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Having it all

Helen Gurley Brown.

Helen Gurley Brown.

I've broken into a sweat attempting to undo the knots of logic so many writers tied themselves into while praising the legacy of late "lipstick feminist", Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown ...

If you've missed the obits, Brown, who died on August 13, was the head honcho of the woman's magazine from 1965 to 1997 and apparently gave us the phrase, if not the illusion, that "women can have it all".

Brown, who according to The New Yorker once "lamented the demise of gold-digging" and sugar-daddies on her radio talk show, was part of a lineage that includes "material girls" such as Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) Madonna, Carrie Bradshaw and, of course, Brown's great creation ... the Cosmo Girl.

Writing in Fairfax's Daily Life last week, former Cosmopolitan editor and publishing maven Pat Ingram said of Brown "the debate will continue as to whether she aided or hindered the female march towards equality", while Erin Stewart wrote in the same section that "contradictions have been a part of Cosmo for a long time now".

"It's feminist because it makes it OK for women to be sexy and have sexual desires. Yet, the sexuality is usually aimed towards pleasing men," Stewart wrote.

"It's empowering because it gives women advice on confidence and on making positive life choices around career, body, and relationships. Yet, those articles are juxtaposed with pictures of flawless models.

"It broke down social barriers by talking frankly about the lives of women. Yet, it itself pressures women to act in certain ways, for instance by normalising beauty standards, even providing tips on the work women should do to be more beautiful," Stewart wrote.

Reading these articles, it struck me that the writers were also caught in the "having it all" trap because they were largely describing either/or situations, yet wishing both could co-exist.

This is most pertinently illustrated in the phrase "lipstick feminist", a semantic sleight-of-hand that attempts to convince us that wearing hundreds of chemicals on your face "to look good" is an empowered choice on the part of women, rather than cultural coercion drummed into females from birth.

Writing in the Daily Beast last week, David Frum, made the observation that most Western women "have been emancipated from almost every form of male control - except for the one form that many of the early feminists most cared about, emancipation from what feminist argot calls 'the male gaze'."

"That gaze in fact long ago stopped being exercised by men alone. Indeed, nobody deployed the gaze more ferociously and unforgivingly than Helen Gurley Brown herself. But the expectation to be beautiful, to be slender, to be sexually desirable, to be sexually responsive - all of that has accelerated in tandem with the opportunity to work and succeed," Frum wrote.

So we're left with that contradiction once again - how to be free of male control, when the thing you most value is appreciated best by males?

This is not to say all women, even the majority of women, place the greatest of value on how they and other females look - but it was certainly the case with Helen Gurley Brown, her magazine and books.

The New Yorker described Brown's bestseller Sex and the Single Girl as "a primer for the would-be femme fatale ... addressed to the 'mouseburgers' of America: average-looking, high-school-educated women with unrealised potential".

In a 2009 review of Bad Girls Go Everywhere, a book that tried to resuscitate Brown's legacy as a feminist, Judith Thurman wrote: "There is nothing wrong, Brown has always said, with improving on nature where nature was stingy, as it was, she feels, in her own case."

Quoting Brown, Thurman said: "'What you have to do is work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up,' [Brown] wrote. 'Unlike Madame Bovary you don't chase the glittering life, you lay a trap for it. You tunnel up from the bottom.'"

Thurman continued: "So, by all means, tunnel your way into the bank vault with a nose job, breast implants, and a face-lift when the time comes (it comes sooner than you think), starve yourself, and don’t let your upper arms get stringy. Fake hair, too, is always an option."

The crux of this message is exactly the same as that of every make-up advertisement: you are not good enough as you are. While a man may leave the house as nature delivered him unto the world, a woman must first "improve" with a bit of foundation and lippy, so she can be "equal".

Yet, it seems, many women still revere Brown because of other messages she delivered to her readers, such as that the unmarried woman need "not settle for settling down with just anyone, and to enjoy the search with blissful abandon for however long it took," an obituary in The Sydney Morning Herald last week said.

"Sex as an end in itself was perfectly fine, [Cosmopolitan] assured them. As a means to an end - the right husband, the right career, the right designer labels - it was better still," the obit, by Margalit Fox, originally published in The New York Times, said.

And this is what confuses me about Brown and the almost lemming-like adulation I've read in the past week - she changed the means, not the end.

Sure, she might have made the journey towards marriage more fun and glamorous, she might have assured thirtysomething women that it was OK to be single (as long as you had great clothes) - but she still believed marriage was a woman's final destination.

In 1962, she wrote: "I think marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life. During your best years you don't need a husband. You do need a man, of course, every step of the way, and they are often cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen."

In Sex and the Single Girl, she wrote that "liking men is ... by and large just about the sexiest thing you can do. But I mean really liking, not just pretending. And there is quite a lot more to it than simply wagging your tail ... His collie dog does that much."

And to do that?

You need to be as hot and thin as possible - just like the mannequins in her magazine.

If you're looking for a legacy for Brown, perhaps consider the Brainwash Project: a push to stop "Cosmopolitan and Cleo magazines from digitally altering the appearance of people in their photo shoots and to put warning labels wherever alterations occur".

