Legendary Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown helmed the ladymag for 32 years, and didn't go easy: apparently it took a series of flippantly tone-deaf gaffes to get the sorta-feminist doyenne fired. Heroine or relic?
According to a new tell-all, Jennifer Scanlon's Bad Girls Go Everywhere, Hearst bigwigs had long been eager to get the famously thin editor, who took Cosmo from a genteel ladies' mag to the Man-ual we know and love-hate, out of the head chair after her numbers slipped. When they finally forced the issue in '96, it was due to the following:
When asked if sexual harassment existed at Cosmo in the wake of Anita Hill's testimony that Supreme Court pick Clarence Thomas had harassed her for years, Brown cheekily responded: "I certainly hope so. The problem is that we don't have enough men to go around for harassing."
-She referred to Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood, accused by 10 women of making unwanted sexual advances, as "poor old Senator Packwood," and scolded one journo, "My darling, would you please remember that he was one of the congressmen who supported legal abortion. He was one of us, so we have to forgive him for being a jerk."
-She ran a piece titled "Reassuring News About AIDS" reporting that women whose lovers were neither homosexual, bisexual or intravenous drug users faced little risk. Brown said, "We spent such a long time getting sexual equality for women, and just when we're beginning to enjoy ourselves, somebody's got to come along and say sex kills."
Although the sting was lessened by a raft of cards, flowers and checks, it's still got to have been a humiliation for a woman who made her name on a sassiness that eventually spelled her end. Helen Gurley Brown revolutionized women's magazines with a frank, flirty attitude towards female sexuality; the kittenish bachelorette persona made her genuinely progressive positions much easier for the general public to swallow. Yet as the feminist movement progressed and evolved, Cosmopolitan stayed the same — an almost-quaint reminder of early-women's lib that celebrates a nominal "liberation" on very old-fashioned terms, and has become a feminist bete noire.
In today's HuffPo, however, Betsy Perry, a former Cosmo staffer, defends Brown as a strong, warm woman who may have been of an earlier generation but had the sense to know it:
There wasn't a staff member who didn't adore her and while we did question some of her stands on relevant issues, her take on them was always with a twist. Because of my television background, she knew enough to ask me to do some of the tougher talk shows, on subjects where her judgment might be questioned — date rape, AIDS, silicone implants. There was always her side to the story too and try as she would, she just didn't understand why a guy wouldn't take no for an answer....but we pitched in to help out in those sticky times...Helen loves men and she made me love and like them too; she taught us how to get one IF we wanted one. I learned to soften the tough side of me; the art of flirting, deflecting sexual harassment comments with humor, exercising - which she did every day with her little dumb bells, and learning to listen without passing judgment. Fun had come back into my life thanks to her.
"Fun" of course, is the operative word: is it enough? As Perry finishes, as breezily as her mentor might, "Who cares about the incidental boo boos along the way? You'll never find a Cosmo girl who hasn't learned to get what she wants using a few tricks learned between the pages of her bible." But, as a self-styles icon of female empowerment, albeit an early version thereof, did Brown have that luxury? Or, in the age she'd helped usher in, was this kind of irresponsibility unacceptable? And what, ultimately, is her legacy: an open attitude towards sexuality or a bunch of college girls putting rouge on their nipples — or are they the same thing? Helen Gurley Brown, to the end, has held to the gospels of "skinny is God" and while we don't see that Cosmo has changed much in the years since her ouster, it's easy to see why that level of evangelism would be problematic in an increasingly secular society.