Death of a salesgirl: Helen Gurley Brown’s legacy

Aug 15, 2012
Sex Talk
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The legendary Cosmo Girl, Helen Gurley Brown, has died — and with her, one hopes, a not-so-fabulous legacy.

This would be the demonstrably ridiculous notion that women can have it all. Whatever “it” is.

In Brown’s public estimation, the things that mattered were money, career and sex, not necessarily in that order. These were the goals she promoted in a long, successful career based on advancing stereotypical female characteristics and behaviors — manipulation, vanity and vapidity.

Good manners preclude speaking ill of the dead, but surely HGB would appreciate straight talk in the service of reality. In her own words: “I am a feminist . . . I am for total equality. My relevance is that I deal with reality.”

Reality for HGB, born in 1922, was much different than today’s, obviously, and any critique of her life’s work necessarily demands homage to context. Women had few options when HGB came along, and blazing new trails required a certain feminine perspicacity gently stirred with guile.

Thus, she promoted the idea that women could enjoy sex without marriage (didn’t men?), and that women should enjoy the same benefits of work and career as men. From Brown’s perspective, empowerment was available to women who used their wiles to get men to relinquish the keys to their kingdom.

Thus, the trek from HGB’s “Sex and the Single Girl” to HBO’s “Sex and the City” was a mere evolutionary sprint, though the finish line is not at all clear.

If we take seriously HGB’s mantra that women can have it all, then she was tragically mistaken, as the stats on single mothers and social pathologies afflicting children confirm. If we do not take HGB seriously — a better choice — then she was a charming, cheeky shtick artist who turned taped cleavage into an empire.

Her trope that “good girls go to heaven/bad girls go everywhere,” the Mae West quote Brown displayed in her office, was a cute riposte to the laced-up imperatives of Brown’s Ozark upbringing. It was also the clever badinage of a smart and wily entrepreneur. Just as West commercialized her sexuality, Brown institutionalized the idea that woman as a sex object wasn’t something to avoid but rather to exploit.

Cute, but not reality, in fact.

HGB may have been a full-frontal, girlie siege of sassy talk, but she wrote her blockbuster book, “Sex and the Single Girl,” at age 40 while married to the man who remained her husband until death did them part. It was, indeed, Brown’s husband who urged her to write the book, the commercial appeal of which can’t have escaped his calculations.

I don’t necessarily doubt the sincerity of Brown’s proclaimed feminism. It was of a different order than the subsequent feminism of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, but Brown’s was prescient in a way. Her use-men-the-way-they’ve-always-used-women philosophy foreshadowed today’s culture of pole-dancing moms and porn as women’s ultimate expression of liberation.

While Friedan and Steinem urged women to withhold their favors from exploitative men, Brown implored: Always say yes to sex and take their money. Men will always be men, she seemed to be suggesting, so you may as well use their weaknesses to your advantage. Magazine-cover headlines that touted 50 ways to please your man were really Brown’s way of saying “and get what you want.”

But what do women really want, as Freud was fond of asking? Nothing much that Cosmo was offering. Like Playboy, which Brown triumphantly parodied with a nude centerfold of Burt Reynolds (and years later, future California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and future Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown), the message of cheap trinkets and shallow sex is the same. Maxed-out materialism defined the content and the motivating spirit of both venues.

HGB may have aspired to help young women who weren’t blessed with looks or an education lead more interesting lives, as she claimed. But there’s no getting there from here. A well-lived life ultimately isn’t measured in sexual exploits or stiletto heels — or even by a wall of trophies and photo ops. Most adults figure this out, but it isn’t clear that Brown, who got breast implants at 73 and lamented her “fat tummy” at 85, ever did.

The most telling line from all the tributes written about her may provide a clue. Brown said she never had children because “I didn’t want to give up the time, the love, the money.”

May the Cosmo Girl rest in peace.

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group.

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