Her influence on American culture may be even more enduring than his.
Hugh Hefner has died at the age of 91, and the next few days will no doubt bring a number of meditations on his legacy. That legacy is considerable — Hefner created a publishing empire and changed the way Americans think about nudity and sex. But one of his friends may have had an even bigger impact on media, culture, and sexuality today: Helen Gurley Brown, the long-serving editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan and author of the groundbreaking best-seller Sex and the Single Girl.
Hefner’s influence shouldn’t be understated. He didn’t just help make pictures of naked women mainstream — as Laura Mansnerus writes in a New York Times obituary, he also championed sexual openness in a time of rigid mores, campaigning against laws restricting abortion and obscenity. And with Playboy, he pioneered a particular view of male sexuality and success — “the guy who is young, vigorous, indifferent to the bonds of social responsibility,” as sociologist Todd Gitlin put it to the Times — that still holds sway today.
But among midcentury publishing figures and sexual provocateurs, Brown’s legacy may be more enduring than Hefner’s. The two were contemporaries: He was born in 1926 and founded Playboy in 1953, while she was born in 1922 and became editor-in-chief of Cosmo in 1965. They were also friends. In an interview after Brown’s death in 2012, Hefner told the Hollywood Reporter that Brown had approached him for a job before joining Cosmo: “She wanted to do a female version of Playboy,” he said.
“Her views on sexuality and the sexual behavior of unmarried women were radical and the same as mine,” he added. “In terms of male and female relationships, our philosophy was very similar.”
But Brown’s Cosmo was more than a female Playboy, and Brown was far more than a female Hefner.
Sex and the Single Girl, published in 1962, is famous for making the claim, then considered radical, that a woman could be happy, comfortable, and sexually fulfilled without a husband. But perhaps even more radical — and more lasting — than this argument is the vision Brown set forth of the entirely self-made modern woman.
Threaded throughout Sex and the Single Girl is the idea that all a woman really needs in life is an iron will. Brown uses herself as an example.
“I am not beautiful, or even pretty,” she writes. “I once had the world’s worst case of acne. I am not bosomy or brilliant. I grew up in a small town. I didn’t go to college. My family was, and is, desperately poor and I have always helped support them. I’m an introvert and I am sometimes mean and cranky.”
And yet she had snagged an eligible bachelor at the age of 37 (marriage, for Brown’s single girl, was generally to be postponed rather than avoided forever) and had lots of excitement and good sex along the way. The secret: hard work. To lead a good single life, Brown explains, you have to “work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up.”
Some of Brown’s prescriptions are troubling: A passionate advocate of dieting, she writes, “your figure can’t harbor an ounce of baby fat. It never looked good on anybody but babies.” Others feel ahead of their time: “You must have a job that interests you,” she writes, “at which you work hard.” Overall, what Brown calls for is a “quiet, private, personal aggression,” an inner drive to succeed at building your chosen life, obstacles be damned.
That spirit animated Cosmo too. The magazine has always emphasized work — Linda Kelsey, a former editor of the UK edition of the magazine, described the “Cosmo ethos” as one of “working hard, having fun, enjoying sex.” Sometimes the magazine made enjoying sex feel like work — its sex tips could be baroque, and have been mocked for their focus on men’s pleasure. But even when Cosmo has seemed retrograde, it’s always maintained some of Brown’s original conviction that women could create the lives they wanted for themselves.
Today, Cosmo remains influential. Long a source of political coverage, it had a breakout hit during the presidential campaign with an interview in which Ivanka Trump reacted poorly to questions about her father’s child care plan, telling the reporter, Prachi Gupta, “I think that you have a lot of negativity in these questions.” (Trump, like many, appears to have underestimated the magazine.) The Bold Type, a show based on a fictionalized version of Cosmo, debuted in July on Freeform.
Brown’s cultural influence extends even further than that. Her voice — funny, chatty, personal but not too personal — has echoes throughout women’s media today. Sex and the City, of course, owes a lot to Sex and the Single Girl, as do countless romantic comedies and romance novels (the recently republished Lace, for instance, intersperses sex scenes with long descriptions of its heroines’ career development). And Brown’s maxim that women can get what they want if they work hard enough feels like an early version of Sheryl Sandberg’s concept of “leaning in.”
Some criticisms of contemporary empowerment feminism apply to Brown’s work too. She was no revolutionary, and the “quiet, private, personal aggression” she describes in Sex and the Single Girl, while perhaps helpful in getting ahead at work, is not exactly a recipe for systemic change. “Like Hugh Hefner, Gurley Brown was not just a magazine editor but the purveyor of a fantasy-lifestyle brand,” Dana Goldstein wrote at the American Prospect in 2009. “The product Gurley Brown sold didn't purport to fix, or even address, the real economic and career anxieties facing midcentury American women.”
Brown came from poverty and knew that work was a necessity for many women, not merely a tool for self-actualization. But of course, her prescriptions for a glamorous single life were never going to work for everyone. For instance, she rarely considered the lives of gay women, single or married — a new introduction to Sex and the Single Girl, published in 2012, asks, puzzlingly, “why didn’t we become lesbians?”
Still, it’s hard to deny that Brown’s ethos — work hard, have fun, enjoy sex — dominates media aimed at women today. Meanwhile, Hefner’s star has been falling. Though Playboy’s website has been growing, according to the Times, the magazine has struggled on and off since the ’80. Its most recent experiment was getting rid of nudity, a decision the magazine reversed in 2017.
These days, while Brown’s single girl feels ever relevant, Playboy feels dated. It’s not just that so much pornography is free now — it’s also that whatever you want to see now, someone is doing it better than Playboy. While its centerfolds were once one of few options, now they’re a throwback to a time when a naked woman in a magazine felt scandalous, when you could be a cool guy just by talking about sex.
Of course, there’s another way of looking at all this. In the Frontline documentary The Choice 2016, Donald Trump’s military school classmates describe learning about women from Playboy. Michael D’Antonio, author of The Truth About Trump, says Trump “had a very Hugh Hefner, Playboy magazine view of success.” And it’s true that though Playboy no longer has the cachet it once did, the image of the lowercase-p playboy still has power. The playboy is wealthy but not tied down, surrounding himself with beautiful women rather than balance sheets. He refuses to live by society’s rules, but he still gets everything he wants. It’s no surprise that this was a compelling image for the young Trump.
Maybe it’s most accurate to see Hefner and Brown as avatars of two deeply gendered visions of success. The single girl works hard every day, and hard work is part of the joy of her life, not just the way she pays for it. Meanwhile, the playboy parties — he does exactly what he feels like doing, and for that he’s lauded as a hero and a rebel. Maybe it’s no surprise that even though Brown’s ideas have influenced generations of women, Hefner’s just waltzed right into the White House.