Cosmo's Girl Helen Gurley Brown Epitomized the ‘Culture of Use’


Helen Gurley Brown, after the success of 'Sex and the Single Girl' and before becoming editor in chief of 'Cosmopolitan' magazine.
Helen Gurley Brown, after the success of 'Sex and the Single Girl' and before becoming editor in chief of 'Cosmopolitan' magazine. (photo: Wikipedia)

When The New York Times marked the Aug. 13 passing of Helen Gurley Brown, it observed drily, “She was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger.”

The reporter’s reference to the longtime Cosmopolitan editor’s artificial enhancements would have been catty, were it not that Brown herself broadcast the sacrifices she made to remain “a sexual creature” (to borrow a phrase from her 1962 bestseller Sex and the Single Girl).

In books such as Having It All, she insisted that it was her ability to transform herself from a “mouseburger” (plain Jane) into a sex object that enabled her to live her dreams.

“Inner beauty” was not in Brown’s vocabulary. “The fact is,” she told The Washington Post in 1996, “if you’re not a sex object, that’s when you have to worry. To be desired sexually, in my opinion, is about the best thing there is.”

What happens, practically speaking, when you make being a sex object your highest aspiration in life? When you idolize being an idol?

On a societal level, the fallout from the Cosmo philosophy helped turn modern Western society into what John Paul II described in his “Letter to Families” as a “culture of use,” where “woman [becomes] an object for man, children a hindrance to parents, the family an institution obstructing the freedom of its members.” While Helen Gurley Brown insisted that sex for the single girl equaled “love” and “romance,” John Paul said that separating sex from the context of spousal self-gift reduces it to “a man’s and a woman’s mutual ‘use’ of each other.”

Far from being romantic, such use is, as John Paul writes, “the opposite of love.” It fosters an “egocentric and selfish” brand of individualism that seeks to destroy anything that gets in its way — even human life:

"Precisely in this situation we encounter everything which is diametrically opposed to 'fairest love' (Sirach 24:24). If an individual is exclusively concerned with 'use,' he can reach the point of killing love by killing the fruit of love.

“For the culture of use,” John Paul adds, “the ‘blessed fruit of your womb’ (Luke 1:42) becomes in a certain sense an ‘accursed fruit.’”

Is it any wonder that Brown, who was childless by choice, boasted that she directed the bulk of her philanthropy toward the National Abortion Rights Action League?

On a personal level, Brown’s obsession with objectification lends itself to a kind of spiritual schizophrenia, for one cannot be an object and a human being at the same time. Film director Mike Nichols expressed this truth in The Graduate by having Benjamin Braddock defend his affair with Mrs. Robinson with the argument that it meant nothing more to him than “shaking hands.” It was a laugh line because it was so patently ridiculous to claim that sexual intimacy could be so completely divorced from personal intimacy.

By contrast, Brown’s vision of sexual “freedom” requires of its adherents the superhuman (or, rather, subhuman) ability to separate their psyche from their physical exertions — the better to judge dispassionately whether Mr. Maybe is in fact Mr. Right. Time was when women were warned they might have to kiss a lot of frogs to find their handsome prince. The Cosmo girl has to shake a lot of hands.

From this spiritual disconnect emerges a psychological disconnect. Living the Cosmo philosophy for any length of time requires what Mary Eberstadt in Adam and Eve After the Pill calls a “will to disbelieve in some of the consequences of the sexual revolution.”

This “will to disbelieve” results in pathos, Eberstadt writes, as consumers of Cosmo and its ilk fail to see the irony in the media’s “wildly contradictory mix of chatter about how wonderful it is that women are now all liberated for sexual fun — and how mysteriously impossible it has become to find a good, steady, committed boyfriend at the same time.” As Dorothy Day once observed, “The disassociation of the flesh from the spirit is evil and a bitter fruit in the mouth.”

Psalm 115 warns that those who trust in idols become like them — without sight, without hearing, without feeling. So too, those who, like Brown, place their hopes at the foot of the altar of surgically enhanced “beauty” grow old as silicone does — becoming hard and brittle.

Pope Benedict XVI writes in Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope), “[Anyone] who does not know God, even though he may entertain all kinds of hopes, is ultimately without hope, without the great hope that sustains the whole of life (Ephesians 2:12).” 

Although she attended Protestant church services during her youth, Helen Gurley Brown as an adult dismissed religious faith. She was fond of saying that “good girls go to heaven; bad girls go everywhere.” All the more surprising, then, that two years before the end of her life, she was moved to donate $1 million of her bad-girl fortune to a heavenly cause. Instead of writing yet another check to NARAL, she opted to give the seven-figure sum to Cardinal Hayes High School, a Catholic school for boys in the Bronx.

For Brown, the gift led to an invitation that must have been unusual even for a celebrity used to high-ticket events: an opportunity to attend a special Mass and ceremony at Cardinal Hayes in honor of another donor, Regis Philbin. And so it was that on an autumn morning in 2010, the 88-year-old widow, who by then required the support of a cane, was drawn into a most unexpected waltz.

The New York Times’ Vivian Yee reported that when Brown, waiting on the school steps, saw New York City Archbishop (not yet Cardinal) Timothy Dolan arrive, she tried to walk forward to greet him, but she started tottering. Archbishop Dolan spotted her and jogged up the steps to help. Meanwhile, the school’s marching band burst into the Cardinal Hayes marching song, inspiring the archbishop to take Brown in his arms and twirl her around.

Along with The Times’ story, which appeared after Brown’s death, there is a photograph of the cardinal and the Cosmo girl, at the moment Cardinal Dolan saved her from toppling. Seeing him holding her secure, I could not help but think of Bernini’s Colonnade at St. Peter’s Square, which the artist intended to represent the arms of the Church reaching out to embrace all who approach.

Cardinal Dolan is gazing directly at Brown’s face. She is not an “it” to him. She is a creation of God.  

Brown is looking away — but with a peaceful smile.

The quaint King James translation of Psalm 49 asks, “Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil, when the iniquity of my heels shall compass me about?” Not even the iniquity of Helen Gurley Brown’s stiletto heels could keep her from making a step, however stumbling, towards a representative of Christ.

Let us pray that before her death she discovered, like St. Augustine, he who is the true Beauty — “ever ancient, ever new.”

Dawn Eden is the author of My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds With the Help of the Saints.