DIRTY MATTRESS: “Sex & the Single Girl: The Life and Legacy of Helen Gurley Brown”

Photo by JD.

What was supposed to be a retrospective on Cosmo girl Helen Gurley Brown (1922-2012), became a wishy-washy, and at times inarticulate discussion on feminism, advertising, sex and ended on rape.

Nonetheless, it was amusing enough (although hard to follow at times); Cat Marnell’s one-liners were funny;  Edith Zimmerman was fascinating; and through Moe Tkacik I learned more about Brown, the scandalous, former Cosmopolitan editor and author of Sex and the Single Girl—an advice book published in the 1960s encouraging women to live life to the fullest by being financially independent and sexually free.

On Tuesday evening, October 23, Housing Works Bookstore hosted the discussion by inviting women writers who are just as racy today as Brown was in her day. The panel, moderated by publishing consultant Alison Brower, included journalists Tkacik, Zimmerman and Marnell (as pictured above from left to right). It was a pretty good selection of panelists considering Tkacik is co-founder of Jezebel; Zimmerman is founding editor of The Hairpin; and Marnell is the hot Bukowski among many other magical things.

The panel started off interesting enough. When Brower asked the panelists to share their first encounters with Brown, either personally or by reading Cosmopolitan, Tkacik began by saying she had never met her, but knew of her as “the embodiment of all that was wrong—the problem.”

Tkacik pointed out that Brown was a copywriter and came from the advertising world, so it was good business to “glorify singlehood” because it gave advertisers more opportunities to market to successful women who had spending power.  

Marnell, dressed in translucent whites, followed by stating Gloria Steinem was “boring, plain” and questioned if Steinem could actually “fuck.” Alternatively, Brown more closely embodies Marnell’s idea of feminism: being sexy and hot.

“I think she [Brown] is amazing. I heard she refused to let her weight get higher than 105 pounds. I freak out if I get over 107.3. I love her,” Marnell exclaimed.  

Brower tried to keep it serious and on topic by asking whether the kind of censorship that existed in Brown’s time existed today. Marnell said yes and as an example referenced an article she wrote for XOJane where she confesses to taking Plan B, the morning after pill, three times in one month.

“I got attacked by the internet! I don’t see why I’m worse for taking Plan B three times in one month than a person who took it only once—I took Plan B this week actually—there are taboos everywhere,” Marnell said.

“I don’t see anything wrong with taking Plan B. I just think it should be cheaper,” Tkacik added.    

The discussion continued into Brown’s book, Sex and the Single Girl, as Brower read excerpts which were more than just sex tips, and included essential items to have in your apartment and being successful. Brower and Tkacik also mentioned that Brown was censored quite heavily and was actually more scandalous than what was actually printed.

Specifically, Tkacik said Brown would write sexy fantasies about bisexual relations with women—at which point, Marnell interrupted with a text from Jane Pratt. “I got a bisexual vibe from her when I first met her at age 25,” Pratt said, according to the text message Marnell read.

The panel became somewhat hard to follow after this point. The questions Brower asked about feminism were worded awkwardly, which meant the speakers didn’t quite answer the questions—whatever they were. The young women, excluding Zimmerman, wouldn’t finish their sentences/ideas and often ended them with “or whatever” so I didn’t quite understand the point they were trying to make. Tkacik and Marnell then began bickering over whether or not sexual harassment still existed in the office. But, they both agreed that sex without a condom feels great.

“Before I became a Marxist, I was a slut,” Tkacik blurted at one point.

I don’t even know how we got to that topic?… I think it had to do with feminism and the boundaries it has on writers… hmm, maybe.

The topic then progressed into the love-hate publishing relationship with advertisers in relation to strippers—at which point a reporter in the audience asked that the panelists get back to talking about Brown. Marnell gave her the look of death, and somewhat withdrew from the discussion.

Although she didn’t speak often, I found Zimmerman to be quite poised and articulate. I found the discussion about her latest article published on August 3 in the New York Times Magazine, 99 Ways to be Naughty in Kazakhstan: How Cosmo Conquered the World,” fascinating. The story chronicles what the emergence of Cosmo has meant to women in the Middle East.

“What began happening in the US in the 60s is now circling around the globe—there is a super sexual shift,” Zimmerman explained. “The role Cosmo plays [today] in the US, is not the same role it plays in other countries.”

There are also distinctions. In the Middle East, the magazines are only allowed to reference a “sex partner” as a woman’s husband.

After the crowd had become annoyed with the panelists earlier, Tkacik became a bit more serious and made a good point, that if women are becoming emancipated in the Middle East, it’s not necessarily because of Cosmo. Perhaps not entirely, but I’m sure it plays a role.

“But if a woman in the Middle East starts having sex in a dog house, that maybe because of Cosmo,” Marnell interrupted. The audience’s reaction didn’t seem to have changed Marnell’s composure.    

And finally, after a short discussion initiated by an audience member on what could possibly left to write about that will shock us as we’ve exhausted the topics of sex and blow jobs—another audience member shocked us by asking when it would be acceptable for women to joke about rape. Marnell was the first one to encourage dialogue on rape.

Brower abruptly ended the discussion at that point due to time constraint.  

My initial thought was that there is absolutely nothing funny about rape. However, after briefly speaking with Jill Morris, the woman who asked the question, I understand her point. She’s a comedian and writer who says men are already joking about rape, but hasn’t seen women comedians take ownership and joke about it. She used the analogy of black men being the only ones allowed to joke about their ethnicity simply because they are black. Similarly, rape victims should be the only ones allowed to joke about being raped, should they choose to.

Hopefully I’ll get a chance to speak more with Morris and report back to you.

Anybody else who was there have thoughts on the panel? Were you disappointed or confused with the way the panel turned out? Did it meet your expectations or disappoint?

Oh—and most importantly—I learned that Housing Works is a healing community with the goal to end homelessness and HIV/AIDS. What a great cause. You can support them by buying books from their bookstore, attending events like this one or volunteering.

– JD

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