How Helen Gurley Brown Made the World Safe for Ladyblogs

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When I was fresh out of college and newly arrived in New York City, I lived in Harlem with a roommate who worked as an editorial assistant at Cosmopolitan. In addition to ten naughty ways to tease my man and all the shocking things bikini waxers don’t tell you, I learned a certain amount about the inner workings of that magazine. Most shocking, perhaps, was the tidbit that Helen Gurley Brown, by then past the midpoint of her 80s, still kept an office and a fancy title, as editor of all the magazine’s many international editions. Gurley Brown, who died today at the age of 90, seemed, at least as I remember my roommate’s evocation, a frightening specter of what too many years in the women’s magazine business could do to you, addicted to work or power or riding the elevator all the way up to the top of a skyscraper. But by then, it sounded as if she was more or less given busywork by the people actually steering the ship, unablein my 23-year-old, scared-of-old-age reading of the situationto know when to let go. She wore short skirts to the office even then and looked about like you'd imagine someone who’d followed decades of Cosmo’s beauty and diet advice might.

If I’d had any perspective at all, I’d have realized that, no matter how little I might identify as a Cosmo girl, I owed much of my life in New York then (and now) to the contours she’d laid out in the pages of her magazine, groundbreaking for its time, and in her famous Sex and the Single Girl.

Not just my personal life. I was writing then for the XXFactor, a newly launched women’s blog from Slate. The last half decade or so has seen a flowering of what’s come to be known as the lady blogosphere, sites like that one and Jezebel and the Hairpin and XOJane and HuffPo Women. New ones crop up more or less every day. (No, really: today brings the relaunch of New York magazine’s fashion blog as its own full-blown women’s site.)  Gurley Brown was a creature of the magazine era, thanks to the date on her birth certificate, but she was really a proto ladyblogger. She didn’t hide her secrets behind dark sunglasses and a bob or cultivate an air of mystery or grandeur. Her attitude was more one of I’m here in the muck with you, and let’s talk about it! Better yet, let’s talk about how to pull ourselves out of it and clean off a bit, shall we?

The ladyblogs, in their current incarnation, are operating on the same general principle. They are, however, meant to appeal to women turned off by the lobotomized tone, dumbed-down copy, and crass commercialism you see in the more traditional women’s print magazines. All are, to greater or lesser degrees, explicitly feminist and frequently confessional. Sex instruction is presented not in an rompy, raunchy way, as it is in modern Cosmopolitan, but more in a consciousness-raising way in keeping with the Cosmo of the ’60s or ’70s. (Maybe. “Do these leggings cause orgasm or is it me?” asks an anonymous writer on the Cut.) Several feature the color pink or purple in their logos, but in a reclaiming-it kind of way. As in Gurley Brown-era Cosmo, there is self-help galore, including the regular “Ask a Clean Person” feature on the Hairpin that is, essentially, a primer on housekeeping, if written for a slobby gallery assistant in Bushwick rather than a newly married housewife.

They are all, by the way, also an attractive proposition to advertisers in this age of the digital silos and finely sliced market-shares. Meanwhile, traditional print titles like Cosmo have tumbled at the newsstand, and not just as a subsymptom of the larger industry ailments. The sizzle has gone elsewhere, and Gurley Brown, at her peak, was nothing if not a keen sizzle-hound.  She openly discussed her body, her finances, her dating life, the advantages of the birth control pill. She was big on bursting taboos, whether that meant rape-survivor’s tales, or simply getting more cleavage onto the front cover and telling girls it was A-OK to go after wealthy married men. (Now, we’d call that traffic-whoring, an accepted term of art and tactic on the Internet, though I understand the traffic part was left off in certain circles when discussing Gurley Brown’s philosophy back then.) She ran essays on topics like “I Was Raped” and “I Was a Nude Model,” topics still regularly presented on blogs as being a bit shocking. Whether this speaks to a failure in Gurley Brown’s mission, a failure on the part of modern editors to find new topics, or is merely a product of human nature being a rather fixed thing, I leave up to you, but I am inclined towards the last.

Gurley Brown also had a few of the more annoying tics of certain parts of the blogosphere. As Nora Ephron wrote of her in a 1970 essay, “In the three years I wrote for Cosmopolitan, she managed to drive me absolutely crazy with her passion for italics, exclamation points, upbeat endings, and baby simpleness.” By the way, have you seen HelloGiggles, Zooey Deschanel’s entrant into the ladyblogosphere?

When a 2009 biography by Jennifer Scanlon, Bad Girls Go Everywhere, presented Gurley Brown as feminist hero, ladybloggers were forced to grapple with her influence. “Is her legacy a problematic one, giving vapid, man-pleasing acquisition the gloss of feminism?” wondered Sadie Stein on Jezebel. “Well, yeah. But at the same time, would a site like ours exist without her? Probably not.” In some ways, her post presaged a thoughtful, highly critical N+1 essay on the lady blogoshere written by Molly Fischer earlier this year, in which she accused them of being not so revolutionary. 

“Feminist blogs are of a different genre, with a specific and explicitly political project. The ladyblogs are fundamentally mainstream general interest outlets, even if a façade of superiority to the mainstream (edginess, quirkiness, knowingness) constitutes part of their appeal,” she wrote. “Neither Jezebel nor the Hairpin concerns itself with the harder to articulate, more insidious expectations about women’s behavior.” She meant it a sort of an accusation, and the readers and editors of those particular sites received it as suchthe charge being that they were concerned, at base, mostly and merely with how to make being a woman a bit more fun. Helen Gurley Brown would have considered it the highest compliment.

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