Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Good-bye, Cosmo Girl

Helen Gurley Brown, the author of the women's sexual liberation movement has died. Here is her obituary in the New York Times.

Brown wrote for Single girls. She was very funny. She loved her husband. Other than that, she was my exact opposite.

Sex and the Single Girl was published in 1962, which is slightly ahead of my chosen Year It All Went Wrong, which is 1963. It had very sensible things to say about working hard to advance in the work world. It had harmful things to say about sexuality. For example, Brown encouraged women to shrug off the immorality of affairs with married men. In her view, the fault was entirely that of the adulterous married man, and if you weren't having an affair with him, somebody else would, so why not just enjoy him?

As editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, Helen Gurley Brown sold women a revolution that was half fantasy: just use protection, girls, and nobody will get hurt. When I was growing up, she was still at the helm, and her magazine always featured a heavily-made up model with big hair and her cleavage slashed to her belly-button. The articles, I gathered, were complete trash, and reading Cosmo had to be a serious sin.

Thus, I don't think I have opened more than three or four copies of Cosmopolitan in my entire life. The one article I remember reading was about how to have an adulterous affair and get away with it. I have forgotten all details except to check that your jealous lover is not deliberately leaving evidence for your husband to find. Heavens. That is just so wrong on so many levels.

I do not think badly of Helen Gurley Brown although of course I think her philosophy was terribly dangerous and indeed responsible for a litany of miseries: the proliferation of sexual diseases in girls and women; many premature deaths due to cervical cancer; the staggering number of abortions performed every year; the as-yet-unknown effects of mass use of the birth control pill; damage to health due to breast implants and other cosmetic surgeries; the erosion of marriage; the unhappiness of children; the death of modesty; the ruin of souls.

I do not think badly of her because I don't think she knew that's what would happen. I have read both Sex & the Single Girl and Sex & the Office, and I gathered that she really, truly, honestly wanted to improve women's lives. Well, maybe not the lives of stay-at-home (so to speak--they also ran a lot of errands and did volunteer work) wives who husbands might fall into the beds of Cosmo girls, but she certainly cared about her readers. And she perhaps correctly divined that what her readers wanted more than anything was to catch a man, to have interesting work, to have an income and to not feel guilty. And Helen thought the key to all this was sex.

Sex is, of course, one of the reigning idols of our time. It is a religion, and it is almost the state religion of both the UK and the USA. As the Scottish government is willing to ignore the 67% of those Scots who wrote in to plead for the traditional definition of marriage and the American government is willing to trample the religious rights of Catholic employers to make them pay for abortifacients and artificial contraceptives, I think I am justified in saying that.

At any rate, Helen was a true believer in Sex as God, the giver of all good things. She was wrong, just as wrong as anyone thinks that nuclear power is God, the giver of all things.

But she was funny and engaging and hardworking and darned successful in her publishing and writing careers. I never sneeze at book sales, and Sex and the Single Girl sold two million copies in three weeks. As a writer she caught the interest of a mass readership, and that is the business we writers are all in. It's such a shame she was fighting under the wrong standard. Kyrie eleison.

I think it was wrong for the NYT to make those cheap shots about her cosmetic surgeries. I bet the NYT won't mention Gloria Steinem's cosmetic surgery when she dies. But I suppose it points to the fact that although Helen Gurley Brown helped to transform women's lives, she also cheapened them.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was shocked when, a few years ago, I found out that the creative force behind a magazine as misogynistic and stereotype-oriented as "Cosmopolian" was not only a woman, but considered a feminist icon! I mean, talk about objectifying people!

Seraphic said...

No Anon comments, please, so if this is you, please add nom de blog below, otherwise ---.

MaryJane said...

The irony of ironies is that the cover of the "liberated" women's magazine of the day always had some variation on "how to please your man." (sexually, of course.)

Too bad there can't be a tour de force of her magnitude for the good.

Seraphic Spouse said...

Actually, I don't have a problem with "pleasing your man" in principal, as long as he actually IS your man, i.e. you are married to him. In fact pre-Brown Cosmo was probably all about pleasing your man by keeping the house clean for less, making interesting meals, and being presentable at dinner parties.

The problem with Cosmo, besides the pornographic writings and outrageously over the top covers (which later spawned a million breast implants), it that it suggested you should please ANY man that caught your fancy, no matter who he belonged to. From what little I saw, it seemed to encourage the sexual equivalent of drunk driving.

Seraphic Spouse said...

Whoops. I mean "principle."

Maggie said...

Let's pray for the repose of her soul. I don't mean that in the condescending "Oh, I'll pray for you" that we Christians sometimes use, but in the real way- let's pray that if it's God's will and by his grace, she is bound for heaving and is being purified right now, that she see heaven sooner rather than later.

Maggie said...

*bound for heaven, that is. Geez.

some eavesdropper on the street by the hedge said...

