashions, women’s health, beauty tips, celebrity gossip, and sex. Each magazine features at least one Cosmo quiz on topics from finding out what kind of girl you are to how to tell if your man is cheating. The magazine has dedicated readers who are often referred to as Cosmo girls.
Feminist scholars have celebrated the magazine as upholding a vision of women living life on their own terms, but it has also drawn criticism for promoting unrealistic body images and for emphasizing male sexual pleasure over that of women. Cosmopolitan also drew criticism for running an article in the 1990s that told women they didn’t need to be concerned about contracting HIV through heterosexual sex and for dismissive comments that Brown made about sexual harassment in the workplace. Brown was eventually forced out of the editor position in 1996.
Cosmo’s covers continue to feature young attractive models and always contain at least one headline about sex. Some stores still consider it a racy magazine and sell it behind plastic flaps that cover the model and the headlines. Cosmopolitan publishes 58 international editions, is printed in 34 languages, and is distributed in more than 100 countries.