The hypothetical Cosmo girl is sexy, elegant, ambitious, and – perhaps most importantly – solvent. It makes for a confusing message these days
“Nobody likes a poor girl,” wrote Helen Gurley Brown in the 1962 classic Sex and the Single Girl. “She is just a drag. It does take money to be successfully single – for clothes, an apartment, vacations, entertainment … to create an aura of seductive elegance about you, so no one will ever be able to feel sorry for you.” The author, editor and original “Cosmo girl” died this week at the grand old age of 90, and perhaps I do her something of a disservice by cherry-picking this particular quote, but to me those words still embody the values of Cosmopolitan, the magazine she transformed into a global brand.
Among the wealth of tributes to Gurley Brown, one commentator noted (drawing heavily on the inevitable Mad Men reference), that she wrote for the Joans of this world – the girls languishing in offices at the bottom of the career ladder – but she herself was very much a Peggy: a woman who had found a way out of poverty and made it to the top of her profession. She aimed to transform these Joans into Cosmo girls – the sexually liberated single “girls” (and they are always girls) who have been Cosmopolitan’s bread and butter for the past 60 years. The legacy that Gurley Brown put into place – at a time where unmarried women, while not quite burned as witches, were viewed with heavy suspicion – cannot be denied. The Gloria Steinems and the Betty Friedans of the women’s movement may have been dismissive of her agenda, but poor girls needed sexually liberating, too – this was feminism for secretaries. Feminism was a middle-class endeavour back then (arguably it still is), and Cosmo ensured that the average American woman could have a slice of the pie.
Gurley Brown sold women an aspirational lifestyle, in which they could be economically independent while remaining fatally attractive. The hypothetical reader at the centre of the magazine’s ethos, the Cosmo girl, is sexy, elegant, ambitious, and (perhaps most importantly) solvent. It is for that reason that I read Sex and the Single Girl entirely in Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly voice – the quintessential single girl who took $50 for the powder room and, like Gurley Brown, peppered her turns of phrase with snippets of French – “Quel rat!” In terms of heroines, I always preferred Sally Jay Gorce, the pink-haired protagonist from Elaine Dundy’s 1958 novel The Dud Avocado, who runs around Paris getting into scrapes, sleeping around and making a bit of an arse of herself. Sally Jay is most definitely not a Cosmo girl.
The twin values that underpin this mythical creature – money and sexual prowess – are still touted by the magazine today, in that it remains very much about pleasing your man and buying lots of stuff. For those of us who thought that this cult of the single girl had come to a head with Sex & the City’s rampantly consumerist Carrie Bradshaw, reading the magazine can be a humbling experience. As a 25-year-old freelance journalist, I am in no position to be buying a £400 pair of shoes, let alone renting my own apartment, and I’m one of the lucky ones. Yet Cosmopolitan was once progressive, especially in the late 1970s. While it still focused on catching and keeping your man, the magazine advised readers to “write a letter to the Times” or “become involved in local politics” in order to impress him. Gurley Brown even advised women to carry around a copy of Das Kapital, albeit as a way of prompting conversation with – you guessed it – an eligible man. Can you imagine Cosmopolitan suggesting such a thing now?
There wasn’t a pair of crotchless panties in sight then. Saying that, flicking through an old issue, I was pretty alarmed to find an article by a male journalist under the heading, “Why are women such sluts?” On closer examination, it emerged that he was using the old meaning of the word (as in slattern) – something my mum, who once called me a slut for having a messy bedroom, would have understood.
