Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Mixed Legacy Of Helen Gurley Brown

A special post on the death of Helen Gurley Brown: In her day Brown was certainly a powerhouse and a pioneer of sorts in the publishing business.

One cannot help, but admire her gutsiness in rising to the top, despite not having had any higher education. She had her wits and a flair for publicity. She took Cosmopolitan from decline to super stardom among magazines. Ad revenues were a mere $1.5 million when she took over in 1965. Two years before she left, in 1997, they were $159 million. As Jane Francisco, editor of Chatelaine, put it, “She (Brown) brought glitz and glam into women’s magazines.” A look at women’s magazines around the time Brown took over Cosmopolitan readily verifies Francisco’s comment. In a word they were dull.

Another thing Brown did was to bring discussion of women’s reproductive health out into the open. It’s hard to imagine now, but at one time a person could be jailed for promoting birth control. Even after it became legal birth control still tended to be talked about in hushed tones. (And I’m not talking about abortion.)

However, Brown had her downside. Before she left the American editorship of Cosmopolitan (She remained editor-in-chief of the international editions until her death.) she downplayed the danger of aids to heterosexual women. She also disregarded the issue of sexual harassment on the job.

As a Christian, I certainly cannot agree with her quip, “Good girls go to heaven; bad girls go everywhere.” (Bad girls do not go to heaven.) I agree that by the 1960s a frank and open discussion about sex was and still is needed. However, I felt that Cosmo under Brown went way too far and promoted sex for sex’s sake. I remember picking up the magazine and seeing an article on having an affair with your boss. Cosmo promoted extramarital sex and casual sex, which I cannot condone.

The whole image of Cosmo seemed to be to promote women as sex objects and to do what they can to please a man sexually. This seemed to be setting up vulnerable women to live in abusive situations. Some critics felt Brown made women cartoonish.

Brown said she wanted her legacy to be, “She created something that helped people.” In my view she left a mixed legacy.

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