Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Gurley in a Tight Place: RIP Helen Gurley Brown

Lara, I always have to remember the road paved for me by former rad Girls in Tight Places--women who resisted with every fiber of their beings the narratives that were handed to them, and so I feel compelled today to muse about Helen Gurley Brown, who died yesterday at the age of 90.  (And here is a contemporary version of a women escaping an imposed tight-place narrative.)

Here's what HGB says about her own inherited tight-place narrative, from her obituary today's New York Times:   “'I never liked the looks of the life that was programmed for me — ordinary, hillbilly and poor — and I repudiated it from the time I was 7 years old,' Ms. Brown wrote in her book “Having It All” (1982)."

As for myself, I learned about "culturally appropriate narratives" for girls early in my life while persuing my mother's high school yearbooks that were stored in my grandmother's basement.  My mother graduated from a small Utah high school in 1956.  All of the seniors had "future aspirations" printed beneath their portraits.  The  female classmate's future aspirations were as follows:  "wife/mother," "nurse," "teacher."  I remember being stunned by this.  Three choices?  Really?  Talk about your tight places.

Anyway, it made me feel very thankful I had more than three choices for my life.   

 From today's article in The Daily Beast

"In 1962, a decade before Gloria Steinem launched Ms. magazine as the bible of the women’s liberation movement, Brown published her first culture-buster, Sex and the Single Girl. That little book liberated the minds of millions of homely, working-class girls stuck in hardscrabble towns across America where life after high school held no more promise than a job at the 5 & 10, a bossy husband, and no control over the birth of too many children. Brown challenged them to take the same liberties as young men: to enjoy a long and lusty sexual prelude to marriage and to use the rest of the time to build a successful career."

This was, of course, proclaimed during the relatively small window of time in world history between the advent of the Pill and the onset ofAIDS, but you can imagine how radical this sentiment was in 1962.

Helen Gurley Brown of course became the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine--or Cosmo.  I remember in high school being very afraid of this magazine.  It was sexually bold, way too advanced for me, a girl still waiting for her first kiss, a girl who left high school still waiting.  As a Mormon college student, I thought Cosmo was tacky--the covers lurid.  As a budding feminist, the over-sexualized cover girls--displaying not just their face but provocative, cleaving-baring bodies--offended me. Besides, I was taken with the second-wave feminists who were anti-sex, anti "girlie"--a girl couldn't be both "girlie" and empowered, could she? Fashion-wise, it didn't matter--it was the androgynous, boxy '80s and I looked like a boy anyway.  Andrea Dworkin's strident thesis that all intercourse was rape intrigued me.  But for me, it was all theory.

It wasn't until I graduated from college (single, which was a definite swerve from my expected narrative--although I probably would have let someone sweep me off my feet if they had wanted to) and moved to a new city--San Francisco--alone, that I finally understood Gurley's premise without ever reading her:  that empowerment could be dressed many ways, and that what really mattered for women, according to HGB, was to be financially independent (preferably in a career rather than a job).   In San Francisco, I supported myself with a job that might have become a career, had smart friends, a studio apartment, a boyfriend, a Betsey Johnson dress, and a pair of Doc Marten's.  I went out at night and alone, a far milder version of Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr. Goodbar and without the moralistically tragic ending (due, no doubt, to the fact that Mormon girls don't enact the Sex and the Single Girl narrative very impressively).  The summer I turned 25, I tried lipstick for the first time at B. Altman's in New York--(up until then, I always thought my mouth was too small for lipstick, but that's another story), kick starting a life-long addiction. Plus, by then the riot grrrls and third-wave feminism had ascended-- sex-positive, mini-skirted, punk rockers, displacing for me the chambray- bloused folk singers of the second wave. 

Many second-wavers decried Gurley Brown, but third-wavers owe a lot to her, in my humble opinion.

This older New Yorker article sketches out her in detail, including how problematic HGB can be.

This again from The Daily Beast:

"Helen is usually left out of encomiums to the early pioneers of women’s liberation, because she was nothing like the movement ideologues. Helen cultivated a low and seductively breathy voice and gushed with compliments to win people to her wishes. She loved men and sex, and enjoyed using feminine wiles, and she encouraged women not to give up on any of that, ever. But she worked hard to reconcile those natural drives with boosting women’s self-confidence to take charge of their own lives. She believed in chutzpah, “the drive to put yourself ahead,” as she defined the Yiddish word. A woman had to know when to push and how hard."
HGB on her feminism:


  1. thanks, julie. love your life interwoven with gurley brown's theories. did you notice that "gurley" is a homonym for "girlie?"

  2. Lara, that's the first thing I noticed!

  3. What's also interesting to me is that Gurley Brown veered Republican--how many Republicans talk so openly and candidly about the need for and pleasure of sex in a public forum? I think even Ann Coulter pretends she's celibate.