Helen Gurley Brown has at last reached her goal weight. As woman about town, author of Sex and the Single Girl, and editor of Cosmopolitan from 1965 to 1997, she refused to weigh more than 105 pounds (five pounds too much, she said). Having died Monday, at the not-sad age of 90, she is now on the most successful weight-loss plan of her dieting life. And I can’t stand diets or women who talk about them, but I hope she’s happy. I mean that.
Brown makes for a slippery figure for fourth-or-whatever-wave feminism. It was easy to forget, reading the speak-no-ill obits from Jezebel, from The New Yorker, from seemingly every verified Twitter account held by a woman, that she’d ever been anything but a hard-femme heroine. It was easy to say (as I did) that Cosmopolitan today is anti-feminist, pro-materialist, superficial dross, while in Helen Gurley Brown’s day, it was something. It was something. But – take it from a girl who spent a rainy library day developing a Cosmopolitan macro-view from microfiche – it’s the same thing. Cosmo’s “please your man, treat yourself” philosophy seemed fearless, fun, and even revolutionary in the sixties and feels sterile and repetitive today: Not because it’s changed, but because it hasn’t.
“Sex is one of the three best things out there,” Brown declared in the early sixties, “and I don’t even know what the other two are.” Later, she decided they were love and money; unfortunately, only one of those things endures, and it’s not love. No kidding the seventies Marxist-feminists hated her: Respect and equality gotta be preached and practised exhaustingly, while money is best earned with the least scruples. Brown, who grew up poor and unpretty, knew that not all women could afford to be scrupulous.
Smart as hell, not well educated, she wrote Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, a year before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and 30 years before Sex and the City couldn’t help but wonder whether women could have sex like men. She wrote Having It All in 1982, and again, 30 years later, The Atlantic lamely still begs the question. (The answer is: 1. There are many answers now, each woman defining for herself what “all” means; 2. No, who are you, Ayn Rand?)
Brown pretended like a champ, but she couldn’t have it all, either. She believed in having your cake, not eating it, because: calories. She wanted to be it, not bake it, because momhood and housewifeliness gave her chills. “You cannot sit around like a cupcake asking other people to come and eat you up,” she said. “You’ve got to make yourself more cupcakeable all the time, so you’re a better cupcake to be gobbled up.” And she didn’t just cakeify women. “The romantic, difficult man in your life is as easy to manage as boxed cake mix,” she crowed in her inaugural letter editor’s letter, dated July 1965.
In 2007, Proust-questionnaired by Vanity Fair, Brown remained boss: She referred to her husband of half a century, David Brown, as her greatest possession; she said a man’s best quality was to find her attractive and like being with her.
So maybe Brown righteously and rightly angered critical feminists by referring to her work and herself as “silly, little, and girlish,” but there’s no proof she took men any more critically. Her egalitarianism was absurdly, perfectly American: everybody wanted sex and money, everybody deserved it, and everybody would get it if they just played nice and worked hard. Not surprisingly, people with less sex and money than Helen Gurley Brown hated her most.
Listening to callers on a late-night California radio show, which sounds like the original ladyblog comments section, Joan Didion penned a 1965 piece on Brown’s persona. The callers, wrote Didion of Brown’s famous book and its spinoff, Sex and the Office, “respond not to the books but to some idea of the books, not to Mrs. Brown’s written word but to the calculating provocative voice she has transmitted on more than 300 radio and television shows this past year.” (Gore Vidal said “I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television,” but Brown did it better.) “She baits and they bite.”
Didion wasn’t uncalculating herself, she was controversial before she was canonical. She could have related. So too could Elizabeth Wurtzel, and Candace Bushnell, and Cat Marnell, and all the beautiful bad feminists who get what they want and want it, more often than not, from men. By playing to win an old battle of the sexes, they’re (we’re?) traitors in the class war. I know it. I loathe post-Sex and the City feminist politics, in which rank selfishness replaces self-respect. But there’s something I can’t help loving about the total Veronicas who screw sisterhood and screw everyone else, too, and Helen Gurley Brown was the MILF of them all.
In 1982, Gloria Steinem interviewed Brown for a cable show. “Do you think you’re viewed as a serious person?” asked Steinem. “You giggle and flirt. ... and tell stories about bedroom manners. You’re a much more serious and complicated person than that.”
“Oh, Gloria,” said Brown, “you’re trying so hard to make it seem as if I’m victimized.”