The Lolly shtick is too easy

This just in. The editor of Cosmopolitan thinks Lolly Jackson was a dick for exploiting women and making money out of them.

Wow. It’s not every day the column gnomes deliver up such poetic fodder.

“Are scantily clad women used to advertise cars and power drills offensive?” asked Vanessa Raphaely in her guest M&G column. “To tell you the truth, I thought debate around these subjects had been put in cold storage long ago.”

So presumably it’s okay to use said women to sell beauty products, perfume or even a magazine?

But Raphaely, who was merciless in her criticism of the deceased Teazers boss, holds no truck with critics of her own mag.

“Here’s the thing: Cosmo is like Marmite, either for you, or most manifestly not.” She once said in response to a spoof of magazines like Cosmo.

It’s a great line. But the exact same thing could be said of Teazers and the sex feast they offer up.

While she lambasts Lolly, saying “every little negative image of women contributes to a perception of women that is harmful and demeaning”, she airily dismisses the need to defend anything in her mag.

“I’m lazy and have too many children and a hungry blog to feed, to waste time tilting at windmills and windbags,” she declared in one blog post.

But how was Lolly Jackson’s “screw you” approach to criticisms of what he did different to Raphaely’s refusal to engage with the deep ideological problems her magazine posits?

You may point out the treatment of women in the stripping industry and how vulnerable women are drawn into a world they can’t escape and made dependent. But switch the word “stripping” with “modelling” and you’ll see why I struggle to excuse what beauty magazines do: support an industry where adolescent girls are starved, celebrated and often destroyed.

Now let me say right off that I — and most South Africans — know that Raphaely is a phenomenal woman. If one achieves a fraction of what she has in their lifetime, you can legitimately call yourself a success.

In fact it’s clear, given her personal initiatives, that Raphaely is deeply devoted to the cause of freedom and rights for South African women.

But sometimes the structures we align ourselves with can overpower our individual agency. My issue is not with Raphaely’s inconsistency per se, but rather with Cosmo and what it represents.

Lolly Jackson sold women as sex objects for the purpose of male pleasure. Cosmopolitan, the world over, screams sex on every cover. The successful woman, in the distorted world of Cosmo, is a hypersexed contortionist who makes it her business to know what he really thinks, wants, fantasises about and desires.

How is that different to what Lolly asked his women to be? Like the False Consciousness of Steve Biko’s musings, the distinction seems to be that Cosmo convinces women that this is what they want. It’s a shabby façade of pseudo-empowerment over the same lies that women have been fed for centuries: that they don’t exist outside the male gaze and that to succeed, they must make themselves as desirable to men as possible.

It seems that according to Cosmo a woman who is not having adventurous sex all the time is no woman at all.

Yet there are many legitimate stages in a women’s life when she is not sexually active. Of course Cosmo is not necessarily targeting these women then. But to pretend that it’s there just for the ones who want to read it and no harm done otherwise, mate, is a little naïve.

With its more than a million local readers Cosmo‘s influence is far-reaching and aggressive in its philosophy. Create an insecurity and sell a product — and the women I’ve met who seriously read Cosmo are some of the most insecure I’ve ever trucked with. They’re never thin enough, pretty enough or desirable enough — or even Western enough, given the racial demographics of the women who appear on the cover.

There is no space here for the young woman who has heeded her own moral compass and decided to abstain from sex. There is derision from her peers who read the magazine.

The local version imported wholesale the international brand’s obsession with one aspect of being a woman. This in a country where one version of that aspect — casual sex — has seen our population decimated and our children left orphaned. Where Aids is an insidious fact of life do we really want to promote happy-go-lucky, frequent-as-you-please sex?

Remember, this is a brand that in its January 1988 issue internationally, ran a feature claiming that women had almost no reason to worry about contracting HIV, some time after reputable scientists indicated otherwise.

Perhaps they educate women in some subtle way amidst all the focus on being fun and fearless, but are self-defence lessons all that helpful when you’re permeating the cultural landscape with the idea that women are ever-ready and up for random sex?

  • You can read Verashni’s column every Monday here and follow her on twitter here.

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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