Despite living in a world where women have been given unprecedented access to employment, educational opportunities, positions of leadership, and personal freedoms, it seems women have fallen into a deeper existential malaise than ever before, with antidepressant use at an all-time high and a crisis of anxiety and mental health particularly among college-aged women. When examining the state of modern women and their apparent unhappiness, it's clear there’s a disconnect between what makes women truly fulfilled and the vision of the empowered woman held up as the key to their freedom and contentment.
We see within women’s entertainment, media, and marketing, a concentrated effort to promote a very particular type of lifestyle. Consistent from the end of the twentieth century onward, this type of aggressively independent woman lives in a thriving urban environment, is happily unmarried and childless, and endlessly navigates meaningless sexual encounters and failed relationships. The most important element in the construction of this trope is the reliance on consumption for personal fulfillment. Designer clothes, the curated apartment decor, constant brunches and dining out. The modern independent woman archetype often comes to barely resemble a woman at all, but does reflect the lives of a vast number of the producers of women’s media and creative designers of products marketed to women - homosexual men.
Very few singular pieces of media have had the cultural impact of Sex and the City on the lives and lifestyles of North American women. Based on the column by Candace Bushnell, the series details her many sexual exploits and navigating the modern urban dating scene. Bushnell recently recanted the lifestyle she promoted, finding herself desperately lonely, childless, and unfulfilled in her fifties. The show’s creator, Darren Star, a Jewish homosexual responsible for several 90s era TV romantic comedies, seems uniquely driven to promoting these types of characters. In a 2008 interview with Haaretz, he spoke of his signature concept - the world of powerful women in New York, and confronted the idea that his characters are behaviourally gay men. He reiterates that this type of woman - stripped of her femininity, class, familial obligation and humanity, is his idea of an “alpha” woman, and the grotesquely shallow and promiscuous “Samantha” character should be an aspirational figure for both gay men and women.
Though groundbreaking and influential in their own right, the women of “Sex and the City” were simply reflections of a concept for which the groundwork had been laid decades earlier, in the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine. Countless Millennial and Gen X women can point to pre-teen hushed readings of Cosmopolitan magazines in bookstore corners as a pivotal moment in the development of their understanding of sexuality and adult womanhood. Girls and young women saw their adult potential unfold in its pages, among countless articles guiding women through relationships and work, along with notoriously questionable and graphic advice on sexual technique. To set itself apart from other popular women’s publications which largely focused on homemaking, the modern Cosmopolitan magazine noticeably excluded pieces on family, cooking, and the home.
Helen Gurley Brown, author of ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ and the editor-in-chief of Cosmo for over thirty years, brought the magazine through the sexual revolution and into its most depraved iteration. Colorful covers placed conspicuously at supermarket checkouts seemed designed to attract the curious gaze of children. Brown gave Jewish filmmaker Norah Ephron some of her earliest magazine assignments, and Ephron would write several pieces for Cosmo before going on to become one of the world’s most prolific “Chick Flick” directors, producing film after film portraying the single urbanite trope.
Brown was open about her intent to promote the “Cosmo Girl” - single, urban, hardworking at her corporate job, and empowered by her ability to independently procure both casual sex and consumer goods. Cosmo magazine served as an effective vehicle to drive the sexual revolution into the minds of young girls, and there was a concentrated effort within its pages to reframe the popular “women’s lib” movement into a push for women to enjoy the “freedom” of the labor-consumption cycle.
Although the domestic sphere traditionally involved a higher rate of consumption compared to working men, middle class women have undergone a dramatic shift in consumption practices with these cultural developments. There is also the question of what, exactly, women are consuming. Trends are often artificially set via stealth marketing by monolithic fashion and cosmetic corporations, based on availability of cheap materials rather than organic evolution of cultural preferences and objective beauty standards. Women find themselves consuming from a curated selection by approved societal tastemakers - within the realm of fashion, this includes a disproportionate amount of homosexual men.
As early as the 1960’s, designer Yves Saint Laurent began to popularize androgynous womens-wear, paving the way for the ubiquitous pantsuit. The look quickly became synonymous with women’s professional or political prowess, more traditionally feminine looks seemed trite in comparison to masculine silhouettes. By the 1990s, trousers were a staple in the average woman’s wardrobe, and Alexander McQueen famously lowered their waistlines mimicking the male torso when he spearheaded the low-rise trend. The advent of fast-fashion meant that designs could go from the runway to local shops at unprecedented speeds, and artificially low prices carried by cost-cutting sweatshop labor meant that even the newest designs were affordable and easy to obtain for the professional woman. This new ease of availability and the promotion of the shopping mall as a social outlet helped to elevate fashion to a common hobby and pastime.
In the absence of a society that engages people in meaningful ways outside of work, we ascribe meaning to escapism, and create hobbies out of distractions. The act of consumption becomes sacrosanct in a life that has been built to encourage it, with little time or reason to engage in more life-affirming, productive behaviours. When women are divorced from the natural expression of their biological psychology, adaptive traits - social cooperation, the drive to mother children - are expressed in a maladaptive way. The tenants of third wave, intersectional feminism are unfortunately consistent with the vapidity consistently pushed in women’s media, and provides an attractive stand-in community for women living meaningless lives revolving solely around consumption and the Cosmo-girl lifestyle.
Many within dissident circles have decried the large-scale feminization of society, with women taking on increased positions of leadership and dictating public discourse in political and cultural spheres. Yet at the same time, we’ve seen a clear deconstruction and manipulation of the feminine identity since the mid-twentieth century, facilitated by women’s media and the consumption machine. Taken together with later attacks on traditional masculinity and the ever softening modern male identity, what we see is not so much a feminization of culture as a mass androgenization of the West. With ever dwindling birth rates in favour of the development of both men and women into childless, rootless, ultimate consumers, the objective becomes clear.