Smart Girls Who Do Stupid Things


What Helen Gurley Brown Taught Me About Hard Work And Looking Good

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Helen Gurley Brown, in the portrait accompanying an Esquire magazine article by Nora Ephron in 1970.

I never thought I’d become invested in the life of Helen Gurley Brown. I mean, she helmed a magazine that featured headlines like “Yes, you can have a bigger bosom!” two years after the Miss America Beauty Pageant protest that lead to the misrepresentation of feminists as “bra-burners” (bra-putters-in-trashcans would be more accurate). The woman who created Cosmopolitan magazine as we know it today might have been a visionary in regards to letting single women who just wanted to get some off the hook, but she was, even in her time, so antiquated in her view of what else they could get some of. Given my distaste for so much of what Brown believed, it was odd to find myself sitting at my desk this past week reading AP wire copy, slowly realizing not many around me would understand getting upset over a woman who I didn’t even agree with on many fronts.

“…having a man is not more important than great work, it’s as important,” Brown told the New York Times in 1974. “I know intellectually that jobs are as important. But they’re not as good for Cosmo in terms of sales. We have had major articles on careers, on nursing and library work. But they don’t have nearly as much clout as an article on ‘Find Your Second Husband Before You Divorce Your First One.'”

Well, she was definitely right: That same article noted that a “career piece” ran in the magazine about once every half a year in the 1960s. But by the mid 1970s, facing pressure from women’s groups and magazines like Ms., Cosmo tried to do “one major job piece every third month.” They were often about “fringe” or “glamour” jobs though, like being a “lady bartender” or a reporter (Hey! Not so glamorous anymore…), “jobs that make good copy but are not realistic options for most women”, wrote Stephanie Harrington, a reporter herself, for the Times. All you have to do is check out April 1969’s article “I Was a Nude Model” by Alice Denham to get what Harrington was talking about.

Work, unless you look at it Brown’s way, isn’t that sexy. After all, the Huffington Post didn’t start a vertical with Brown contemporary Nora Ephron on work; they started one on divorce. But work was interesting to Brown: She adored it. She worked all the time. If she’d been in business during our mobile-friendly times (Brown was essentially pushed out of the magazine she helped invigorate in 1997, after thirty-two years there), she could have worked without heading into her trademark pink corner office anywhere she liked, perhaps sipping a Mai Tai on a beach while wearing a Diane von Furstenberg caftan.

Brown wrote about work tirelessly. Despite the fact that her magazine endlessly shilled a particular form of beauty and attractiveness required to snag a man that boxed out anyone who didn’t quite fit that image, to read Brown’s books is to realize that this woman cared more about work than sex — not that you could tell it from her magazine.

And, perhaps more importantly, she felt even beautiful women should feel that way too: her two mantras might as well have been “Every Cosmo girl needs to work” and “Every Cosmo girl needs a man”, in that order. But that these two things (working constantly at one’s job and working constantly to get a husband) “are at odds with each other, seems never to have occurred to Helen,” wrote Harris Dienstfrey in his article “That Cosmopolitan Girl” in a 1983 Antioch Review.

Brown was an equal opportunity advocate of hard work for people of all attractiveness levels: “Gloria Steinem, pretty enough to go through life as a goddess, got a job as a Playboy bunny (waitress), wrote about her experience, kept writing until she became an editor of Glamour and New York magazines, then became a leading figure in one of the most important revolutionary movements of our lifetime – the Women’s Liberation movement,” wrote Brown in her 1982 book Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money…Even If You’re Starting with Nothing. And of those women like Steinem who were blessed with the beauty and the brains? Brown wasn’t even sure she wanted such a thing for herself. “I’m just saying if I had to choose beauty or brains, I’d take brains. Every time.”

This didn’t mean that you shouldn’t stop trying to have both though — after all, the book was called Having It All. Her 1962 book Sex and the Single Girl, the infamous work that got her the Cosmo gig in the first place, was an entire tome devoted to making sure you looked your best — which meant you had to work at it. If you were a single woman, you had to spend money to make money.

Brown devoted a whole, less-popular version of Sex and the Single Girl to this very topic, called Sex and the Office, where she implored women in the workplace to care about what they looked like both for themselves, and for the men that they inevitably could snag while working. “…you must love yourself enough to employ every device…voice, words, clothes, figure, make-up…to become [a beauty],” she said.

To Brown, the skills a woman learned in romantic relationships were interchangeable to those they should practice in the workplace. During a seldom-seen interview between the aforementioned Steinem and Brown in a 1982 documentary (but one which I recommend trying to check out from the library), Brown outlines to Steinem how she moved from one ad agency to another during her years working as a copywriter prior to heading to Cosmo:

Brown: …Many men feel that you’re nothing after they get you. They wanted you desperately but when you belong to them, you’re nobody. So this agency stole me…
Steinem: Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Brown: (laughing) It happens.

Boy does it happen — or it did, in Brown’s world. For “…in an ideal world we might move onward and upward by using only our brains and talent but, since this is an imperfect world, a certain amount of listening, giggling, wriggling, smiling, winking, flirting and fainting is required in our rise from the mailroom,” Brown wrote in Sex and the Office.

Unsurprisingly, her contemporaries and modern feminist authors have taken Brown to task for her views. In her book The Joy of Work: Helen Gurley Brown, Gender, and Sexuality in the White-Collar Office, Julie Berebitsky wrote, “As [Brown] saw it, the feminine ideal was not necessarily an iron cage but a weapon in a woman’s arsenal, one of the few forms of female power and a way to circumvent men’s hostility toward ambitious women.” In short: women shouldn’t expect men to change, but they could figure out a way to make them more tolerable.

