A fiery, raunchy, honest discussion of Helen Gurley Brown’s legacy
Housing Works’ “Sex and the Single Girl” panel was supposed to start at 7 p.m., but by 7:10, Cat Marnell still hadn’t arrived.
While we in the audience waited, the women seated behind me discussed a variety of matters: one had recently ordered a custom Halloween costume from Etsy; another had attempted “the open relationship conversation” with her girlfriend.
The evening’s topic was Helen Gurley Brown’s life and legacy—a subject that, construed broadly enough, might potentially encompass both entrepreneurial crafting and non-monogamous lesbians. Panelists included Marnell (ex-XOjane beauty editor and writer of the Vice drug column “Amphetamine Logic”), Moe Tkacik (a founding editor of Jezebel and now a freelance writer and proprietor of the website Das Krapital), and Edith Zimmerman (founder of The Hairpin and author of a recent New York Times Magazine piece on Cosmopolitan). Alison Brower—co-chair of the Housing Works Bookstore Café board and a onetime Brown employee—served as moderator.
Marnell scampered into the store at 7:15, clomping across the space on heels and wearing all white, including a plastic rosary and tights. A few moments later, she and her fellow panelists took the stage.
Brower began by describing her history with Brown.
“My first job in magazines was as an editorial assistant at Cosmo,” she said. “I found Helen completely fascinating, mysterious, and intimidating”—with her tiny skirts, her handwritten notes, her ideas that seemed outmoded even in 1994. Still, “She couldn’t have been nicer or more encouraging to me,” Brower said. “I’ve got a little trove of her notes, and I’m certainly proud of the one that says, ‘You’re one of Helen’s girls, and I’m proud of you.’”
She then read the panelists’ introductions—in their own words, she was careful to explain. For example, Tkacik: “Trying to list the publications for which she has written makes her feel like a very old slut.” Marnell: “She thinks dumb is hot.” Marnell smiled and nodded.
The panelists quickly staked out their roles for the evening. Tkacik would focus on the economics of Cosmo; Marnell would fidget and attempt to blow minds; Zimmerman would wait quietly until addressed with a direct question.
“She came from the advertising industry,” Tkacik said of Brown. And, she went on, glorifying the single life makes financial sense for advertisers: “They have a lot more stuff to sell to women if they don't just get knocked up at 22.”
“I have a text from Jane Pratt,” said Marnell, producing her phone and reading. “’Say that I got a wonderful bisexual vibe from Helen the first time I met her when I was like 25.”
“It’s clear when someone’s trying to be honest about their life and what they believe in,” Zimmerman said, responding to a question from Brower about the contradictory impulses embodied in Brown’s mentality. “When you just try to be as straightforward as you can about your experience in the attempt to maybe reach some other people and not alienate too many others—I don’t know, I respect that.”
A diplomatic approach—although, as Brower pointed out, Brown’s foibles weren’t always benign. She read aloud from an Anita Hill-era op-ed Brown wrote for the Wall Street Journal. In it, Brown fondly recalled the office game of “scuttling,” which involved chasing secretaries and removing their underwear.
“I don’t think that’s sexual harassment,” Marnell said, to laughter.
“Being sexually harassed isn’t as fun as it sounds,” Tkacik said. “Work on a trading floor.”
After a detour into Tkacik and Marnell’s most-discussed online misadventures (both of which involved birth control: the withdrawal method and Plan B, respectively) Brower brought the conversation back to the advertising-abetted “push-pull of women’s magazines, tapping into your insecurities and your aspirations all at the same time.”
“Advertisers objected to using the word ‘come,’" Tkacik said. "And so that’s why if you’re talking about sex in Cosmo, you 'climax' ... Doesn’t that sound like a copywriter’s idea?”
“I don’t think that was Helen’s own, but maybe,” said Brower.
“Yeah, it could have been,” Tkacik said. “Oh my god, maybe she made it up!”
Brower asked Zimmerman how this kind of dynamic played into her experience of running The Hairpin.
“With The Hairpin, the idea was to have it be just a normal site,” Zimmerman said, “for lack of a better word. Meaning not gender-specific. Beyond that it was mostly written by women and that I knew that the audience was mostly women.… When we talked about starting it, it was because we all knew”—she hesitated—“it’s messy. There’s money to be made from advertisers,” she said. “That’s no secret.”
“I personally lost XOjane a $250,000 deal with Proctor & Gamble,” Marnell said, “for a story I did called ‘Lipsticks that Won’t Come Off on a Dick.’”
If the panel reached a conclusion, it was that Brown’s legacy remains up for grabs—she was liberating and visionary; she was retrograde and raunchy; she was a benevolently wacky aunt.
“Feminism and women’s rights and emancipation and all that shit is a political goal,” Tkacik said. “That is a political end. And advertisers don’t anywhere want to achieve political reform…. If women in the Middle East are emancipated somehow, it’s not going to be because of fucking Cosmo.”
“If a woman has sex in a doghouse in the Middle East,” Marnell chimed in, “that might be because of Cosmo.”
Afterward I asked Brower whether there were any questions she didn’t get a chance to ask, anything she’d hoped to discuss that had gotten lost onstage.
“You want people to recognize the influence that something has had,” she said. “They’ve all obviously thought about her and read about her.” Yet the panelists, she felt, hadn’t acknowledged the effect of Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmo philosophy on their own lives; they hadn’t seen the connection.
“Except for Cat, frankly,” Brower said.