A few weeks ago, I reviewed Sheryl Sandberg’s lady-empowerment book, Lean In. My reaction to the book was cautiously pro—I feel Sandberg has some great points about conducting oneself in the workplace and, for females in particular, not getting caught up in the kind of insecurity that might prevent one from securing a promotion or taking on a new project.
My objections, however minimal, were not to Sandberg’s status as a gainfully employed and happily married wealthy person, someone with the resources and support system to truly balance work and family. (For the record, I find this criticism—that Sandberg is only speaking to fellow rich people—off-base, and think people who latch onto it are missing the point. Sure, many of the things Sandberg has done personally to achieve a work/life balance are feasible because of her perch atop Facebook, but just as many of her overarching themes apply to women of myriad financial means. To disqualify a successful person from making suggestions to those of lesser means is senselessly limiting, especially as people like Sandberg are in a unique position to effect real change.)
I’ve also found myself ambivalent about the revelation this week that a Sandberg PR person laid into former Facebook employee Katherine Losse for writing a tepid review of Lean In. Yes, using the infamous “special place in hell” quote on someone who was simply less than thrilled with your boss’ book is a dickish move, but if we’re really going to have a conversation about feminism and gender equality—the conversation that Sandberg, whether you agree with her approach or not, is attempting to initiate—it serves no one for us to get sidetracked by Internet-fueled cat fights.
But I do have a sizable objection to one facet of the Lean In roll-out, which in addition to Sandberg’s book includes a website, Facebook page (natch), media partnerships and about a zillion public appearances. My objection is this: In a society struggling to move past judgments of females based on their appearance or relationship to men, I find it more than a little hypocritical to peddle your feminist message through Cosmopolitan magazine.
Indeed, Lean In’s release coincided with a huge spread in Cosmo, plus the launch of a “Cosmo Careers” site, which is about as pink and obnoxious as you’d expect. Maybe I’m nitpicking, but the message of Sandberg’s book—to foster a sense of womanhood grounded in confidence and respect—feels fundamentally at odds with the message of womanhood highlighted on the pages of Cosmo. Here are some of the magazine’s front-page “headlines”:
- The 3 Words You Must Never Say to a Guy
- ‘My bum has its own Twitter page’
- Why Guys Pull Away (And What To Do When It Happens)
- Fake a Sexier Beach Body
- Go from F-buddy to girlfriend without “the talk”
- Arghhh! What to Do When He Gives You The Silent Treatment
- His Wildest Fantasies: What He’s Dying for You To Do in Bed
And my personal favorite, given the context:
- “I Got Pregnant At My Office Party”
Of course, I’m cherry-picking, and tucked away amid the fashion tips and workout tips and hair tips is the occasional article about self-confidence, or snagging the job you want, or (more likely) the man you want. I don’t think Cosmo is a soulless penis-powered propaganda machine—I know nary a man who can get through more than a page of it—nor do I think that there’s anything all that vile about encouraging women to feel beautiful and sexy. But I do think that it’s hard to argue the characteristics of femininity to which Cosmo is most attuned: women’s appearance, and women’s relationship to men.
Perhaps there’s an argument to be made that it’s therefore Cosmo readers—insecure and shallow as the articles suggest they are—who are most in need of Sandberg’s message. Because if you’re reading tired magazine listicles to figure out how to please your man (and let’s be real, a solid 70% of Cosmo’s sex suggestions are usually batshit) maybe you do need a reminder to speak up at work, assert yourself and aggressively tackle the potential of your own career. But one magazine cover and micro-site does not a regime change make, and if Cosmo really gave an honest shit about empowering women, it’d be reflected in more than an opportunistic PR ploy.