In the beginning, Helen Gurley Brown could not even say the word sex. At least not on U.S. television, not when she first appeared on talk shows to promote her 1962 female call to arms Sex and the Single Girl. And so, according to her biography, the author and editor who would go on to run Cosmopolitan magazine for 32 years and give birth to the controversial brand of female empowerment known as lipstick feminism, simply held up the book so TV viewers could read the title for themselves.
If Ms. Gurley Brown, who died Monday at the age of 90, did not create the sex-soaked contemporary North American media landscape, she used Cosmopolitan to scorch the earth on a monthly basis with frank talk about female independence, explicit sex tips and pneumatic cleavage spilling from the magazine’s cover into every grocery store checkout line. Her influence was fraught with complications – many women found her emphasis on pleasing men sexually to be problematic, and her conception of women to be cartoonish – but she cleared a place where uncomfortable topics could find a home.
And she created the template for contemporary women’s magazines that still holds today, even amid the revolutions and disruptions in publishing. “Fifty years later, Cosmopolitan still looks like Helen’s magazine,” noted Jennifer Scanlon, a professor of gender and women’s studies at Bowdoin College and the author of the 2009 biography Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown. (The title was a nod to the Cosmo editor’s quip: “Good girls go to heaven; bad girls go everywhere.”)