How Helen Gurley Brown Shaped My Life (So, have I been a good girl or a bad girl, really?) part 1

Yep, it’s Helen Gurley Brown, baby. That legendary Cosmo lady who has been considered the best friend of every woman over the age of consent. Potent in her frank, offbeat trademark, the best-selling dame of the advisory genre from the 1960s to the 1990s shed appreciable light on the ups and downs of the single girl who juggles life, career, and love all at the same time. Her books – plus the Cosmo magazine which she headed as Chief Editor for decades – have served as my compass in my dealings with men for the longest time. As a consequence, even if I have not always been successful in handling my friendships, romantic liaisons, business undertakings with them -mind you- I have had wonderful times in their company on the whole and still love love love men as a species in general.

hgb
HGB (Feb 1922 – Aug 2012)

In my 20s to early 30s, I got to be a fan of the HBO megahit “Sex and The City” – in spite of its oft ridiculous storylines. I thought then the show owed its success big time to Ms Helen Gurley Brown, who pioneered the serial concept of Sex and the Whatever. The HBO series, by the way, which I followed from beginning to end had Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte forming the NY quartet struggling through their demographics in the many areas of love, sex, gorgeous clothes and pricey shoes. I can say I am a cross between all of these quirky gals – minus their expensive wardrobe and Samantha’s long list of bed partners. (Take note: I might have been amazed by Samantha’s incredible libido [gasp] but I could only slam her for most of the yucky men she slept with. Why couldn’t she have been more picky?!)

the girls of SATC
the ladies of SATC

When my aunt migrated to the U.S., she left us big boxes full of stuff she couldn’t bring with her anymore. In one of them I found an old, tattered paperback copy of Sex and the Office – a guide to the intricacies of the workplace jungle. I was soon to start college, majoring in Accounting, so I thought I’d need the book for my future reference as an office gal. How I got hooked reading her book and from then on became a life-long fan of the celebrated editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. My collection of HGB books expanded to Sex and the Single Girl, Having It All, Outrageous Opinions, and The Last Show.

In an era when feminism was yet to snowball, Ms Brown was able to transmit categorical codes to the female species about how ok it was to yearn for love and lust, whichever would come first; to feel normal being “out of control” concerning the affairs of the heart even (just no telling the men, please); and how alright it is to delight in men as the opposite gender – them being friends, lovers, family members, business associates, colleagues at work, not to mention your favourite cleaning man or delivery boy.

While my dear parents took turns imparting time-honored modes of thinking and morality, HGB was also infusing me with new directions of thought and conduct. Honestly, the proverbial good girl is what I’ve been most of my life even though I confess to have gone astray a few times on my way to “maturity.” In what manner, you ask? Er, let me get back to you with that in another post.

As my elder sister was the fragile, graceful princess of the family in our growing up years, I was the shy tomboy who played basketball, ran around with the boys in the neighbourhood, went biking all day with my brother and who’d proudly do a perfect somersault well into my teenage years to impress my friends and playmates. I was also the shy tomboy who liked boys – as buddies and playmates. And who would nevertheless feel giddy around the gallant, masculine, good-looking ones.

Sort of the rebel daughter – that was me, too. It had been difficult to totally commit myself within the shackles of my parent’s Good Girl paradigm – as they would repeatedly insinuate the very importance of being pure on your wedding night. Secretly, I was thinking, “You two must be kidding. I can’t wait that long!” I questioned deep down the necessity of saving a girl’s virginity for her future husband. That resulted in my losing “it” at the age of twenty with my first serious boyfriend. Foolishly – in retrospect.

Now I think my parents were absolutely right all along. tsk-tsk…

HGB might have overlooked several factors in her books – especially with regards to marriage. She dished out counsel and viewpoints as though all men are qualified or would end up to be good husbands to their wives, and vice versa. That once you’re able to snag a guy, that’s it. The path is set for connubial paradise. You could only die happy being married to some guy. That’s where she got things dead wrong I believe.

Don’t get the mistaken idea. I love and adore Ms Brown. For the major reason she taught me the value of work and how crucial it is for every woman to stay financially independent.

There are actually substantial things many single women, like me, don’t take seriously and fail to feel grateful for. A fine case in point: I may not have found the man of my dreams, but the consolations Life has provided me aren’t godawful. I still receive a pay check every month; my good health is intact; my independence is something I prize eminently, and the possibilities to savour my life are boundless. These are the blessings a single girl tends to forget time and again – all because of the constant need for “male attention” she’s been encouraged and programmed to seek her whole life.

