It is clear that our culture is obsessed with single women living in the big city: from the cocktail-sipping, shoe-obsessed writer Carrie Bradshaw to the other side of the spectrum with the comedy-writing, sandwich-loving show runner Liz Lemon. The idea of the single girl balancing her career and love life to “have it all” is a recipe for both drama and comedy gold. Why? Because it’s such a real, nebulous life that so many of us are living, and we are interested in both watching and examining ourselves. Perhaps this is the reason for the success of Cosmopolitan magazine, not an idea hatched by men trying to tap the women’s market, but a culture-shifting paradigm put into our cultural consciousness by Helen Gurley Brown, the long-time editor of the magazine who died Monday at age 90.
She died in the city that she would change forever, making Manhattan the designated stepping grounds for single career women like Liz and Carrie. Brown authored the book “Sex and the Single Girl” in 1962, preceding even “The Feminist Mystique.” It shocked housewives, husbands, and bachelorettes with a clear thesis: single women should enjoy sex and have it when they want to. The book doles out advice on sex and relationships with bewitching prose, the product of Brown’s start as a copywriter.
For a woman who turned Cosmopolitan from a recipe book for dutiful housewives to an unabashed celebration of femininity, power and sex, Brown was surprisingly lacking in confidence about her physical appearance. In her memoir “Having it All,” she coins the pejorative “mouseburger” for herself, a type of woman without a particularly attractive appearance or specific talents.
After her husband David Brown, the former managing editor for Cosmopolitan, came upon a string of letters she’d written to a former flame, he encouraged her to write a book. Eventually she did, going on to sell over a million copies of “Sex and the Single Girl,” and turning it into a feature film starring Natalie Wood. Then the Hearst company came calling for her to take over Cosmopolitan, and the tiny mouseburger with no editing experience took the challenge.
Both feminists, chauvinists, and everyone in between would criticize her. She was accused of objectifying women and retrograding womanhood. Men said she would turn good women bad. But as the embroidered cushion in her office, where she edited for 32 years, said: “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.”
A self-described plain Jane, but the woman infamous for putting Cosmopolitan on our coffee tables and on television in Carrie Bradshaw’s hand, Helen Gurley Brown undoubtedly personifies the wonderful duality of all women that she, above all, encouraged us to embrace.
Image courtesy of the New York Times