Berebitsky is particularly critical of Brown’s way to success in the office, and rightfully so: most of what Brown asserted was a way to move up in the workforce, but that which did nothing to try to right the wrongs of an incredibly patriarchal society that makes ours today look relatively sex-stress free. But Brown was really a victim of her own pragmatism: it’s like she could get behind reupholstering a couch, but couldn’t imagine throwing out the old one and buying brand new. She advocated for the single working girl when none were doing so, but couldn’t advocate for a woman she wouldn’t get to see live for several decades.

Though Brown clearly lacked imagination, she taught us something so utterly American it’s surprising no other womens’ magazine but Cosmo had captured it so fully until she did. Want to look sexier? You can! Want to move up at work? You can! Want to sleep with a married man? (You get the picture). Women’s magazines have always been about wish-fulfillment, but Brown took it a step further. She identified with the American impulse in all of us, that hard work can totally transform a woman physically, emotionally and professionally.

We need only look at the covers of women’s magazines, the Amazonian goddesses on billboards and ads, to appreciate her legacy: I can make my own money. I have. I work all the time. Who doesn’t? I’m single or attached or whatever, and I’m fabulous.

As I’ve stated before, I know a lot about a few things. This piece comes from some of that.

A Goodbye

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There are lots of reasons I love Nora Ephron, but I think perhaps the biggest is how relatable she was. Not even to my set of life experiences, but how comfortable she felt, like my mom or my grandmother or my aunt. She even looked sort of like them. She wasn’t just relatable in one medium; not just her romantic comedies or her essays or her journalism or her novels. All of it was good. She was the kind of writer and thinker I’d like to be; funny and self-deprecating and honest. Even the serious stuff wasn’t serious enough to be dull.

The only way I could think to memorialize Ephron in a succinct manner that hasn’t been summed up with this excellent obit from the New York Times, as well as numerous other sources (though I do think she would have been a great subject for The Last Word) was to excerpt a section of my thesis paper, where I couldn’t avoid talking about her even if I tried (even though the topic was hardly all about her). Here, I use Ephron’s personally revealing writing to make a larger argument about the state of women of her generation. So thanks Nora, for letting me bastardize your life, in this discussion of an article you wrote about Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown in the February 1970 issue of Esquire:

This article, which was eventually republished in Ephron’s book of essays, Wallflower at the Orgy, is a fascinating look at the Cosmo girl way of life by a woman who was part of the media, but also profoundly affected by the conflicting messages she was receiving as a feminist and as a woman. Ephron was a strong example of a woman who was stuck between the Cosmo girl and the Ms. woman; she expressed an interest in maintaining personal attractiveness, but questioned cultural demand for it. Of Brown, Ephron wrote: “She is demonstrating, rather forcefully, that there are over 1,000,000 American women who are willing to spend sixty cents to read not about politics, not about the female-liberation movement, not about the war in Vietnam, but merely about how to get a man.” This comment was clearly aimed towards the writers of Ms., who featured more articles on political issues that Cosmo often trivialized or barely talked about. Yet Ephron had a point: Cosmo was more fun to read than Ms., as indicated by the vast difference in their readerships. Ephron herself explained that her often-complex relationship with the magazine existed primarily because she did not feel she was the magazine’s target audience – “I have not been single for years” – but she was still “suckered in” by its headlines. “Yes, I should know better. After all, I used to write for Cosmopolitan and make this stuff up…Buy a padded bra, the article on bust lines tells me. Fake it, the article on orgasm says. And I should be furious. But I’m not. Not at all. How can you be angry at someone who’s got your number?” Here, Ephron confirmed that even the most knowledgeable women were simply looking for answers, something Cosmo’s traditional prescriptions provided, however limiting the method or the results.

Ephron was an excellent example of a “new woman.” She did not fit into the archetypes associated with a woman who read Cosmo or a woman who read Ms. She remained at the edges of the New York women’s movement, keeping her distance from activism. In another essay in her anthology written in May 1968, she described a makeover she received courtesy of Cosmopolitan as one of the most depressing experiences of her life, although she had gone into it willing to be transformed. Ephron explained that originally, Helen Gurley Brown had edited her essay so that it became a description of an upbeat experience. But the anthology contains the original piece. “Like most of my friends who have been overexposed to fashion magazines, I had come to believe that cosmetic and plastic surgery could accomplish anything. Perhaps plastic surgery – but I am here today, with my long face and drooping eyelid, to tell you that cosmetic surgery can do close to nothing.”

Why did Ephron find her makeover so depressing? Perhaps because nothing permanent about her looks or her life had actually changed. Ephron explained that she has been looking at magazine makeovers for years, but in her experience, the makeup washes off, the hair goes back to what it looked like before, and you are left with what you started with. After the makeover, Ephron wrote that, “I looked exactly like Nora Ephron used to look. Only a teeny bit better.” She had experienced most feminists’ greatest problem with “deep-cleavage feminism”: It offered only a fleeting path to liberation. Nonetheless, Ephron represented the woman who responded more to Cosmo’s strategy than to the daunting and fiery language of Ms., with its goal of consciousness-raising at all costs and its dismissal of issues of beauty and body image that preoccupied most women. Though it was frequently dogmatic, not to mention repetitive, Cosmo certainly covered body image issues that most women were immediately concerned with more often and more thoroughly than Ms. ever did. Brown never considered that she could be entrapping women even while advocating for them, which may be one reason by feminists never targeted Cosmo like they did Playboy, which was more flagrant in its sexist expectations of women. In Brown’s own way, she did represent a “real” woman – a woman who was unsatisfied with the way that she looked and acted, and wanted to be the best she could be. Even women like Ephron could identify with such dissatisfaction. But, the confidently liberated women of Ms. magazine seemed far out of reach for most, and were more difficult for everyday women to identify with.

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