This week’s Wednesday 5 doubles down on women in the media: Helen Gurley Brown might have been more liberating than we think; Joanna Coles takes the reins at Cosmopolitan and is asking the right and not-so-right questions; more controversy over Noami Wolf’s exposé on the “vagina”—this time it’s the medical experts who aren’t pleased; and we go to bat for Tina Brown, a woman of reinvention you might not want to bet against.
But First, a Shout-out to Our Women’s Voices Reader “Tobysgirl”
Last month, Women’s Voices posted a brief tribute to Helen Gurley Brown—the first female editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine—after her passing. Her tenure at Cosmo ran from 1965 until 1997. For a long time, many, as The New York Times opined, have debated “whether her work helped or hindered the cause of women’s liberation.” In response, one of our readers, “Tobysgirl,” posted the following dissent to our tribute:
“I lived through the sixties, and Helen Gurley Brown had absolutely nothing to do with the sexual revolution. She cheapened and exploited sexuality for her own aggrandizement, and I do not find that liberating. What was liberating was ordinary women claiming a right to their own bodies, their own pleasure, their own freedom, a right we are still struggling for.”
We hear you, Tobysgirl. And apparently so do a host of other folks, including Tracy Clark-Fory at Salon, who wrote about the study below on exactly how liberating magazines like Cosmopolitan are. The conclusion might surprise you. It turns out, that in her own circuitous way, Brown might have been liberating women all along by advising them on how to please their men, not themselves.
Women’s Magazines’ ‘Drive-Your-Man-Wild’ Headlines Empower Women
It turns out that although liberating women was not what Cosmo might have been striving for, its headlines have produced that very unintentional side effect: Tracy Clark-Fory at Salon.com writes of a new study, Striving for Pleasure Without Fear: “’Participants briefly exposed to Cosmopolitan more strongly endorsed a view that female sexual assertiveness is for a woman’s own pleasure, as opposed to a man’s pleasure.’ That’s just about the opposite of what Cosmo’s drive-your-man-wild headlines would suggest. They were also ‘more supportive of sexually assertive women who prioritized their own pleasure.’” Read more of Tracy Clark-Fory’s breakdown of the study at Salon.com.
Joanna Coles’s First Cosmo Staff Meeting
And speaking of Cosmopolitan, it just so happens that New York magazine recently shadowed new editor Joanna Coles at her first staff meeting. Coles is no Helen Gurley Brown. Carl Swanson of New York magazine, the lucky fly on the wall who follows Coles around, tells us that the new editor had been a New York correspondent for the Times of London and an editor at New York, More, and Marie Claire. And she’s never read Brown’s book Sex and the Single Girl. Coles immediately digs in at her inaugural meeting: “What I am always struck with—this is a tremendously powerful and super-successful magazine, but it doesn’t feel like there is any particular urgency about it.” But by the time the meeting is finished, she circles back to: “Who has had good sex with a 42-year-old senior executive at Morgan Stanley?” Perhaps we’ll see that headline soon in the next issue of Cosmopolitan. Read more about Coles’s meeting at the New York magazine site.
The Vagina . . . It’s Not That Simple
And, speaking of sex and desire, there’s been a lot controversy circling the web since we reported on Noami Wolf’s new book, “Vagina: A New Biography” and her quest to reclaim the word “vagina” because to her, the word itself is “either so taboo or surrounded with negative connotations or draped in shame or medicalized.” While Wolf’s cultural-recovery intentions are to be commended, medical experts are weighing in on how she “profoundly misrepresents how the brain works and how neurochemicals like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin really affect our love lives (as well as conditions like addiction and depression),” says Maia Szalavitz for TIME. The article counters Wolf’s claims about dopamine’s connections with desire and her label of oxytocin as “women’s emotional superpower,” among other assertions in the book. In summary, Szalavitz’s medical counters to Wolf’s assertions produce some some stern cautions for Wolf’s cultural history of the vagina:
The brain and female sexuality are extremely complicated and reducing them to simplistic formulations that deny women their humanity fails to do justice to either feminism or science. Properly contextualized, neuroscience can add to our knowledge of sexuality, but not if it’s twisted to support sexist ideas about women as “animals” who are so addicted to love that they become zombies.
Woman of Reinvention: Tina Brown
Tina Brown curates the headlines at The Daily Beast and Newsweek, and she finds herself in them quite often as well. Michael Wolff at USA Today asks: Is there a place for Tina Brown? What will happen to her? And should we care? Why does he sound so dire, you ask? According to Wolff, the “most famous magazine editor of her generation is engaged in a desperate and operatic struggle, which almost no one anywhere believes has any chance of success, to reinvent Newsweek as a sustainable business proposition.” And while Wolff argues that the industry has very little, if any, faith in Brown, he offers Brown a consolation prize: she’s a woman of reinvention. “In her stubborn efforts to restore media culture— and resist the demands of digital culture—she is, in her way, making a larger point . . . the new business . . . has yet to be invented.” Well, we know one thing: it’s not smart to bet against a woman of reinvention, one who has reinvented herself (and an industry) a few times over.