"Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere," Helen Gurley Brown famously quipped during her long reign at the helm of Cosmopolitan magazine. Gurley Brown, whose career as a cultural force spanned more than 50 years through her bestselling books and editorial direction of the magazine, died at the age of 90 on August 13. She catapulted to fame with her 1962 book, Sex and the Single Girl, which became a huge bestseller and led to Gurley Brown’s appointment as editor of Cosmopolitan.
An unremarkable general interest women’s magazine with drooping circulation, under Brown’s direction, Cosmo moved boldly and unapologetically toward salacious and racy content, ratcheting up its readership to more than 100 countries. While other women’s magazines in the 1960s and early '70s still emphasized the homemaking arts, Cosmo offered tutorials on the arts of seduction. Today, Cosmo’s covers are so explicit that they are often hidden behind small shields on the magazine rack in supermarkets.
Gurley Brown’s career ascent began in the 1960s, an era that had all the ingredients for cultural upheaval: growing social unrest, including the upending of previously unquestioned social mores, the advent of the birth control pill, the burgeoning feminist movement, and her own breezy endorsement of young women engaging in freewheeling physical intimacy with men, with zero regard to marriage, let alone any lesser form of relationship commitment. She encouraged young women to “sow their wild oats” just as men in secular society were expected to do. Earning the ire of both feminists and social conservatives, she promoted the idea that women should become the playthings of men, exploiting their looks and feminine charms to get what they wanted from men, whether in the boardroom or the bedroom. She made the concept of being a “good girl” seem oh so 1950s.
Though she championed promiscuity among the single set, she remained married for 51 years to her husband, producer David Brown, and maintained that theirs had been a loving and faithful relationship. Well into her 80s, Gurley Brown continued to dress for attention, wearing Manolo Blahnick slingbacks, mini-dresses, and fishnet stockings. "To be desired (physically), in my opinion, is about the best thing there is," she told the Washington Post in a 1996 article.
Having worked her way up from an impoverished childhood to the pinnacle of professional success, she extolled the virtues of self-discipline. As she said in the same Washington Post interview, "Self-discipline is the cornerstone of my life. [It] means making simple little decisions. You have a cheese omelet instead of a hot fudge sundae. You exercise every day... You keep your temper – you don't go around reaming out everybody although you'd like to – you just shut up. You do the thing that's good for you. And it reaps such incredible rewards."
Ironically, she failed to recognize that the rewards of self-discipline also apply to physical intimacy.
Ironically, she failed to recognize that the rewards of self-discipline resulting from work habits, diet, exercise, and holding one’s temper also apply to physical intimacy. Undoubtedly, the unprecedented candor she brought in her magazine to discussions about some of the most intimate issues in a woman’s life helped many women who felt confused, intimidated or frustrated by their feelings in these areas. However, she trivialized physical intimacy as so much fun and games.
Yet the stakes were very high, and the costs paid have been dear. Since the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, in which Gurley Brown was a major player, our culture has seen a meteoric rise in levels of depression, particularly among teenagers and college students, feelings of loneliness and alienation, a devaluing of marriage, and rampant cases of sexually transmitted diseases, which can lead to infertility. The casual “hook-up” culture that was the logical result of Gurley Brown’s cheerleading has made it that much harder to develop the deep emotional connections that human beings people crave in intimate relationships.
The disastrous fallout from the promiscuous path counseled by Gurley Brown and others like her, particularly for women, has been well documented. In recent years reams of studies and several books, including memoirs from young women, have chronicled the emotional scars they carry, as well as the resentment they feel toward men, who have an easier time separating their emotions from acts of physical intimacy. Women, for biological and spiritual reasons, cannot help but feel emotionally bonded to men with whom they share the most private of moments. When meaningful emotional connections fail to result from these casual encounters, many women – and often, sensitive men – are plunged into bouts of depression.
Some of the books that have effectively rebutted the Gurley Brown philosophy include Unprotected, by Dr. Miriam Grossman, Unhooked, by Laura Sessions Stepp, The Thrill of the Chaste, by Dawn Eden, and Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good, by Wendy Shalit. Fortunately, based on the overwhelming evidence that Gurley Brown’s advice on how to live a “fun” and fulfilling life have been such abysmal failures, more young people are “just saying no” to the oxymoronic term “casual intimacy.” (As one example, the web site www.loveandfidelity.org lists news and blogs about campus programs that promote marriage and reject the hook-up culture.)
Diane Medved, Ph.D. is a psychologist, author of six books on family and relationships. She observes, “Helen Gurley Brown offered contradictory advice for women seeking fulfillment in every arena. She urged women to be powerful and seize what they wanted for themselves, yet proffered articles with titles like, ‘Six ways to get your man to listen to you.’ While telling readers to become powerful in the workplace, she also implied that life isn't much more than looking good, working out and getting a guy to notice you. In contrast, Jews believe there are three entities involved in an intimate relationship: the groom, the bride, and God. Helen Gurley Brown might have agreed that there are three, but probably that they were the man, the woman, and her mascara.”
Gurley Brown claimed that the message of her magazine was: “Just do what's there every day, and one thing will finally lead to another and you'll get to be somebody. And being somebody is a very nice thing to be." Yet her own actions belied that claim. The numerous face lifts and other cosmetic enhancements that she admitted to, even into old age, reveal that to be “somebody,” it sure helps to look artificial. One would need a microscope to find the number of articles in Cosmo devoted to developing a sense of inner beauty and dignity amid the avalanche of paper extolling the latest fashions, make-up, and flirting for success.
“I've had many clients who defined themselves by their looks, and they never found happiness until they built a strong, secure relationship – because that wasn't dependent on outsiders' reactions that day,” Dr. Medved continues. “Cosmo readers learned a lot about pleasures that are skin and nerve-deep, but very little about creating a permanent bond that can weather life's difficulties as well as its joys. But if you have no faith in God or anything beyond yourself, you might as well get another face lift, even if you're 80 years old.”
Gurley Brown was right when she observed, “Most 20-year-old women think they're not pretty enough, smart enough... don't have the job they want, they've still got some problems with their family. All that raw material is there to be turned into something wonderful.” Young women today increasingly realize that the recipe for making their lives into “something wonderful” will not be found in the pages of Cosmo magazine.