Last spring, I was perusing a selection of books at a thrift store when the word 'mouseburger' caught my eye on the back cover of Having It All – written Helen Gurley Brown and published in 1983. I wondered what the fuck a mouseburger was – is it something that tigers eat or is it a tiny burger that mice eat? Moreover, I was intrigued by what ‘having it all’ meant over thirty years ago and what women were willing to do to get it. The fact that someone had already expelled it from their personal library made me wonder if they had achieved the promise the title made or been horribly led astray by it. So, I spent the $0.99 – a bargain from the original $4.99 cover price – and took it home.
The author, Helen Gurley Brown, was the Editor-in-Chief of Cosmopolitan Magazine for 32 years and published many other books in her lifetime including Sex and the Single Girl in 1962. While she once ridiculed women’s-libbers as “a bunch of nutburgers” – she really had a thing for burgers – her role as a feminist is a complicated one. She has both been applauded for empowering women to embrace their sexuality and criticized for creating a magazine that has greatly contributed to the society of body shaming we live. A brief scan inside the covers of Having It All and it is clear that her advice here bounces like a ping pong ball between these extremes.
Despite her somewhat dubious legacy and inspired by the new year, I pulled it off the shelf this morning determined to take the step-by-step advice of 'The Ultimate Woman’s Guide to Love Success, Sex, Money, Even If You’re Starting with Nothing.' And with the air thick with soon-to-be-broken New Year’s resolutions I began my transformation from mouseburger to tiger.
Chapter One – Who Are You?
I have to admit the start of this book doesn’t give me a whole lot of confidence – within the first paragraph, the woman who is going to spend the next 374 pages telling me how to become a tiger, takes a rather dark turn in the present tense. "I consider asking the driver to try entering the Hollywood Freeway southbound from the southbound off ramp; if we make it, this would have us moving north when everybody else was coming south and take care of the future." Not only is Helen willing to take her driver with her – but she found it necessary to get into the minute details of how onramps work. Later on, however, it is made clear that this is not the book for intellectual women, and the target audience therefore clearly necessitates the dumbing down of. . . well, everything (this makes for a very wordy book). But don’t worry about Helen's wellbeing. By the time she’s left the set of the Tonight Show – where she has been invited to appear many times (she tells us) – and pulled into the driveway of her Bel-Air hotel, she is already feeling better about her lot in life.
I’m still wondering what a mouseburger is when she reveals to us that she herself is one. What? It turns out that mouseburgers are 'people who are not prepossessing, not pretty, don’t have a particularly high I.Q., a decent education, good family background or other noticeable assets.' Helen – at 59 – wants to share her craft, but only if you hunger for better things and have guts! As a testament to her abilities, she mentions the increasing joy she feels while other women her age feel "dumped and useless." But to be clear this isn’t a book for those women – I’m not even sure it’s a book for me – you must be a youthful mouseburger to benefit from her teachings. She wobbles slightly again towards the end of the fifth paragraph when, after discussing how euphoric she feels most mornings, she again wonders if she can "do it" with an overdose of her hive medication. Okay then. This might be more of a do as I say and not as I do kinda book.
Apparently, the only way this book will help me is if I share Helen’s goals.
"Do you, by any chance, also want:
- To love and be loved by a desirable man or men?
- To enjoy sex?
- To be happy in your work – and maybe even famous?
- To make money – possibly a lot?
- To look great?
- To have wonderful, loyal friends?
- To help your family?
- To be free of most anxiety?
- Never to be bored and maybe leave the world a better place?"
As rhetorically as that question was stated - I was immediately sucked in. Could this book maybe make me famous? Could it teach me to possibly make a lot of money? Could it free me from most anxiety? Could I maybe leave the world a better place? I am so glad I found this book. But I am still wondering if I am a mouseburger. But don’t worry, there are 17 wordy statements to help me determine, not only if I am one, but also if Helen can help me – or rather, if she is my "guru" as she puts it.
Please answer true or false to these statements (these are mostly abridged versions of the statements):
1. You’re smart. You may not be an intellectual or a scholar, but you are “street smart.” Like a little forest animal, you are quick and adaptable.
2. Technically smart people intimidate you, but you know, in your own way, you are as “smart” as they are.
Did Helen invent that backhanded compliment? And why is the word smart in quotations. Is it because little forest animals aren’t actually as “smart” as technically smart people? I am just going to move along.
3. You are sensitive (intuitive) to the point of near craziness. When a man is falling in love with a woman – not you – you know that (and it usually hurts!)
For further clarity on this near craziness that I may experience she also notes that you can sense when you’re about to be fired, when someone doesn’t like you at first sight, and when the audience hates a stand-up comic. Come on. Everyone knows when the audience doesn’t like a comic.
4. You get instant telephone vibes. About one sentence into a conversation you know you have somebody on the other end of the phone who is an idiot and will never be able to help you.
If you’re calling your cell phone provider you can pretty much make that assumption before you dial.
5. While being intuitive, you are also impatient.
6. You’re modest.
This is so true. Guys – I’m the most modest.