I'd suggest, though, you don't swallow the fiction that Brown's gift to gals was the idea they can "have it all" - a fable women far more thoughtful than Brown have dismantled of late - because it's actually something nobody has, man or woman.

For the vast majority of us, life is a compromise, whether you stand or sit to pee. Women go through labour and give up careers to raise kids and men mine coal, lose the same children in custody battles and get their heads punched in at the pub.

I'd argue the idea that a "woman can have it all" has made more women miserable than it has hopeful ... because it's a nefarious myth, the ultimate falsehood leading to unrealistic expectations, then depression, divorce and low self-esteem when they are not met.

As The New Yorker put it: "At her most radical, Brown was a subversive rather than a revolutionary; a sexual libertarian rather than a liberator".

The "vision of Brown as a transitional species of New Woman" was also a myth, the magazine said.

"No, she was a classic poor girl on the make, lusty and driven, who, with her husband's help, found a clever formula that wasn't unique, except perhaps in its crude honesty, for marketing her own worldly wisdom."

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.

81 comments so far

  • I would imagine that like most people, there were things to admire about her, and things that were not so praiseworthy.

    You could say that at least she raised the issue of 'having it all'. You have also pointed out that it is not easy to detach being 'desirable' from the list of things many women want to be. Everyone wants to be a success by their own definition, whatever that may be.

    As much as I want to be able to provide for a family, I also want to be able to have one. Bridging and negotiating the two as a single person is not easy. Doable, but not a cake walk.

    Date and time
    August 20, 2012, 5:40PM
    • Whilst I would never seek to defend the place of magazines like Cosmo in the world, don't you think it is going a bit far to say subversive?

      For all their misgivings, they have promoted a way of thinking/being/living that was different to what was available to them in the..well...forever preceding. No one is doubting that they lack the intellectual grit of a Germaine Greer or a Naomi Wolf, but they add to thought fodder nonetheless. They are perceived as positive influences by some and galvanise polar opposite values in others. People take bits and pieces, rather than wholesale philosophies and that richness adds value.

      Progress is never a linear and graceful flow, but more of a staggering lurch punctuated with the odd backward step, many a stumble but generally fumbling it's way in the right direction. When I consider the women of today to the values and ideals held by my grandmother and even my mum, it's easy to how magnificent the change has been. The only great observable flaw is it only liberated half the population. Of course skinny and hot is still being peddled by the magazines, because not enough blokes have evolved from that basic set of desired qualities.

      Date and time
      August 20, 2012, 5:42PM
      • I agree Sam that the Cosmo factor has created the unattainable goal of being all things to all people. What it disregards though is that not everybody shares the same view of what is attractive or what qualities are admirable. The point where that realisation dawns though, is a way along Maslow's heirarchy.

        Although, what's the point of having cake if you can't eat it...

        Felix D
        Date and time
        August 20, 2012, 6:09PM
        • Can't disagree with the article, but Sex & The Single Girl was made into a very entertaining romantic comedy starring Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall. Check it.

          Rl Rey
          Date and time
          August 20, 2012, 6:54PM
          • Cracking article.

            Hope it doesn't descend into a woman-bashing exercise.

            Having said that, I'm not a fan of an industry which is revered for exploiting women's insecurities. Not a fan at all.

            I await Bender's comment with the gleeful anticipation that I usually reserve for Gina Rinehart's poetry.

            hired goon
            Date and time
            August 20, 2012, 7:37PM
            • They can have it all. They can root some meatheads and wankers when they're in their 20s whilst they have their little "career" then maybe they'll get a good guy to marry them when they're around 30. But it's risky.

              If any women who makes good money and wants to work whilst I be a stay at home dad and "compromise" myself for doing a little bit of housework and wiping some bums, give me a yell.

              Date and time
              August 20, 2012, 8:00PM
              • They can't have it all. No-one can. It's not even possible for anyone to be certain what 'all' is comprised of. Just when you think you might have gotten hold of all, it slips out of your grasp, taiunting you, saying 'you think that's all? Mo, there's more'. People with fabulous wealth and great power and fame might seem to have it all. They don't. They usually lack time, real friends, love, peace of mind, something. Ordinary people rarely feel satisfied with what they've achieved either. 'Having it all' is as an elusive a concept as trying to put a cloud of smoke in a box.

                Date and time
                August 21, 2012, 8:33AM
              • What a thoughtful and profound reply to a provocative post. There needs to be more of this happening in the commentsphere.

                Date and time
                August 21, 2012, 11:48AM
              • I appreciate that, Laura, and thanks for overlooking the typos.

                Date and time
                August 21, 2012, 4:02PM
            • Well Helen Gurley Brown was certainly an influential figure. And the interesting thing is that people can pick and choose from her prodigious output, to make whatever rhetorical point they want to make.

              Some consider her to be a groundbreaking feminist. Others consider her to be a groundbreaking ideologist for gold-diggery.

              There were 4 separate blogs last week with 300+ comments on the same airline/minor/pedophile topic. One of these was headlined something like "Virgin and the single male". It was amusing to see all the clueless ignorant people who didn't realise this was a wise-guy sub-editor reference to Helen Gurley Brown's book "Sex and the single girl".

              Every time I drive to Moree, when I get to Gurley I know I am almost there.

              Date and time
              August 20, 2012, 9:00PM

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