On Helen Gurley Brown.

Helen Gurley Brown, legendary editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine (1965-1997), died yesterday. She was 90 years old. Admittedly, I knew nothing of the legacy of the woman who would be responsible for informing and influencing my views about femininity, sex and sexuality in the media. My earliest relationship with Cosmopolitan Magazine amounted to annual purchases in January to read the Bedside Astrologer as if it were the mystical diving agent to determine what my year in relationships would garner.

Still, Brown’s Cosmopolitan shifted the culture around lady magazines, removing the taboo around frank talk about sex and desire that the women of Sterling, Cooper, Draper and Pryce certainly could appreciate. Brown’s covers were graced by voluptuous models, celebrities and her taglines scandalized (all of which according to Brown, were written by her husband).

Brown even penned a book titled, ‘Having It All’ which is a lightening rod for a circular conversation among women around privilege and the work/life balance. Her own life as chronicled in the 1982 book was a veritable hybrid of Holly Golightly and Jay Gatsby, and as American a narrative as ever, a self made woman who overcame her low economic circumstance and achieved great success. Brown never had children. Brown felt she was a feminist, and in many ways the forbearer to sex positive feminism as Irin Carmon notes:

In “Bad Girls Go Everywhere,” Gurley Brown’s biographer, Jennifer Scanlon represents Gurley Brown as a feminist whose attitudes towards sex prefigured “sex positive” feminism. That included acknowledging female desire, particularly a desire for men’s bodies. Gurley’s stubborn refusal to “demonize” men, or have any unpleasantness at all in her magazine, kept her at loggerheads with many second wavers; she saw it as simply practical. “I acknowledge that men keep women back,” Gurley Brown wrote, “but since sex is terrific and it comes from men, you can’t rule men out of this world and say they’re all terrible and rotten, because you’re going to need them for your own purposes.”

Being a modern woman in America means that we’re constantly negotiating with our bodies in relationship with men, women, the mirror, fixed culture morays and norms about our bodies, clothing… you get the picture. Even in this strange-weird and unfortunate political climate where more than 40 years after Brown took the helm of Cosmo to inform the male world that perhaps we too have an appetite beyond the perfect graham cracker crust for key lime pies (admittedly might make one think of an orgasm, but obviously, still pales to the actual thing) we’re still fighting for our right to protect what happens in our vagina, let along say ‘vagina’.

Yeah, our work is never finished.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/swirlgrrrl/ Nicole

    I’ve never been a fan of Cosmo, mostly because the sex positivity seems aimed towards teaching the reader to be positive to get her man off. Check out this month’s cover headlines:

    • http://feministing.com/members/mighty-ponygirl/ Mighty Ponygirl

      1) HGB stopped being the Editor in Chief of Cosmo back in the 90s, so this month’s cover of Cosmo isn’t really her responsibility.

      2) That said, the cover headlines aren’t really anything more than bait to get people to pick up the magazine. The “How To Please Your Man” headlines are what get the magazines off the shelf. When you look at what HGB’s agenda was, it was that women should be liberated from men. They should be allowed to seek sexual pleasure for themselves, and not be hurried into marriage. That they should be able to get all the good things in life on their own, and not have to get it through marrying. She believed that “mouse burgers” (the term she coined for women who weren’t born into privilege and didn’t necessarily get dealt the best hand in the brains or looks department) had every right to have a satisfying career and a satisfying sex life, and that the most empowering thing for a woman was a job and a persistent attitude. She wrote about this a year before The Feminine Mystique was published, and it was revolutionary. Cosmo might blare out “6 ways to make him orgasm” (like that’s a problem men have), but in between the airbrushed models and articles about shoes and bizarre sex tips that no one in their right mind would follow is a lot of stuff about being financially and emotionally independent from men and being in control of your own life. And I don’t think we’ve reached a point where that message is no longer relevant.

      • http://feministing.com/members/zazzibrydges/ Catherine Brydges

        ‘since sex is terrific and it comes from men, you can’t rule men out of this world’
        Yes, that sounds an awful lot like ‘women should be liberated from men’.
        If you can tell me that she popularised and legitimised female masturbation, I will consider the possibility that she might be some sort of proto-feminist ally. As is, she’s just peddling a kind of 90s Spice Girl ‘Girl Power’ thing which ignores real and genuine feminist issues in favour of a Sex and the City-esque lifestyle, which is portrayed as fulfilment. It is such a petty parody of feminism. Real feminism? Is SO much more. It encompasses everything, from gender relations to race issues, ablism, homophobia, global capitalism and pretty much everything else you can think of. It’s not some childish ‘wearing heels is empowering because it makes men fancy you’ nonsense.

  • http://feministing.com/members/feminympho/ Katie Rogers
  • http://feministing.com/members/swirlgrrrl/ Nicole

    Cool that she championed that message, and even though she no longer edits the magazine has a very heteronormative slant, to say the least. Other women’s magazines out there (BUST being a fair example) promote independence and sexual liberation without having to “bait” us with headlines that oppose those views. I agree that while HGB’s message was revolutionary at the time and should be celebrated, and may still be revolutionary to some, I fear that her exclusion of non-heteronormative women and her “do as men do” attitude has led to this unfortunate type of media. And a counter message is needed.