Helen Gurley Brown's legacy | Rock Candy

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Helen Gurley Brown's legacy

Posted By on Wed, Apr 15, 2009 at 4:29 PM

Not holding up so well, says this recent piece in the Wall Street Journal. The occasion for a consideration of Brown, the 86-year-old Green Forrest native and former editor of Cosmo, is a new book, "Bad Girls Go Everywhere," by Jennifer Scanlon. It's the first full-length biography of Brown, and according to the review it's pretty light weight.

Scanlon's goal, according to the WSJ review, is to restore Brown to her "rightful place as a feminist trailblazer." Not doing says the WSJ.

Ms. Brown doesn't present many targets for a feminist's undiluted admiration. Her fervent support for abortion qualifies. But Helen Gurley Brown, feminist, is still a hard sell for Ms. Scanlon. A tedious section comparing her to Betty Friedan doesn't do the job. (Among other similarities, both shared "a healthy skepticism about women's supposedly nurturing dispositions.") Ditto the author's attempt to cast Ms. Brown as a precursor of the television series "Sex and the City," which Ms. Scanlon praises because it encouraged women to "refrain from buying into outmoded definitions of female sexuality."

Readers will be pardoned if they refrain from buying into the theorizing of "Bad Girls Go Everywhere." Maybe Ms. Brown is best understood "merely" as a shrewd and ambitious woman who knew how to get what she wanted by exploiting the less-elevated aspects of male desire -- and how to publish a racy, self-help magazine for "girls" who wanted to be like her.

The book's photos often capture Helen Gurley Brown more vividly than Ms. Scanlon's less-than-vivid prose. In my favorite shot, Ms. Brown is rail-thin at 68 and dancing with John Mack Carter, then the president of Hearst Magazines. She is wearing a mini-skirt, her face is hard and her smile frozen. Is she happy? Who knows. Is she a feminist hero? Who cares.

Jezebel offers a rejoinder:

...semen facials, single sex, man-pleasin' - all this was taboo before HGB and represents a freedom of sexuality - and a fun attitude - that would have been impossible if we'd just left the Women's Movement to those serious debbie downer do-gooders with their comfy shoes and pale nips. Then too, when it comes to actual cred, Brown's always been unflagging in her support for women's choice. Brown may have made her bones on essays with titles like "How to Get Men to Give You Presents," but the very fact that she could be tongue-in-cheek about this stuff was, some would say, a weird kind of empowerment. Think Mad Men: these were the times, Brown was just making the best of them.

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