The Cosmo Girl Legacy
Helen Gurley Brown, New York, January 1979. (Photo by Susan Wood/Getty Images)
In 1965, on the brink of commercial ruin, Hearst magazine made Helen Gurley Brown editor of what was then a rather dreary and conservative magazine – Cosmopolitan. This move would be an enormous success and would unleash a huge cultural shift, paving the way for women to talk about sex. Despite Helen’s recent death at age 90, her legacy lives on.
Before getting involved with Cosmo, Helen wrote a book published in 1962, Sex and the Single Girl. The contents would become prototype lipstick feminism – the philosophy that women should prioritise financial and sexual fulfilment above marriage. She argued that women can be empowered by throwing away old concepts of the virtuous and pure woman, and instead highlight their sexuality and sexual attractiveness. She was famous for quipping, “good girls go to heaven; bad girls go everywhere”.
Ironically though, Helen couldn’t even say the word “sex” on her televised book publicity interviews. She had to get around the problem by holding her book up to the camera and letting the audience read the title for themselves.
Clearly, a lot has changed. And it changed very quickly. The magazine talked frankly about sex, relationships, career, self-esteem, and self-improvement. She advised her readers, “being smart about money is sexy”. By the 1970s Cosmo was featuring nude centrefolds of men. Her first editorial read that Cosmo was made for the “grown-up girl, interested in whatever can give you a richer, more exciting, fun-filled, friend-filled, man-loved kind of life!” Helen purposely set out to appeal to the average fun-loving woman.
She did so effectively – Cosmo has become an international magazine powerhouse, boasting a worldwide readership of 33 million.
Up until 1997, Helen played a role in reviewing every single issue of Cosmo world-wide, all 63 of them. Current editor of Australian Cosmopolitan, Brownwyn McCahon tells Daily Life, “After more than 30 years editing US Cosmo, Helen took up post as International Editor-in-chief, basically making her a brand custodian globally. Up until recent years, Helen would hand-type a critique to every editor in the world about their edition. She would literally run through page-by-page commenting on everything from fonts and colours to models and fashion”. While her comments were mostly positive, she wanted all editions to stay in line with her vision, “when she felt an editor was moving from her ‘Cosmo formula’ she would certainly question why”.
Helen Gurley Brown on The Joey Bishop Show in 1969. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)
Coupled with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, through Cosmo, Helen helped shape new dialogues of what it meant to be a woman in modern society. McCahon says, “She's empowered generations of women globally... She gave women permission to discuss the taboo and want more out of life - to have it all.”
Upon its make-over, Cosmo was controversial. Laurie Ouellette, an assistant professor of media studies at Queens College in the US says, “All of a sudden there was a mass female audience out there that some people found threatening. These girls were sexually liberated and independent and infringing on territories that had previously been reserved for men. Many of Cosmo’s opponents were saying 'Who the hell do these women think they are?”
Helen incited a revolution in the daily lives of women and re-defined what was okay to say, but she has since perennially attracted criticisms. From the 1970s onwards, feminist groups have argued that Cosmo objectifies women and the offices were consistently surrounded by protestors. Once, a feminist group even staged a sit-in in Helen’s office. Currently, there are also debates over whether it’s okay for a women’s magazine to use photoshopped images of skinny models, whether there should be so much emphasis on pleasing men, and to what extent magazines such as Cosmo are responsible for actually lowering the self-esteem of women.
Contradictions have been a part of Cosmo for a long time now – it’s feminist because it makes it okay for women to be sexy and have sexual desires. Yet, the sexuality is usually aimed towards pleasing men. It’s empowering because it gives women advice on confidence and on making positive life choices around career, body, and relationships. Yet, those articles are juxtaposed with pictures of flawless models. It broke down social barriers by talking frankly about the lives of women. Yet, it itself pressures women to act in certain ways, for instance by normalising beauty standards, even providing tips on the work women should do to be more beautiful.
Regardless of what you think of Cosmo, Helen was a woman who achieved something important. She was upbeat and honest, frankly informing others that she had a boob job in her seventies and calling everyone “pussycat”. “The world feels a little less sparkly without the great HGB” says McCahon. But she’s spread the sparkles world-over.