Calling All Mouseburgers: Cat Marnell, Edith Zimmerman, and Moe Tkacik on Helen Gurley Brown

Marnell. (Courtesy Patrick McMullan)

At last night’s Housing Works panel on the legacy of the late Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, Vice columnist Cat Marnell stood out. Wearing a tight, translucent white dress and leather jacket, she snapped her gum, played with her hair and  alternately stared wide-eyed at the audience or down at her phone.

“I hate Gloria Steinem,” she announced at one point. “She’s boring and plain. My kind of feminism is that you want to be hot and awesome.”

Ms. Marnell was one of three panelists, along with Jezebel founding editor Moe Tkacik and Hairpin editor Edith Zimmerman, who gathered to discuss Gurley Brown and her efforts to help “mouseburgers” like herself have not only great sex, but all the money, recognition, authority and respect they deserved. At the panel, moderated by woman’s magazine vet Alison Brower, Ms. Tkacik addressed her political leanings: “Before I was a Marxist, I was a slut.”

Ms. Zimmerman, seated between two voluble speakers, was more reserved, but she spoke with authority on the balancing act that comes with a career in gendered media, noting that while The Hairpin tried to escape the anti-feminist tropes of women’s magazines, its founders at The Awl network knew “There’s money to be made from advertising to females.”

Ms. Zimmerman, who wrote about the international Cosmo conference in Madrid for The New York Times, also noted how while, in the U.S., Cosmo “is sort of a punch line,” it has a stronger influence today in countries like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan where it’s still “the only source for female issues and relationship issues.”

Which is a well-taken point, but somehow this didn’t register quite as strongly on the Richter scale of provocation as the volley that followed between Ms. Tkacik and Ms. Marnell, with the former Jezebel blogger noting that women in the Middle East would not be liberated by Cosmopolitan, and the Vice blogger suggesting that at least the magazine would show them how to have “sex in a doghouse.”

And while Ms. Zimmerman was ambivalent about the role that kowtowing to advertisers played in women’s media, Ms. Marnell saw a role for traditional beauty products, with a saucy twist: “I think that money’s awesome. That’s what drives things.” She had sabotaged a $250,000 deal with Proctor and Gamble for a piece on “lipstick that won’t come off on a dick.”

The spirit of Ms. Brown lives on in some form, it would seem, though Ms. Marnell is more interested in a male pioneer. “My publishing idol is Larry Flynt,” she said only to be one-upped by Ms. Tkacik who jumped in with her own anecdote about the girly mag publisher.

“One time,” she said, “Larry Flynt offered Gloria Steinem $1 million if she posed open pussy.”

She didn’t do it. For this generation, that makes her a mouseburger.

Update: This post has been updated from the original. Ms. Tkacik made the statement about Gloria Steinem and Larry Flynt. Not Ms. Marnell.

Calling All Mouseburgers: Cat Marnell, Edith Zimmerman, and Moe Tkacik on Helen Gurley Brown