Helen Gurley Brown and the American family

Helen Gurley Brown’s death last week was followed by a number of laudatory stories about her trail-blazing career at Cosmopolitan magazine.

Undoubtedly she was successful, measured by influence and money. But I find it hard to lionize her career or her effect on American culture. She was well-known for turning Cosmo into a source of explicit “man-pleasing” sex tips, and for the quote: “Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere.” A terribly clever saying, yes, but “going everywhere” isn’t a roadmap to a happy, fulfilling life.

Reading fashion magazines that emphasize appearance, sexuality and thinness – filled with Photoshopped images – is not healthy for girls or for women, and Cosmo is one of the worst offenders.

The perpetration of this distorted outlook is insanity. It is not just anti-family, but also profoundly anti-feminist – despite articles on a range of subjects, such magazines’ main focus is on women as objects to be looked at, valuable mainly for their (super sexy!) appearance, no matter their other abilities or roles in life. As The New York Times wrote, “The look of women’s magazines today — a sea of voluptuous models and titillating cover lines — is due in no small part to her influence.”

Brown, the author of Sex and the Single Girl, was an icon of “women’s sexual liberation,” aka the sexual revolution, which research has shown was not exactly healthy for the American family. Although she was happily married to David Brown for decades, she suggested that women above a certain age – when the pickings were slim – have sex with their friends’ husbands. Really? Now there’s a friend you could do without. (She also said, “You can’t be sexual at 60 if you’re fat,” so apparently only thin women could prey on their friends’ husbands.)

Brown was a strong woman who had a wildly successful career in a field dominated by men. Her influence in publishing and in encouraging women to broaden their career choices undoubtedly went deeper than Cosmo‘s lurid covers. It’s a pity that her real legacy is the intensified objectification of women and girls (or, as Forbes puts it, “do-me feminism“).