It is strange to think that the person directly responsible for the hundreds of pieces of vaguely alarming sex advice that I have read over the years is gone.
But this week saw the passing of Cosmo’s Helen Gurley Brown.
It is hard to come up with a fitting tribute.
Some ink has been spilled already on the subject of what she did for the overall cause of women. Did she help or hurt? Was she a feminist or a shyster? What was her legacy, liberation or lockjaw? All I know is that I have to keep buying her magazine or I’ll never know What He Really Wants You To Do With That Pineapple.
This is not to speak flippantly or ill of the dead. The last time I was even tempted to make uncomfortable jokes about the recently deceased was when the Segway owner literally Segwayed off a cliff, and even then I got some grief for it.
I would suggest that the next time you are incorporating ice into your intimate life or following any other of Cosmo's manifold strange suggestions, you should pause a moment in respect to Helen Gurley Brown. But I am pretty sure that is the opposite of what she would want. Do not pause, she would say. Keep doing what you are doing. You go, girl!
Cosmo is a You Go, Girl, magazine. It aims at the Fun, Fearless Female, whatever this strange beast is. She has it all, whatever it is.
Admittedly, “You go, girl” is an exclamation generally reserved for when you have done something life-wreckingly idiotic and have just told a group of your friends about it. “You go, girl!” everyone says, hefting their mimosas.
That’s why we love Cosmo.
There is frankly nothing on earth I would rather read in an airport. I am not proud of this.
In the echelons of Pursuits in Which I Take Pride it ranks somewhere above stealing other people’s laundry detergent and somewhere below occasionally pretending I need to visit the restroom in the middle of long dinners and then sitting in a stall checking my e-mails. Sure, were I reading “Atlas Shrugged” and Cosmo simultaneously, Cosmo would go on the outside. But that is as far as it goes.
It’s a guilty pleasure. But it’s a national guilty pleasure. It had the highest number of single-copy sales of any magazine in the country during the first half of this year. “Well,” huffs the Economist, “I’d be the most-purchased magazine too if I put SEX SEX SEXY SEX on every cover.” But that’s not the point. It does that, true. But what Cosmo sells is more than sex. It’s know-how. “I actually understand how this works,” Cosmo says.
You can fake an understanding of the economy at parties. “Oh, yes,” you can say. “Something something collapse of the euro something something Greek something. Quantitative easing!” Then you can shake your head sadly, and that will get you at least through dessert. But what about after dessert? That is where Cosmo comes in.
Of course, it has no better idea than anyone else.
The funny thing about it is that most of the advice is so bad.
A high proportion of it consists of tips of dubious veracity about non-culinary uses for whipped cream. Some of this advice is even attributed to men, in case you felt some initial panic at the thought of volleying that around like a tennis ball, a tip the magazine has repeated several times.
This is not a fluke of a single issue. It has been a Cosmo tradition over generations. At least this is what the Internet has determined. (I came of age in the generation where you got all your information about sex from three sources: the Internet, Cosmo and things you misremembered from the Clinton trial. But when Cosmo wars with the Internet, the Internet wins every time.)
And in spite of all that, we keep buying.
Maybe this time it will tell us, we think. And if not, we can laugh along at the times others tried and failed.
Cosmo has an entire column dedicated to this sort of thing. “And then,” someone with a name like Amy, 17, observes, “his parents came in and found us in the beach house with gelatin congealing everywhere! I couldn’t look them in the eyes for the rest of the weekend!”
You go, girl!
“I coaxed him upstairs and locked him in a room — without his pants!” Shawna, 26, tells us. “That’ll teach him to cheat on his girlfriend on the beach with me!”
You went, girl! Veni, vidi, vici, and then you threw his TV set out the window. Cosmo tells you how to get what you want (well, within certain carefully defined limits) and what to do if you don’t. It tells you if you are too flirtatious or too mouseburger. It even gives you new things to worry about. (Is he smiling and relaxed? Must be seeing someone on the side! Better not rent a funny movie! Your stomach might visibly jiggle!)
In a word, it performs the minor ego-sabotage that is the work of any good magazine. You’d better come back for the next issue, or you’ll miss unprintable things to do with cutlery! And then you’ll lose him forever!
But fun! Fearless fun! You go, girl!
It may not feel good at the time. It may not lead anywhere. But won’t it be fun to talk about with the girls afterwards? And Cosmo will be right there, to offer a shoulder to cry on and give you another boulder to roll uphill.
“When I am dead,” wrote Auden, “of me let this be said: His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”
Say what you will about Gurley Brown, her magazines were read. By comparison, the National Lampoon was an amateur. It only threatened to shoot a dog.