Having it all

I've broken into a sweat attempting to undo the knots of logic so many writers tied themselves into while praising the legacy of late "lipstick feminist", Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown ...

If you've missed the obits, Brown, who died on August 13, was the head honcho of the woman's magazine from 1965 to 1997 and apparently gave us the phrase, if not the illusion, that "women can have it all".

Brown, who according to The New Yorker once "lamented the demise of gold-digging" and sugar-daddies on her radio talk show, was part of a lineage that includes "material girls" such as Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) Madonna, Carrie Bradshaw and, of course, Brown's great creation ... the Cosmo Girl.

Writing in Fairfax's Daily Life last week, former Cosmopolitan editor and publishing maven Pat Ingram said of Brown "the debate will continue as to whether she aided or hindered the female march towards equality", while Erin Stewart wrote in the same section that "contradictions have been a part of Cosmo for a long time now".

"It's feminist because it makes it OK for women to be sexy and have sexual desires. Yet, the sexuality is usually aimed towards pleasing men," Stewart wrote.

"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," Stewart wrote.

Reading these articles, it struck me that the writers were also caught in the "having it all" trap because they were largely describing either/or situations, yet wishing both could co-exist.

This is most pertinently illustrated in the phrase "lipstick feminist", a semantic sleight-of-hand that attempts to convince us that wearing hundreds of chemicals on your face "to look good" is an empowered choice on the part of women, rather than cultural coercion drummed into females from birth.

Writing in the Daily Beast last week, David Frum, made the observation that most Western women "have been emancipated from almost every form of male control - except for the one form that many of the early feminists most cared about, emancipation from what feminist argot calls 'the male gaze'."

"That gaze in fact long ago stopped being exercised by men alone. Indeed, nobody deployed the gaze more ferociously and unforgivingly than Helen Gurley Brown herself. But the expectation to be beautiful, to be slender, to be sexually desirable, to be sexually responsive - all of that has accelerated in tandem with the opportunity to work and succeed," Frum wrote.

So we're left with that contradiction once again - how to be free of male control, when the thing you most value is appreciated best by males?

This is not to say all women, even the majority of women, place the greatest of value on how they and other females look - but it was certainly the case with Helen Gurley Brown, her magazine and books.

The New Yorker described Brown's bestseller Sex and the Single Girl as "a primer for the would-be femme fatale ... addressed to the 'mouseburgers' of America: average-looking, high-school-educated women with unrealised potential".

In a 2009 review of Bad Girls Go Everywhere, a book that tried to resuscitate Brown's legacy as a feminist, Judith Thurman wrote: "There is nothing wrong, Brown has always said, with improving on nature where nature was stingy, as it was, she feels, in her own case."

Quoting Brown, Thurman said: "'What you have to do is work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up,' [Brown] wrote. 'Unlike Madame Bovary you don't chase the glittering life, you lay a trap for it. You tunnel up from the bottom.'"

Thurman continued: "So, by all means, tunnel your way into the bank vault with a nose job, breast implants, and a face-lift when the time comes (it comes sooner than you think), starve yourself, and don’t let your upper arms get stringy. Fake hair, too, is always an option."

The crux of this message is exactly the same as that of every make-up advertisement: you are not good enough as you are. While a man may leave the house as nature delivered him unto the world, a woman must first "improve" with a bit of foundation and lippy, so she can be "equal".

Yet, it seems, many women still revere Brown because of other messages she delivered to her readers, such as that the unmarried woman need "not settle for settling down with just anyone, and to enjoy the search with blissful abandon for however long it took," an obituary in The Sydney Morning Herald last week said.

"Sex as an end in itself was perfectly fine, [Cosmopolitan] assured them. As a means to an end - the right husband, the right career, the right designer labels - it was better still," the obit, by Margalit Fox, originally published in The New York Times, said.

And this is what confuses me about Brown and the almost lemming-like adulation I've read in the past week - she changed the means, not the end.

Sure, she might have made the journey towards marriage more fun and glamorous, she might have assured thirtysomething women that it was OK to be single (as long as you had great clothes) - but she still believed marriage was a woman's final destination.

In 1962, she wrote: "I think marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life. During your best years you don't need a husband. You do need a man, of course, every step of the way, and they are often cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen."

In Sex and the Single Girl, she wrote that "liking men is ... by and large just about the sexiest thing you can do. But I mean really liking, not just pretending. And there is quite a lot more to it than simply wagging your tail ... His collie dog does that much."

And to do that?

You need to be as hot and thin as possible - just like the mannequins in her magazine.

If you're looking for a legacy for Brown, perhaps consider the Brainwash Project: a push to stop "Cosmopolitan and Cleo magazines from digitally altering the appearance of people in their photo shoots and to put warning labels wherever alterations occur".

I'd suggest, though, you don't swallow the fiction that Brown's gift to gals was the idea they can "have it all" - a fable women far more thoughtful than Brown have dismantled of late - because it's actually something nobody has, man or woman.

For the vast majority of us, life is a compromise, whether you stand or sit to pee. Women go through labour and give up careers to raise kids and men mine coal, lose the same children in custody battles and get their heads punched in at the pub.

I'd argue the idea that a "woman can have it all" has made more women miserable than it has hopeful ... because it's a nefarious myth, the ultimate falsehood leading to unrealistic expectations, then depression, divorce and low self-esteem when they are not met.

As The New Yorker put it: "At her most radical, Brown was a subversive rather than a revolutionary; a sexual libertarian rather than a liberator".

The "vision of Brown as a transitional species of New Woman" was also a myth, the magazine said.

"No, she was a classic poor girl on the make, lusty and driven, who, with her husband's help, found a clever formula that wasn't unique, except perhaps in its crude honesty, for marketing her own worldly wisdom."

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.