7. Envy is not unknown to you. Put it this way. In everybody under ninety who isn’t in jail, terminally diseased or under indictment by the Federal Government, you can probably find something admirable they have and you haven’t (and wished you did). As for the really golden people, words haven’t yet been invented to describe the disparity you think exists between you and them.
So, what Helen is saying here is that there is nothing enviable about those who are over ninety, in jail, terminally ill, or under indictment by the Feds? Those are some interesting subsections of society that she had deemed unworthy – and I suspect some of the people who have had the most fun in life.
8. You’re more selfish than altruistic. Idealists would not exactly describe you – you are not mad to move to India to push birth control or to Riyadh to hasten civil rights until you get something together for yourself.
I suppose this is true since I am here and not there. Although I can’t say that I’ve ever thought of myself as selfish. This statement feels a little like that game Fuck Marry Kill but the contestants are Donald Trump, Donald Trump, and Donald Trump. There's no good answer here.
9. You have a sweet natural sex drive that brings you enormous pleasure. This deep gut sexuality may not be discernible to others immediately as it may have been placed in the “wrong” body (nobody is ever going to mistake you for Jackie Bisset), but it’s there.
Fear not, ladies, you too can have enormous pleasure even if you have an imperfect body. Boy, am I glad to hear that! I was worried that i might have to give all my orgasms back. Also, 'deep gut' and 'sexuality' should never be in the same sentence - or ever paragraph. Please and thank you.
10. You’re eccentric and not un-proud of being “different!”
So it's okay to be different, but not okay enough to be proud of it, just not un-proud? Helen also goes on to list these as ways of being eccentric: sleeping in a football team sweatshirt, vacuuming at 4 am, and eating salad with your fingers. It seems that it was quite easy to be eccentric in the 80’s – or at least by Helen’s standards.
11. You can keep a lot of things going at once. You can cope with more than one job, on love affair, love affair plus marriage (if that’s what you want), one close friendship, etc.
Wait. Hold on. This is true – but only because I have multiple jobs and close friends not because I have multiple loves or am married with a side-piece.
12. You have drive. You look tame, but there is this fierceness, the never quite giving up on a project, the willingness to put more in. Physically you are not stronger than other people. Your drive comes from your brain.
Guys, I’m really glad she clarified that drive comes from my -easily-intimidated-by-intellectuals brain and not from the physical strength that I don’t have.
13. While being impatient almost to the point of insanity about day-to-day trivia, you have patience for the long haul. You may have worked eight straight weeks on a television script, but you aren’t really shocked when nobody buys it. You will wear the bastards down!
While this statement rallies at the end with a slightly feminist leaning battle cry, I have to maintain that you should have enough faith in anything you are doing to be shocked and disappointed when it doesn’t succeed. Regardless, this one is false for me. I am an instant gratification seeker – to a fault.
14. You sometimes hurt. Your getting-hurt-by-a-man capacity is boundless (topless, bottomless, sideless, and backless!) but you’re also pretty good at being other kinds of hurt.
She does bring this one around by adding that the good side of this ability to feel hurt is our capacity for love. Aside from her insistence that the hurt mostly pertains to constantly being spurned by men – possibly because you're in the 'wrong body' – isn’t being hurt and feeling love pretty universal? I mean unless you’re a psychopath, which I don’t think I am. Maybe there are 17 questions to determine that somewhere too.
15. It’s hard to be casual about anything. “It doesn’t really matter, not REALLY!” you keep muttering to yourself when the job, the soufflé, the weekend plans are falling apart.
Full disclosure, I’ve never made a soufflé – and I’ve never been passive aggressive enough to mutter about disappointments. They tend to come out loud and clear.
16. Peculiar (to put it mildly!) as you are, you can’t think of anybody you’d rather be. Actually, you feel kind of extraordinary at times . . . different from the others, yes, but somehow, well – don’t laugh – better! You don’t want to change skins, you just want to “improve” the one you’re in. Mousy as you are, on certain days you even feel a sense of power, probably based on having done something well.
Did Helen also invent negging?
17. You want it all, and are “willing to pay the price.” Let’s put it this way: Your basic mouseburger qualities – brains (though you’re not an intellectual), sensitivity and youth – are the cake mix. Add the hard work and you get a cake.
I have paid the price – $0.99 – and I’m going to bake myself a cake. But the ingredient of youth might be in short supply. I can only hope that the two cups of immaturity I've found in my bare cupboards will be an adequate substitute.
"If you answered “True” to at least ten of these seventeen possibilities, I think you and I are alike. If you answered “True” to even five, I may be able to help you." I answered true to a whopping nine of these statements – of course that’s if I admit that I’m in the wrong body, am a small forest animal, can balance a marriage and an affair, am selfish because I’m not in India, and that I paid for this book. I am a 1983 mouseburger and Helen Gurley Brown is going to be my guru.
Tune in next week as I tackle Chapter Two – How to “Mouseburger” Your Way to the Top. I can only assume that mouseburger is synonymous with sleep.