Helen Gurley Brown vs EL James: Whose is the more important message?

By Sharon Leach

Sunday, September 30, 2012    

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"Good girls go to heaven; bad girls go everywhere."

- Helen Gurley Brown

So much has happened over the last two months, and it feels like a lifetime or three have gone by. It's been particularly hectic for women all over the world, it seems. Let's see: members of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk-rock collective, were tried and sentenced for, um, "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" - whatever that is - and threatening social order because they had the impudence to, while in a church, protest the re-election of Putin. Meanwhile, American women were informed by the Republican Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin that there was in fact a phenomenon called legitimate rape. (One can only pray that if rape is in one's future, it would be this benign-sounding variety, from which one can almost never become pregnant. Because pregnancy, everybody knows, is the true scar of a rape. If you haven't already done so, you may go ahead and shake your head now.) Oh, and this past summer witnessed those women protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, marching for an end to sexual harassment in post-Mubarak Egypt, who were themselves sexually attacked by mobs of men. (Sexual harassment of women, please remember, including against those who wear the hijab, is common assault in Cairo. A 2008 report by the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights said two-thirds of women in the country experienced sexual harassment on a daily basis. A daily basis.) And lest we forget, here in Jamaica, a woman was reportedly shot in the head for the use of expletives. (Note to self: There are still some Jamaican men who are rendered impotent when a woman cusses.)

Seriously, what's really happening here? How women get up every day, hustle in the workplace, go through all the crap they go through, and then come home and take care of their children - without experiencing daily, hourly, nervous breakdowns - is a mystery to me. It's in times like these that I like to contemplate the gains and failures of the women's movement, which came about to combat gender, social, political, economical and cultural inequalities. Today, it's a bittersweet contemplation, made so only because of the passing of one of its stalwarts, also this past summer, Helen Gurley Brown, who up until her death in August - was the international editor of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Long before the fictitious Carrie Bradshaw represented for the many single women who were Sex and the City devotees, Helen Gurley Brown held it down, inspiring countless fashion-forward women, Cosmo Girls as they were called. Her work has come to be valued as a seminal part of the liberating sexual revolution. Before Sex and the City, there was Gurley Brown's famous book, Sex and the Single Girl. The sexual revolution, one now understands, was important for women to be part of in order to appreciate themselves and understand their worth in a male-dominated cosmos. It was about women taking sexual control, in other words, ownership, of their bodies. With its scandalous celebration of orgasms and masturbation, among other topics that were previously outside of their sphere of knowledge, or even discussion, women would finally realise that they weren't men's possessions and thus, had every right to determine for themselves how they would live.

Yet, one wonders, is this happening today? Especially in this hypersexualised world in which we live. Did our focus become too streamlined toward the libidinous sexual aspect, to the detriment of all else? In other words, does it seem right that the world knows that Kate Middleton went to the courts to keep her exposed breasts from appearing on magazine pages but that fewer people heard about the indignity and sheer obscenity those women in Tahrir Square had to suffer simply because they demanded of the new government the right to not be commoditised? The sexual revolution has come and gone - indeed, does anybody even use the term "women's lib" anymore? - but are women truly as free as they want - or deserve - to be?

Let's not even think in terms of political, economical, etc freedom. Because we know we are not really. It's still the boys' club and we're simply squirrels in their world trying to get a nut. Sure, there are a few women who head up businesses, and so on. But how many women appear on the Forbes list? I rest my case.

Are we even free sexually?

Depends on how you look at it, I guess. If EL James and her legion of rabid female fans are to be believed, then, yes. British author James's smash, though poorly written, summer hit, Fifty Shades of Grey, with its "explicitly erotic" scenes of sadism and masochism, had women around the world losing their minds. The mass hysteria surrounding sales this past summer - it's sold 40 million copies worldwide so far - and the optioning of the rights for the movie would seem to indicate one thing: women's boudoirs are positively vibrating with all that kinky stuff going on behind their closed doors. Even if this were in fact the case, does this mean it's an indication of sexual liberation? I have nothing against whips and chains, as long as they're not in a sugar plantation setting. In the bedroom, if the man is going to be the one who does the tying up - as is the case in James's book, in which the completely lacking in self-respect Ana simply allows the debonair Christian Grey to dominate her - then, aren't we right back to the age-old surrendered woman scenario, the very stereotype Helen Gurley Brown and others fought manfully to rid us of?



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