Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Helen Gurley Brown, Joan Halloway, and the Legacy of the Cosmo Girl

Helen Gurley Brown was not boring. She was a self created wonder who had as much a hand in creating the second wave of feminism as anybody, though nearly all the second wave feminists would be appalled to think so (as, likely would be Brown herself). In some ways, I think Brown is responsible for both the best and the worst about being a woman in these United States at the dawn of the 21st century. She is, in other words, a titan.

The best is what she accomplished for herself and her part in sexually liberating ordinary women in the United States. She grew up poor in Arkansas, moved with her family to Los Angeles as a teenager, worked in factories, and then held many secretarial jobs. Her big break came, much like Peggy Olsen's did, when she was promoted to copywriter at an ad agency. In some ways, I find it sort of risible, that in five seasons of Mad Men, Brown has never been mentioned. Her book "Sex and the Single Girl" was unleashed upon the world in 1962 and sold millions and millions of copies. I own a 1963 edition (see above) and it's a pretty remarkable piece of work. Remember, in 1962 married men and women weren't permitted to be shown sleeping in the same bed in movies or television (the first television couple shown doing so were Herman and Lily Munster!).

I think perhaps Brown is never mentioned in the Mad Men universe because the Joan Holloway of the early seasons is, in many ways, Brown's book made flesh, though Joan, unlike Brown, is both beautiful and college educated. Brown wrote that her readers should have jobs and careers, because money equals freedom, and having a career gives one something to be. Removed from its pink, exclamation point strewn trappings, these are radical and essential statements of self actualization. Brown made these ideas palatable to women who couldn't afford to take time off to find themselves, who had roommates and no college education and had never read Virginia Woolf. Brown told these women, in no uncertain terms, that wanting things is okay, that being single is probably a better time for most women than being married, and you can have sex (with multiple partners if you want!) and still be a lady. The Cosmo Girl was born. Bless her heart.

That said, Brown isn't perfect and is not only a product of her time but probably a great influence on some of the more unfortunate trends in ours. Brown was all about upward mobility, which is fabulous, but she was also all about avariciousness. In true Ad Man fashion, she was focused on surfaces and she liked those surfaces shiny. She scrimped to dress well on the way up, and advocated dressing for the job you want, something I've certainly advised, as well. But she focused on these surfaces, placing their importance above whatever was going on inside of one's head. Brown was also a dinosaur in terms of her views of the workplace. She didn't see any problem with sexual harassment, and thought women's problems with it ridiculous. In her view, any girl worth her mettle should be able to stave off unwelcome advances with aplomb and wit, much like a character Katherine Hepburn would play in the movies. Sadly, this doesn't always help. Also demonstrated by Joan as she is quietly raped on the floor of Don Draper's office by her fiance. Not everything can be solved by a saucy remark and a disdainful flip of the hair.

Brown was profoundly apolitical. She wrote of a world of her own creation and it's a remarkable place. She said you don't need to be pretty (and used herself as an example) to get men or jobs or have a great life - But you should help nature along, by surgical means if necessary. Just, no, Helen. I saw her in person in the ladies' room at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center about 20 years ago, and she looked both terrifying and twice her age because of the amount of work done. At least a small part of the blame of this society we now have, in which perfectly ordinary women are shamed into thinking they have to look like supermodels belongs to her.

Helen Gurley Brown's legacy is complicated, indeed. The most lasting part of it, I hope, is her joyful insistence that women are sexual beings, and that the best way to please a man is to enjoy oneself. That single women aren't simply women who haven't gotten married yet, or have been left behind. That their lives should be fun and exciting and, most importantly, their own.

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