Dear Aunty,

I do applaud the valiant efford towards nihil nisi bonum; but may I point out that the errors of consequentialism don't lie in the approval or condemnation of a person for the consequences of an act, but in the approval or condemnation of the act itself for its consequences. Failing, even honestly, to foresee consequences doesn't mean an act was well-chosen; this is one of the reasons the Church, and indeed natural law (knowable to unaided reason!) commend heed to authority and tradition. If we are to hope Ms. Brown erred innocently, we must hope she was sadly cut-off, and not by herself, from just authority and authentic tradition (which seems likely enough). Alas, that puts other people in the hot-seat, as it were...

But, overall, I'm with Maggie.

Jo said...

While supervising a rec library for college students recently, I had many heavy sighs over the fact that Cosmopolitan had a de facto place on our magazine subscription list, in the stead of Newsweek, Economist, etc. Sex is always going to sell, but I am still amazed/alarmed at how widely Cosmo is read-I mean, if you've read one issue, you've read them all.

Anonymous said...

On the "please your man" thing: I think that MaryJane was getting at a deeper issue, as in, maybe women's sexual liberation would come when men care about pleasing you in bed. If you're going to hold up female sexual pleasure as your god, then don't make it about male sexual pleasure. Cosmo and all the others fail by their own standards.

That aside, you're better than I am for forgiving Miss Helen. Perhaps that is wrong - it is the generation below her that I simply cannot forgive. They dated, were courted by, slept with, and married men who were raised by the standards they abhor, but left us to date, not be courted by, and be asked to sleep with men who were raised by their standards.

Life is good in the first generation out: you get all the sexual escapades with men who treat you like a lady. Us second-generation women have it much harder, and those women of the seventies keep telling us to thank them - but they see the devastation, and they take no responsibility for it.

~theobromophile

Seraphic Spouse said...

For me this is an honest "hate the sin, love the sinner moment". I loved her "voice" even though her message was amoral at best and completely immoral quite a lot of the time.

Hugh Hefner thought she was great, and that is the most condemnatory thing I've heard so far. Hef also loves NARAL and gives them sacks of cash.

Charming Disarray said...

I can understand how at the time her message must have seemed fun and appealing, and why those attitudes caught on so quickly and thoroughly. But as Theobromophile points out, we're all paying the price for it now. But I would guess that a lot of women of her generation ended up unhappy and disillusioned without any chance of a "do-over." At least we can avoid that kind of regret.

Urszula said...

"They dated, were courted by, slept with, and married men who were raised by the standards they abhor, but left us to date, not be courted by, and be asked to sleep with men who were raised by their standards." This is a great quote - sad, but very, very true.

Some of my best non-Catholic friends, smart, good, and stylish women were inveterate fans of Cosmo. It's easy enough to be light reading while you are waiting for your nails to dry and yet has (sometimes!) articles of substance and interest which make the reader feel it wasn't such trash after all. I know this because my former roommate had a huge stack of Cosmos, Marie Claires, and such in the living room, and I admit to reading them along with my breakfast waiting for my brain to wake up. Sometimes the topics are really relevant, or heart-moving. One article I will never forget – it was written by one of the mothers of the Columbine killers about her pain, sorrow, and guilt after the tragedy. So there are sometimes pearls hidden amidst all the propaganda and superficiality.

In a way, I suppose Ms. Brown was the secular equivalent of an Auntie Seraphic? (no comparison, of course, just trying to draw a parallel). Single women needed someone to talk to them, and she filled the gap. She says as much under the wikipedia link: "It’s just a pippy-poo little book and people come back with this diatribe about its great social significance. Well it’s just because nobody ever got off his high horse long enough to write to single women in any form they could associate with. If they had, somebody else would be the arbiter for single women at this point instead of me."

Of course the world would have been much better off if she hadn't been the secular auntie of the age...

MaryJane said...

I didn't intend to take a position on "pleasing your man" one way or the other - I only meant that it was totally ironic b/c Cosmo (&Brown) is a women's lib thing - as in, don't live your life for a man, find fulfillment in a job, be interested in yourself above all - but then the main story was about pleasing men. It's incredibly ironic: on the one hand, "we don't need men" and on the other, "1,000 ways to please him."

Personally, I have no problem with many of the main concepts in within a Christian context: life should be lived for God and neighbor, not men in general, work is a participation in God's own creative work, and we should strive to be fulfilled as individuals.

I think it's nice for married women to want to please their man (in bed and otherwise), just as it's nice for married men to do likewise.

The extremes of feminism are problematic.


MaryJane said...

P.S.: I completely agree with Jo- how many variations can they have on the "top ten" sexual tricks that men really want? It must be the same material re-written every issue.

Lena said...

Can I blame the ills of the sexual revolution on her?
Are one of those married men who is married to someone else going to be at your side when you're undergoing chemo? I doubt it.

Domestic Diva said...

You may have seen this article, but in case you haven't:
http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/story/2012-08-15/helen-gurley-brown-nellie-gray/57076876/1

Anonymous said...

When I first saw Cosmo I was twenty-something (I live in a small country where foreign magazines are expensive). And I couldn't believe that anyone over 30 read that trash. It was so misogynistic, utterly stupid, and deadly boring!
Later I've realised that sense for reality (or maturity) often has nothing to do with age :-((
Naive.