Thursday, August 16, 2012

Helen Gurley Brown's Cosmic Edit

Tell people what they want to hear, and make a lot of money.

How hard is that?

With the passing of Helen Gurley Brown earlier this week at the impressive age of 90, New York's media empire has been waxing poetic on the life and legacy of Cosmopolitan's legendary editor and unabashed crusader for sexual immorality.  And as the author of Sex and the Single Girl, published in the early 1960's when she was 40, Gurley Brown certainly deserves credit for helping to launch the sexual revolution.

Even if the book was originally her husband's idea.

Helen "Girlie" Brown

Indeed, contrary to much of the adulation being heaped on her memory, and some of her own curious claims of not needing men, very little of Gurley Brown's celebrated lifestyle came by "chance."  Not that she wasn't an honest, caring person, as many people have described her; it's just what she was honest and caring about.  Her husband, David, was an editor at Cosmopolitan long before she arrived, and he actually wrote most of the scandalous teasers on the magazine's covers.  He would go on to help produce such epic movies as Jaws, Cocoon, and Driving Miss Daisy, along with a few Broadway shows.  No one denies that her remarkable marriage, which began in the 1950's and lasted until his death two years ago, was marked as much by its longevity as its economic and professional privilege.

The fact that she - of all people - needed a man to help make her who she turned out to be seems as lost on her admirers as it was to her.

Does it matter that the happy couple had no children?

Their not having children certainly represents not only a major complication her signature book omits, but helps explain her prodigious career, working reputedly until midnight most days.  Gurley Brown reveled in modern sexuality's abandonment of childbearing and child rearing, although it's not clear whether the Browns didn't have children by choice or despite trying.  And to have heard Gurley Brown tell it, she loved the "trying" part, if you get my drift.  After all, before she was married, she was not unknown within the Hollywood scene.  She could never quite bring herself to admit sex was what she lived for, but her body of work doesn't leave many other options.  One of her most famous quotes was "if you're not a sex object, you're in trouble."

Another one was, "good girls go to Heaven, bad girls go everywhere."

Which brings us back to the article I wrote for about women and modest attire.  Perhaps we wouldn't be having the conversation today about what women wear in church if it wasn't for Helen Gurley Brown.  Or at least, without Gurley Brown, women - and men - who defend their questionable wardrobe choices and attitudes towards modesty wouldn't have as much ammunition to blast at people like me.  Through her books and her tenure at Cosmopolitan, Gurley Brown's famous contempt for virtue and morality helped to make licentiousness mainstream.  Can any woman in the church today deny the effect Gurley Brown plays on their worldview - whether that effect makes them more conscious of their modesty, or ambivalent towards it?

Granted, it's impolite at best and crass at worst to speak ill of the dearly departed.  But in this case, considering how she led her life, I'm not sure Gurley Brown would have much grounds to sue me for slander.  Her commitment to her doting husband notwithstanding, she participated in a generational shift away from modesty - however misappropriated it had become by double-standards and exaggerated puritanical oppression - that likely contributed to a more materialistic brand of femininity less concerned with propriety than property.  Ownership.  Rule.  Rule not through ethical integrity, but sexual allure.

One of the few things to come by "chance" to Gurley Brown was the timing of her ascendancy into the sexual revolution.  Launching her first book just twenty years before 1962, she'd have likely been branded a - well, I can't bring myself to type out the word, but it starts with "s" and rhymes with "nut."

Twenty years later than 1962, and she might have been irrelevant, since if it wasn't for Gurley Brown, considering the mood of the times, somebody else would have written what she did, and maybe even more pervertedly.  However, it's not as if some of the noted feminists of her day, such as Betty Friedan, liked what she wrote.  They considered her a traitor to the feminine cause, since all she was basically doing was re-packaging the old notion that women are only good for sex, and marketing it to the post-modern age. calls it "fishnet feminism," after the provocative style of women's hosiery popular during the 1960's and 1970's. 

Mystique Mistake

In 1982, at the top of her game, Gurley Brown penned Having it All, a book about how women can successfully use their physical prowess to attain love, sex, and money.  But where is the novelty in that?  As long as you base your worldview on the idea that men have all the power and are too stupid or vain to share it unless you can make them feel sexually desirable, how many civilizations throughout the history of the world have featured ambitious women who easily figured that out?  To the extent that more ardent feminists held Gurley Brown in disdain for focusing on sex and men, they were correct:  women have viable, and even intrinsic, roles to play in our society regardless of their sexuality.

Sadly, Gurley Brown got it "all" wrong:  women can't have it all, just as men can't have it all.  At least not the "all" many people think they want and need.  Only Christ, the Son of God, is our Sufficiency.  He is our Peace, our Purpose, and our Promise.  And all the other "P" words, including prosperity.  And provider.

How hard could it be for a fatherless little girl from backwater Arkansas to grow up with a misguided appreciation for men, sleep around Los Angeles, get put in charge of a failing magazine in New York, and turn it around by making promiscuity sound legitimate?

Over the years, as I've heard about her and read about her, I've always felt sorry for her, even as her peers in the national media were singing her praises.  In a way, I also feel sorry for all of the women who've read my article on fashionable modesty, and just don't get it.  I feel sorry for the men who love them, too.  I really feel sorry for Gurley Brown now that she's gone, since the way she's led so many people in our culture - and our churches - astray is between her and God, Whom she apparently edited out of her life.

Hey - she said it herself:  "good girls go to Heaven..."  Not a correct statement theologically, since we've all sinned, and fall short of God's glory.  But it's telling all the same.

Especially if it was the extent of her relationship with the one Man in our universe Who matters most.

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