Anyone with a keen interest in the world of magazines will have realised the importance of Helen Gurley Brown, whose death was announced yesterday (August 14th).
Gurley Brown was editor of American Cosmopolitan for 31 years and during her time at the head of Cosmo it reached some 33 million readers worldwide. Known for the controversial best-seller Sex and the Single Girl, she took over the editorship of US Cosmo in 1965, when the magazine was about to fold. She turned it into one of the most successful women’s magazines ever.
During her time at the helm Cosmo became known for its raunchiness. Its predictable emphasis on pleasing a man and looking pretty meant that it was targeted by feminists in the early 1970s. But in fact, even then, Cosmo (in the UK as well as the US) was advocating careers for women, including financial advice in its glossy pages and suggesting that women have as much right to an enjoyable sex life as men. In the 1980s, as people became aware of the dangers of HIV/AIDS, Cosmo gave away condoms and urged women to insist their lovers use them. All of this was extremely radical for its time.
Gurley Brown may have been a trailblazer, but she cannot be called a feminist by today’s standards. In spite of her obvious business acumen, she refused to join the magazine board, she espoused severe diets and underwent drastic cosmetic surgery. She also famously criticised women who spoke up against sexual harassment.
I’ve discussed on this blog before the strange relationship many women have with glossy magazines and even today many young women are almost brought up on Cosmo’s instantly recognisable brand of cheerful sex-and-shopping. The subliminal messages the magazine sends out are not all bad – there is still the distinct expectation that Cosmo reader will have her own career and understand her own finances, and in these times of worryingly weak aspirations amongst many girls, that’s to be encouraged.
I can’t possibly defend Gurley Brown’s overall philosophy or even the role model she herself proffers. Like most of us, in spite of her forward thinking in some respects, she was a product of her time. But as a reader who, like millions of others, turned to Cosmo for frank big-sisterly advice during my teens and early twenties, it feels wrong to allow her dubious personality and ill-thought-out ideas to entirely colour her publishing legacy.
(There was a great discussion about Helen Gurley Brown on Radio Four’s Today programme on Tuesday morning – The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman was good value. I’d hoped to put up a clip here but the new Listen again page doesn’t have one (thumbs down, Today programme). If you’re really keen you can find it at around 0822 on the programme on I-Player).