Thursday, August 16, 2012

Death of an Editor: Vale Helen Gurley Brown

Sex and the Single Girl
Sex and the Single Girl (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Dr Megan Le Masurier, Lecturer at University of Sydney, The Conversation:

The opening round of respectful tributes have been flowing through the media after the death of Helen Gurley Brown.

The original Sex and the City girl died in New York on Monday, aged 90.

Long-reigning editor of Cosmopolitan magazine from 1965 till 1997, patron saint of do-me feminism and post-feminist girl power, Brown will no longer watch over the “fun, fearless female” circling the globe in 64 editions, and counting.

Cosmopolitan and its editor have always been easy targets, from the religious right to radical feminists, and death won’t save them.

The second round of media coverage will, inevitably, bring critique.

So let me pay my respects before the jackals feed off her cadaver. In the mid-60s, before Women’s Liberation, before the sexual revolution, before Cosmo played out its inevitable second act as farce, Helen Gurley Brown was radical.

Sex and the Single Girl (1962), Brown’s best-selling book, laid down the blueprint for the Cosmo philosophy. Her advice to women was simple yet subversive. Say yes to sex. Work on your assets - body, charm, sexual skills and career. Cherish your independence. Get an apartment of your own and paint the walls cream (flattering for the complexion!).

Traditional women’s magazines, still advising young women to save their virginity for marriage, were “a right royal pain in the ass”, said Brown.

The sexual double standard made her fume. Why should men have all the fun? And for the next 32 years she made sure that Cosmo instructed its readers in the arts of equal opportunity sexual pleasure.

She introduced her readers to the female erotic gaze, convincing Burt Reynolds to be the world’s first nude male centrefold in April 1972. Brown disconnected sex and desire from love, from romance, from shame and from marriage. Something that men had been doing forever.

The Cosmo girl was accused of simply pandering to Playboy’s image of the fantasy woman. But over at Playboy HQ, as Sex and the Single Girl hit the best-seller list, the boys were confronted with the anxious reality of their own sexual fantasies - the sexually available woman made flesh. A conference of male magazine editors was held. Editor of Life magazine, Alexander King, said:
This absolute, unquestioned equality is a great mistake and in violation of all natural laws. It is a mistake because democracy is all right politically, but it’s no good in the home.
If she was nothing else, Helen Gurley Brown was a sexual democrat. But there was a more strategic side to this philosophy than women’s equal right to sexual pleasure. There was a caveat.

The Cosmo girl was not encouraged to have sex with just anyone. Sex, for Brown, was tied to a desire for upward social mobility. Richer men could help a girl on her way to the middle class American dream in a way that poorer men could not (better a tycoon than a truck driver, she said).

She was, after all, a lower middle class girl from Little Rock, Arkansas, and she spoke for the rest of her life to those “mouseburgers” dreaming of a way out, their “noses pressed against the glass”. The Cosmo story, the HGB story, is a narrative of escaping class as destiny.

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