Cosmo's Helen Gurley Brown: Does A Feminist Icon Please Her Man?

“If you’re not a sex object, you’re in trouble.” See, it’s quotes like this that tarnish Helen Gurley Brown‘s otherwise unimpeachable feminist legacy.

Helen Gurley Brown, octogenarian Cosmo Girl For Life and pioneer of man-catching, nipple-rougeing, semen facials and general proto-SATC chicanery, is being lauded in a new book by Jennifer Scanlon as a feminist icon. Some, oddly, scoff. Says the Wall Street Journal‘s Charlotte Hays, “Ms. Brown’s relationship to the feminist movement has always been, at best, ambiguous. Yet Bad Girls Go Everywhere, the first full-length biography of Ms. Brown, is inexplicably devoted to claiming her “rightful place as a feminist trailblazer.” Well, good luck.”

We know the arguments “con” bedroom canonization: Brown’s ethos seems to have taken the “women’s liberation” concept, subbed in “girl” and “the sex part” and ignored everything else. She’s said a lot of tone-deaf things, espoused the gospel of “Skinny is God” and seemed more committed to a blithe amorality – an “if you can’t beat ’em, join’ em! attitude – than the advance of her sex. If it’s not fun, she seems to say, screw it.

That, her biographer would say, is kinda the point: semen facials, single sex, man-pleasin’ – all this was taboo before HGB and represents a freedom of sexuality – and a fun attitude – that would have been impossible if we’d just left the Women’s Movement to those serious debbie downer do-gooders with their comfy shoes and pale nips. Then too, when it comes to actual cred, Brown’s always been unflagging in her support for women’s choice. Brown may have made her bones on essays with titles like “How to Get Men to Give You Presents,” but the very fact that she could be tongue-in-cheek about this stuff was, some would say, a weird kind of empowerment. Think Mad Men: these were the times, Brown was just making the best of them.

Of course, Brown was a product of her time, and if she hasn’t dated very well, does this tarnish her accomplishments? Any list of feminist heroes is littered with women whose positions were beholden to their times and who were less-than-progressive in certain respects. The difference is, Brown was a contemporary of a lot of women whose legacies are less ambiguous – Betty Friedan, anyone? – and so “realities” like being a “kept woman” for a series of rich men, then forcing a guy to marry her when she thought she was too old, don’t go down quite as easy. In Brown’s world, fish needed not only bicycles, but deluxe ones.

How do we define “icons” or “heroes” anyway? I think part of our resistance to Brown is that her path doesn’t seem to have been exactly difficult: she was already a rich woman with a richer husband when she got the gig and the time was ripe for her brand of self-serving, man-pleasing liberation. But the funny thing is, Brown probably never wanted to be anything but what she was – a glamorous, thin “girl” whose sassy exuberance must have felt remarkably fresh in ways we can’t understand in our Cosmo-fatigued culture. Should she have evolved? Ideally – and to be a “feminist hero” she would have had to. Is her legacy a problematic one, giving vapid, man-pleasing acquisition the gloss of feminism? Well, yeah. But at the same time, would a site like ours exist without her? Probably not.

Says Hays, “Readers will be pardoned if they refrain from buying into the theorizing of Bad Girls Go Everywhere. Maybe Ms. Brown is best understood “merely” as a shrewd and ambitious woman who knew how to get what she wanted by exploiting the less-elevated aspects of male desire — and how to publish a racy, self-help magazine for “girls” who wanted to be like her.” Here’s the question: is it her fault that there were – and are – so many?

The Secrets Of Her Success [Wall Street Journal]

Earlier: Sex & The Single Girl: Why Cosmo’s Helen Gurley Brown Got Canned
Helen Gurley Brown Still Alive & Kicking; Still Hates Her Muffin-Top
Is Rubbing Cum All Over Your Face The Secret To Eternal Youth?
Oldie But Baddie

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin