The Magazine

The Cosmo Girl

Helen Gurley Brown is no mouseburger.

May 25, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 34 • By EMILY YOFFE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Bad Girls Go Everywhere

The Life of Helen Gurley Brown

by Jennifer Scanlon

Oxford, 288 pp., $27.95

Jennifer Scanlon sets out to prove that the legendary Cosmopolitan editor, Helen Gurley Brown, the woman who made cleavage and orgasms mainstream women's magazine fare, deserves to be taken seriously. Perhaps nothing makes her case better than the fact that this biography is being published by Oxford University Press. That must delight Brown, and only confirm her lifelong evangelical crusade that if she, a poor, fatherless, acne-ridden girl with only a secretarial degree, could make herself attractive, happy, and wildly successful, then any mouseburger (Brown's favorite term for her pre-fabulous self) can.

An Esquire profile of Brown by Nora Ephron, published in 1970--five years into what was to become a 32-year run as editor of Cosmo--still serves as a précis of Scanlon's book. All the tropes are there: Brown's reverse-Pilgrim's Progress belief that life's journey requires embracing temptation; her hyper-identification with her devoted readers; her faintly ridiculous, but endearing, combination of earnestness and grit; her run-ins with the censorious Hearst management which was constantly trying to rein her in, while acknowledging her instincts were newsstand gold.

Ephron's portrait, both affectionate and acidic, does not, however, foresee that in 2009 a scholar--Scanlon is a professor of gender and women's studies at Bowdoin--would assert that Brown should be considered as important in liberating women from the gender straitjacket of the 1950s as Betty Friedan. Brown was an object of feminist scorn, with her belief that being seen as a sex object brought the reward of having sex. She was relentlessly upbeat (refusing even to run negative movie reviews in Cosmo) and objected to the idea that a misogynistic power structure crushed women's opportunities.

Scanlon argues that, unlike mainstream feminists, whose appeal was often to the educated, well-off women who ultimately were able to use their college degrees in the marketplace, Brown addressed herself largely to working-class women. Scanlon says it is a caricature to see Brown as simply an advocate of falsies and eyelash-batting. She makes the case that, since Brown found her own liberation in the workplace, she wanted her Cosmo girls to do what she had done: Use every bit of their smarts and femininity to create opportunities where none seemed to exist. She quotes Brown's observation, "Nothing is as much fun as achieving."

Scanlon sees Brown as an avatar of what has come to be called third wave feminism. The first wave of the early 20th century focused on the struggle for women's suffrage; the second wave of the 1960s and '70s was about collective action to establish gender equality at work and rethink sex roles at home; the third wave, from the 1990s, is loosely characterized by an interest in individual choice and style, an ability to celebrate "girlie" (if not "Gurley") culture. Scanlon places Brown's debut 1962 blockbuster, Sex and the Single Girl, as a bridge between the other girlie culture touchstones, Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City.

Brown, because of her emphasis on seduction (married men not being off-limits), artifice, and make-it-up-as-you-go-along morality, was in her day hated by both those Scanlon calls "moralists" and feminists. Scanlon is not fully convincing in her attempt to set Brown's place in a historic pantheon. She obviously has great affection for her subject, but she strains to fit Brown's ditziness--as Ephron quotes her, "You've got to make yourself more cupcakable all the time so that you're a better cupcake to be gobbled up"--into a larger theoretical framework.

Still, Brown's life is a great story, and Scanlon tells it clearly and without academic jargon. Helen Gurley was born in Arkansas in 1922, the younger of two daughters. Her mother was melancholic and critical, but Helen adored her father, who eventually became an Arkansas state legislator. When Helen was 10 he was killed in a freak elevator accident in the capitol building. It was a blow from which the family never recovered.

Deep into the Depression, the three lit out for Los Angeles, where Helen's older sister, Mary, soon contracted polio, leaving her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Brown supported the two women for the rest of hers. As a young secretary she sent her mother and sister, who had returned to the South, one week of her meager monthly earnings. Brown eventually made her way from the secretarial pool to being a highly successful advertising copywriter with a special knack for selling products to women.