Former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, Helen Gurley Brown, died yesterday at age 90.
Today this one-time Cosmo Girl has an admission: I both respect and despise what Brown represented.
She was a pioneering woman of trendsetting vision. And she was a regressive woman who championed sex as a bargaining chip and made being sexy the female equivalent of male influence and power. In Brown’s flashy world, a Cosmo Girl learned to put her make-up on perfectly, dress like a siren and flaunt her cleavage to get places in life.
And this message was delivered with blunt force.
If, like me, you were a post-puberty female in the 1970s or 80s, you couldn’t escape the check out-stand clarion call to sexually liberated womanhood. Cosmopolitan magazine covers blared out in Helvetica bold and Times Roman italics messages on how to get a man, please a man, be better in bed, dress like a sex symbol and act like, well, a slut.
Granted, this all happened in a pre-herpes and HIV era, and at a time when birth control pills liberated women to live up to Sex and the Single Girl, the sensational 1962 bestselling book by Helen Gurley Brown, published three years before she would captain the Cosmopolitan ship through thirty-two years of selling the virtues of sex and sexy to young women.
I lost my virginity at age 19, in 1981. Just before I surrendered my cherry, I began pouring through back issues of Cosmo in the university library, keen to bone up on my non-existent sex skills. (Factoid: Helen once told Time magazine that she looked after her husband like a geisha girl.)
Well, I wasn’t going to go into my sex life unprepared—by the time I finished reading a year’s worth of Cosmo issues, I’d memorized a list of sex tips to make me a better lover. (My favorite: when performing fellatio, try tugging gently on his testicles.) Never mind just asking the man I was dating, what might please him. Cosmo Girls came to the bedroom well-educated sexperts, equipped to provide pleasure.
To give Helen Gurley Brown deserved credit, she stewarded a lackluster publication focused on home and hearth from 800,000 subscribers in 1965 to 3 million by the 1980s peak. She broke ground for women by cutting the cord that for so long bound sex to shame. Now it was no longer sinful to have sex without marriage—it was instead a sign of freedom and power to be a single woman playing the field.
But the message of Cosmo was mixed. The content exhorted women to be sexy and sexual, but not for the sake of celebrating the female body or the inherent wholeness of orgasmic pleasure. Rather, the underlying message was always about sex as a means to an end. That end was to get or keep a man.
Ultimately, Helen Gurley Brown was not liberating women to be powerful players on the same playing field as men. She was teaching women to be powerful geisha girls, armed to the teeth with tips on how to capture, please, serve and maintain a man.
My mother was a housewife who, like Brown, spent several years as a secretary before settling down in 1962 to marry and raise children. But unlike Brown, my mother did not write a book about how having sex with male employers was worth the furs and mistress apartments. Instead, my mother always encouraged me to have a solid career of my own so that I could be fulfilled without a man. Such a different message than the grand dame of Cosmo had for me.
In the end, both messages merged into a conflicted bi-polar life. I was a wife with children, struggling to seductively love my man with sexual prowess and to keep that post-baby body hot while maintaining a career in journalism. I had to be sexy, motherly and business savvy. Something had to give, and in the end, my mother lost to Helen Gurley Brown and all the other media messengers promoting feminine value as measured by sexual desirability and ability to get, keep and please a man.
By my thirties, my career took a back seat to my Cosmo Girl mandate to be a sexy, physically fit wife who aimed to play the concubine. I missed the mark during my first-born’s first seven years, a time in which I let my fear of being a bad wife overrule my instincts to be a good mother. Romantic trips when he was a baby, weaning too early, the roster of sitters and the sense that my time at the gym was more important than time with my toddler are just a few of my Cosmo Girl mistakes.
It’s not all Helen’s fault. Let’s face it. She was just the spearhead for a whole onslaught of sexification of women’s magazines. Ironically, Cosmopolitan magazine, pre-Gurley Brown, featured periodic current events pieces—articles that engaged women readers in areas of political and social commentary. Articles that appealed to women’s minds rather than plea-bargained with their sexuality.
Helen Gurley Brown, you were a part of my coming of age and you informed generations of women it was okay to be sexual. I just wish you hadn’t at the same time messaged it was most important to be sexy.
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