Helen Gurley Brown died today, at age 90, after a short illness. In Gurley Brown’s obituary in the New York Times, Margalit Fox wrote:
Ms. Brown routinely described herself as a feminist, but whether her work helped or hindered the cause of women’s liberation has been publicly debated for decades. It will doubtless be debated long after her death. What is safe to say is that she was a Janus-headed figure in women’s history, simultaneously progressive and retrogressive in her approach to women’s social roles.
While I admire many things about Helen Gurley Brown’s publishing career and her seemingly boundless sociability and energy, there is no doubt in my mind whether she helped or hindered the cause of women’s liberation. Her message—and that of Cosmopolitan—has always been very clear.
I wrote this post on Helen Gurley Brown in 2009, not long after I founded the Pursuit of Harpyness with four other like-minded feminists. There are many, many, many glowingly positive tributes to Gurley Brown running all over the internet today. This isn’t one of them.
This weekend, sarah.of.a.lesser.god sent me a link to an article about the of the first biography of Helen Gurley Brown, founding editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. As you might know, Cosmo is a favorite anti-feminist punching bag of the Harpies; its writing is painfully stupid and it promotes all kinds of Bad Thinking about body image, sex, women’s roles and gender relations. The fact that Cosmo‘s readership skews very young –high school and college age women–makes their pandering of Bad Ideas that much more pernicious.
We have not yet weighed in, however, on Helen Gurley Brown herself, and Sarah was deliberately waving a red flag to the feminist bull with that link, as I absolutely despise HGB and she knows it (that is, sarah.of.a.lesser.god knows it. HGB is likely still unaware, but if y’all want to forward this post to her, feel free.)
The author of the biography, Jennifer Scanlon, is a professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College and she thinks there’s a place in women’s history, and even feminism, for Helen Gurley Brown:
“Many second wave feminists wrote her off as no more than the female equivalent of Hugh Hefner,” notes Scanlon, who is an expert in consumer culture. “I’m arguing that she was an early practitioner of the second wave who also laid the groundwork for what people are considering feminism today—the so-called third wave, lipstick-friendly feminism you see typified in Sex and the City.
I’m not buying that HGB was part of the feminist movement at all. Not for a moment. And I don’t think Professor Scanlon really is, either. You’ll notice that she takes great pains to specify “what people are considering feminism today.” Not actual feminism, mind you, since that Sex and the City lipstick “feminism” has about as much in common with 1960s second-wave feminism as the “krab” in my California roll has in common with the real crustacean.
Scanlon found an untapped wealth of information on Brown at the Smith College Archives, which houses her papers, along with many other notable women of the 20th century, including Smith alum Gloria Steinem.
Gloria, honey, I’m sorry. Hopefully they keep them in a bio-hazard bag far, far away from yours.
Professor Scanlon is entitled to her opinion, of course, but I, for one, am perfectly ready to declare Helen Gurley Brown an Traitor to Womanity. Yes, she made money and founded a media empire, but she did it on the backs of other women, women who were desperately searching for independence and empowerment and who deserved much, much better than HGB’s shitty, retro, destructive, anti-woman vision of society.
Consider the following:
- HGB only paid lip service to financial independence for women. In reality, she was all about transactional relations with men.
“Brown was famous for advising women on how to leverage the social-financial contract between the sexes. “She had some interesting schemes,” says Scanlon. “One was, if you go out with a man who is from out of town, get him to pay for your taxi ride home. Have him give you the cab money, let the taxi take you one block, then jump out and take a bus.”"She felt that women should never pay for dates,” adds Scanlon. “She was aware that men were the ones who earned the money and felt they should be willing to spend it; she maintained that women should reciprocate as they saw fit.”
The word “reciprocate” in that context kinda gives me the dry heaves. In the 1960s, women were just starting to earn their own way in the world. And yet, here’s HGB, saying women should still be soaking men for as much cash as we can get. Not “pay for your own bus ride” or “split the check” or “let him pay for dinner but make it clear he has no right to expect sex.” Nope, in her world, men have the money, and us clever gals use our feminine wiles to get a piece. Gender equality FAIL.
- HGB is all about Thin Privilege. Her sick views on body image helped launch thousands of eating disorders and made stick-thin figures the prevailing standard of beauty.
Ever seen an issue of Cosmo with its ridiculous photoshopped covers? Ever read its gazillion articles about crackpot diets and rapid weight-loss tips? Then you know what I’m talking about. For that we can thank the editorial sensibility of HGB, the woman who once famously said that she loved having diarrhea because it took off a couple pounds and who told the New York Times: “Letting your body get sloppy is inexcusable.” In that same article she reports that her ideal weight is 95 lbs, so we can safely assume that we’re all “sloppy” by HGB’s standards.
- HGB thinks sexual assault can be quite delightful, especially in the workplace.
From Time: “Writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, Brown fondly recalled working at a Los Angeles radio station during the late 1940s and early ’50s. Her male co-workers, wrote Brown, played a “dandy game called ‘Scuttle’ . . . they would select a secretary, chase her down the halls . . . catch her and take her panties off. Nothing wicked ever happened.”
According to the author, everyone enjoyed the pursuit and “no scuttler was ever reported to the front office. Au contraire, the girls wore their prettiest panties to work . . . Alas, I was never scuttled.” Brown professed shock that modern girls would disagree with her notions of what constitutes a playful professional pastime.
Jesus Motherfucking Christ in a handbag. What is wrong with this woman? “Nothing wicked?” That shit is illegal. I ran this magazine clip by my buddy Anonymous Prosecutor, who wrote back “In New York State we call that “forcible touching”, a misdemeanor, but if the woman is panty-less, and the forcible touching continues, it’s felonious sexual assault. At any rate, I can’t believe she thinks that’s okay.”
- HGB says if your husband cheats, even if he fucks your best friend, it’s your fault for not fucking him enough:
Also from the Times: Mrs. Brown is secure enough to recommend in “The Late Show” that older women take a fresh look at their friends’ husbands as potential lovers. “Husbands are a source of supply. I never feel guilt about the wife, if she can’t keep him at home.”
Ah yes. Men can’t be expected to exercise simple self control. They’re entitled to sex and it’s the wife’s job to provide them with it. If she’s not, feel free to swoop right in there, even if she’s your best friend. Don’t feel guilty! That man deserves sex–because he’s a man!–and you’re actually helping by providing it.
- HGB wants you to…EWWWW:
“Spread semen over your face, [it's] probably full of protein as sperm can eventually become babies. Makes a fine mask—and he’ll be pleased.”
Or you could use a fucking moisturizer. I kinda suspect from this that HGB might have a secret sideline in bukkake films. I actually ran this “beauty tip” by my current not-boyfriend to see if it would, in fact, “please” him to help me apply a jizz-mask instead of my usual Neutrogena one. He looked horrified and stammered: “You mean you’d just leave it on there? Gross!”
I could go on. No, really, I could! Google has so much of Helen Gurley Brown’s subversively anti-woman bullshit in its caches that if I wanted to mine it all, we could be here for days, that is, if we didn’t spontaneously combust from righteous womanly outrage. Suffice it to say that while I’m not above picking up Cosmo to pass the time at the salon, I absolutely draw the line at lauding Helen Gurley Brown as a participant in the women’s movement.
Yes, she’s got something to do with feminism, alright, but only in the sense that Budweiser has something to do with Alcoholics Anonymous.