I digress. While Cosmo played a part in the women’s movement, I tend to see its feminist period as a brief hiccup in what has otherwise been a longstanding agenda of sexual objectification (and try saying that on a first date). Gurley Brown once famously said: “If you’re not a sexual object, then you’re in trouble.” Nice. I, for one, would like to announce myself as permanently on the naughty step in that case. But it’s less the “tinsel feminism” touted by Cosmo that bothers me (and I must confess that I stole the phrase from an acquaintance, who described it as “the same old shit but sparklier”), than the whole tedious, outdated notion of the Cosmo girl. Who is she? And why is it that she never gets her skirt tucked into her knickers? She’s not on the dole, or living in the provinces. She may, like Gorce, have shocking pink hair, but only because Nicki Minaj did it first. This mythical woman, this “fun, fearless female” with Kegels that can open a man’s beer bottle while simultaneously bringing him to orgasm, all the while maintaining “model girl skin” and swinging an It bag from her delicate wrist … well, that woman is a stranger to me.
Perhaps I move in the wrong social circles. The women of my acquaintance are anything but Cosmo girls. They’re fun, obviously, otherwise they wouldn’t be my friends, but they’re anything but fearless. Many of them are very, very frightened. They’re scared that, by graduating at the wrong time, they’ve missed out on the career that they wanted. They’re worried that they will never be able to pay back their student loans or their overdrafts, or that they’re ugly, or fat, or worthless. They’re scared that their benefits will be taken away, or that they’ll never move out of their parents’ house. Some have struggled with eating disorders, depression or severe anxiety. Many have regular panic attacks. All worry about their appearance: that they’re the wrong size, that their hair isn’t long enough, their teeth aren’t white enough, and their stomachs aren’t flat enough. While many of them are secretaries, they feel anything but liberated.
“Nearly every glamorous, wealthy, successful career woman started out as some kind of schlepp,” wrote Gurley Brown in Sex and the Single Girl. She also coined the phrase “mouseburger”, meaning a drab, timid or unexceptional woman, and somewhat poignantly included her younger self in that definition. So here we are: the schlepps and the mouseburgers, yet there’s scant room at the top, and, in the words of Golightly: suddenly we’re afraid. We may not be as glamorous or as elegant as her, but we certainly have what she termed the “mean reds“.
The audience that Cosmo purports to have (and which, lest we forget, it sells to advertisers) is comprised of financially independent women in their 20s and 30s. Women with spending power, who are able to buy into the Cosmo girl myth, the legs and the lipstick. Assuming that one day, perhaps in our 30s, my friends and I achieve the giddy heights of career success, I know that not one of us will be reading Cosmo. The reason? We’ve already read it. The fact that the magazine is read by teenage girls is cheerfully ignored by publisher Hearst and its advertisers, but ask any 15-year-old where they get their sex advice, and I’d put money on them saying Cosmo. The Cosmo girl is me a decade ago, wondering where I should put my hands. Me, with my £12-a-month pocket money and the freckly face of a woman-child, reading about 69ing on the school bus. (I’ll allow the ambiguity in that phrase to stand – in terms of the school I was at, oral sex on the bus was not inconceivable.)
While I am grateful to Helen Gurley Brown and Cosmopolitan for the sex education with which they provided me, I do worry about the messages today’s teenage Cosmo girls are receiving. Being told that you’re gorgeous as you are at the same time as being shown how to lose 10lb is confusing for anyone, let alone for a girl negotiating the traumas of puberty. Being sold the notion that feminism is tantamount to being able to give exceptional head is even more mind-boggling. In 1962, when the idea of the sexually and financially independent single girl was born, women were crying out for liberation, but now the model has become cloaked in consumerism, in mixed, contradictory messages. The single girl has been dressed in hold-ups and red polyester underwear. Cosmo has taken Gurley Brown’s original archetype and run with it, despite the fact that it is now hopelessly outdated.
Of the many tributes that have been paid to Gurley Brown and her legacy in the past week, the one that resonated most was made by the actor and writer Lena Dunham. “RIP Helen Gurley Brown, you beautiful enigma,” it read. “Confused but wholehearted love from mouseburgers & feminists everywhere.” Confused is what we are. Because while we’re told that we should be living this glamorous, single-girl lifestyle, at the same time, we know that “nobody likes a poor girl”. After all, who does? Certainly not Cosmo and its advertisers.