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Cosmo & the legacy of Helen Gurley Brown

Call me old fashioned, call me modern but I’m proud to call myself a feminist in the way I have grown up to understand it. To some, therefore, it may be a surprising to hear that I was a huge fan of Cosmopolitan in the 80′s.

Of all the words that have gathered moss, ‘feminist’ is a word with a whole Irish mountains worth of the stuff, but as a teenager in the 80′s it was the absolutely brilliant thing to be in a very decadent and unconventional time.

Having no siblings at all meant that I didn’t get a chance to catch a prurient glimpse of an older sister snogging, an older sister’s tampons, an older sister’s bra, an older sister’s contraceptives or any other rites of furtive adolescent passage.  Fortunately I discussed the facts of life openly with my Mum (she’d been a nurse and midwife after all) but like most teenagers, under NO circumstances would I ever discuss any potentially tingly and exciting facts about that life. Absolutely no way.

How could I find out about this stuff?

Hello Cosmo!

However, Cosmopolitan magazine was about way more than glossy lipped, cleavage-amplified, wind machined babes promising great hair and a sex life that featured a woman and what she could get out of it all.

The thrillingly too-old-for-me-monthly may have hardwired my visual references for life via Jerry Hall, Joanne Russell (below left) and trained me in the difficult art of blending strong pigments onto the face perfectly but with regards to conceptual thinking, 1980′s Cosmo introduced me to feminist icons such as Shere HiteGloria Steinham (below right),  the ‘couch of self awareness’ (psychotherapy) plus the brilliant, sassy wit of Paula Yates (then an Anthony Price wearing, tattooed columnist).

Cosmo‘s was a world of ideas that I couldn’t wait to dive into. It was my glamorous, beautiful, sexually aware big sister who saw obstacles as ‘challenges’, jobs like rewarding careers and vaginas as multi-faceted pleasure machines. My mum thought I was looking at (ex NOVA fashion editor) Caroline Baker‘s wild and wonderful fashion. which I was, but I was also fascinated by the idea that in a few years time, I too would have a wild and wonderful career plus social life, have a zillion G spots to discover all over my body, be extremely knowledgeable, cultured, fabulously dressed and have men falling at my glossily talon-ed fingertips. Ehrm. Anyway moving swiftly along.

I can genuinely say that I had no idea that women were not equal to men in ‘real life’. Cosmo gave me the impression that all the feminist work was already done and that we women just rocked. We could be smart, sexy, gorgeous, witty and financially self-made and that not only was this attractive, it was also the most beneficial and fun for you.

Little did I know at the time that all these things at once would frighten the living daylights out of the majority of men.

                                               They’ve all been Cosmo‘d


All this actually brings me to the recent passing,

at 90 years old, of Helen Gurley Brown, editor in chief of (US) Cosmopolitan for 32 years until she became mere ‘international editor’ in 1997.

Pre HGB Cosmo






HGB Cosmo

HGB‘s philosophy for Cosmo was the same one she’d always applied to her own life: self-improvement. She asked the questions that women only had- at best- with each other, such as ‘what woman doesn’t want a better relationship? Better sex? Better hair? A better job? A better wardrobe? A better body?’.

For the under 30′s who’re used to being lured in by such promises, it’s hard to imagine Cosmopolitan as in any way trailblazing, let alone feminist. Another OMG fact is that it was also a precursor to the self-help manual, a decade or two before the genre would spawn the ‘You Can Heal Your Life’ variety and unlike some of the more zealous fringes of feminism in the sixties and seventies, the Cosmo woman that HGB manifested saw no conflict between loving men and being ambitious. She wanted to please men and herself. Some called it deep-cleavage feminism, some called it ‘obscene and quite horrible‘. Nonetheless the formula worked so well that she increased circulation from 800,000 to 2.5 million readers.

Gloria Steinem (left as an under cover Playboy bunny for her interview/debate with Hugh Hefner)  told the New York Times in 1996:

“She deserves credit for having introduced sexuality into women’s magazines – Cosmo was the first. But then it became the un-liberated woman’s survival kit, with advice on how to please a man, lover or boss in any circumstances, and also – in a metaphysical sense – how to smile all the time. The Cosmo girl needs to become a woman.”

As usual I agree with Gloria. I don’t think I’d have grown up with such varied aspirations as an only child with a diet of most women’s media today and I must admit, I rarely buy them and those that I do, are not the mainstream. As fashion magazines go, I like Lula, Another and Gentlewoman which has great articles on grown up women who’ve achieved things other than looking good as does the UK’s Harpers Bazaar.

The taglines that were once liberating in the early days of Cosmo, have become the exact opposite. I never felt like I was wanting to achieve the hair, body, sexuality and career for men or to get a man or to impress anyone other than myself or those I respected.

When I look at women’s magazine headlines today I feel sad. I also know that their editors may agree but they also know what sells and their job is at the mercy of circulation figures. Shame they haven’t discovered a less corrosive way of generating sales.

‘Famous women being trailed for their traumas’

is my least favourite of all magazine genres, and if I were near a pap stalking any woman on a bad day, I’d want to protect her in the same way I would anyone else who was being harassed by a stranger and the simplest way of doing this is by not buying a magazine that pays him to do this. My second least favourite is the weight loss and gain of famous women. The vicious cycle of envy and schadenfreude.

But then I grew up in post feminist Britain, a lot of women my age don’t relate to the regressive undertone in women’s media today.

So I thought I’d find the Generation Y perspective on the legacy of Helen Gurley Brown‘s Cosmopolitan,

a generation far more likely to grow up thinking that feminism is unsexy, dated and that keeping up with the Kardashians is way more kool than HGB (LOL OMG whatevs).

I gave my extremely academic, modern, 28 year old friend (& contributor to my blog!) Laura McLaw Helms (who also loves HGB’s Cosmopolitan and Jerry Hall) a Q+A on the legacy of Helen Gurley Brown. Laura has spent most of her adult life in the US and as far as I know, does not keep up with the Kardashians).

Laura, what essentially inspired you about HGB’s Cosmo?

“Is it wrong that I kind of really love Helen Gurley Brown?
The central idea of Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan was that women, both married and unmarried, should enjoy sex as much as men, without all of the guilt that had been inherently associated with it. That to me is such an important concept— it is such a difficult idea for people in our era to really understand how groundbreaking it was at the time that she published her first book (Sex and the Single Girl [1963]) and when she took over Cosmopolitan (1965), since it is basically accepted by almost everyone today. While she was part of a wave of people and events that helped shift society’s views on sex, her contribution was integral as she basically taught several generations of women in the United States, and later all around the world, that sex (beyond procreation) was an essential part of being alive.

As a young woman today, what do you find relevant about HGB?

HGB was obviously a very driven and ambitious woman, who I think it can be said really created her own life from nothing. Her life story is remarkable and inspiring for anyone, as she really came from nothing, worked a ton of pretty horrible jobs, but slowly moved her way up until she found her true calling.

What, if anything, do you find outdated about her beliefs and why?

Obviously she was a very contrary woman with some very antiquated ideas—while I admire her for bringing sex out of the confessional, I think her overemphasis on the use of sex to catch a man is definitely a relic of another period.

Any opinion on what was positive and negative about her legacy?

Her belief that being a single woman is a time to be enjoyed, and not feared, has been a very positive addition to feminism (regardless of the fact that she did see it as an enjoyable step on the way to matrimony). One only needs to look at a current edition of Cosmopolitan to see the negatives—the tagline (‘Fun, Fearless, Female’) is still one of the best in the business, but the magazines has basically become a litany of lists of ridiculous sex tips. The emphasis has gone from learning to enjoy sex for yourself, a personal process, to pushing a fantasy idea of sex, where orgasm must be achieved every time and where the more acrobatics performed the better. The current attitude devalues sex and removes the emotional or romantic side to it.

If someone of her spirit were young now, what message do you think she would advocate?

I hope that they would continue to advocate the fun and fearless sides of being a woman, but would move forward a bit with the times to see neither marriage nor good sex as the end goal, but simply as parts that make up a whole, along with every other aspect of life (career, friends, health, etc.).

Don’t know enough about Helen Gurley Brown? Read The New York Times obituary HERE

HGB’s book ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ was groundbreaking in it’s day and was made into a film starring Nathalie Wood and Tony Curtis, left.

The original Carrie Bradshaw/Candice Bushnell?






Here Helen Gurley Brown discusses the ‘importance of sex’, seeing herself as ‘a feminist’

See Laura’s blog, Sighs and Whispers HERE

Follow Laura McLaw Helms on twitter HERE


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  1. Love Helen’s take on being single as a time to be enjoyed, not feared. Thanks for that. J

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