A question you might ask: Have I learned my lesson well? Not to the max. Unfortunately. Probably because I am a woman. I possess a delicate female heart, which is no different from every female heart inhabiting this planet. A heart that up to now periodically longs to be attended by the power of the masculine realm.

Oh well, your suspicions are right. I just may be a bundle of contradictions. But at least, it’s something I got to write about here. To shake me to my senses somehow.

But the one question remains still which might never have an absolute answer until the end of my days is: Have I been a good girl – or a bad girl my entire life?

I.Don’t.Know.

Perhaps only Helen Gurley Brown could have helped me answer that.

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8 thoughts on “How Helen Gurley Brown Shaped My Life (So, have I been a good girl or a bad girl, really?) part 1

  1. Nothing wrong with HGB. I was influenced a bit growing up reading Xaviera Hollander, Shirley MacLaine and especially Erma Bombeck, who taught me to look for the humor in the grey areas of my life. In fact, I still have the paper I wrote in University on which my prof wrote “You are in danger of being known as “The Erma Bombeck of Humanistic Psychology.” The first two authors will probably reinforce the male stereotype you’ve grown up with. But it’s all good!

    • “The Erma Bombeck of Humanistic Psychology.” No doubt you are, Paul – as I know how delightfully funny you can be. Erma’s eloquent humor is something I’ve aspired for, too. As for Miss Mclaine, I appreciated her more as an actor – especially after I’ve gotten aware of her serious interest in uh, UFOs(?!!). And wooh-oh oh…for your having read Xaviera Hollander. Yes! I’d also rather read a “classic” of hers than take up any of the Shades of Grey series. 😉
      It’s true – there’s nothing wrong with HGB. She’s been a role model to me in fact. And the male stereotype I’ve grown up with I’ve learned to embrace as well. As you said, it’s all good!
      Thank you for reading and for your wonderful comment.

  2. I guess HGB didn’t have all the answers either, although she was married to the same man for fifty years (I just looked that up). The real secret, I suppose, is that we never stop learning.

    This is an honest and revealing post. I was especially happy to read this: “…the possibilities to savour my life are boundless.” Don’t forget it!

    • I’ve learned of Helen Gurley Brown’s death only this week. I can’t believe I was that busy not to have been aware of my idol’s demise late last year. David Brown, her husband of 50 years, was a big-time Hollywood producer and his death a few years ago could have also brought HGB’s downward spiral.
      Yes, Bb. I intend to enjoy life to the max. The only hindrance right now is I kind of got trapped in my present cycle and it might take a while for me to make some changes.
      Thank you so much for coming here. I owe the phrase “bundle of contradictions” to you when you first assessed my kind accurately middle of last year. 🙂 I haven’t forgotten.

  3. Great post Marj! I think the question of whether you’ve been a good or bad girl all your life is important and I think from your writing you definitely fall on the good girl side. One of the things that the feminist movement seems strives for (at least from my perspective) is for women to be assertive and to live their lives as they choose. Whether it’s more traditional or radical each woman has to find the balance with-in themselves, So the question is really more are you happy with the person you are now? Remember everyone has moments in their lives when we weren’t at our best. But it is within those experiences both good and bad by which we are shaped and ultimately our personal evolution is brought about. So are you happy with who you are now? The future is mutable and constantly in flux so where you will end up next may not be where you currently seem to be heading. I think if you can say yes that you are happy with the person you are now, then HGB and her contemporaries would approve… 🙂

    • Dear Martin, your comments always render me to delve deeper into my convictions and standpoints – making me reflect on matters more carefully before relaying my reply to you. I wish I could easily say I am a dyed-in-the-wool feminist but…it’s such a powerful label and it might demand an image from me that I may not be able to live up to.
      Am I happy with the person I am now? I think so. There’s a certain price I have to pay for arriving at my current views but I wouldn’t have it any other way. For instance, I believe raising the bar is the only way for women to level the playing field with men, because if not, things are simply gonna go downhill (for our gender).
      I’m glad that you perceive me as a good girl. I’m not exactly sure what it means to be a “palpable” bad girl, although I’ve got this feeling I had been one at many specific points in my life. Ain’t sure if HGB and her contemporaries would have even approved of my deeds. 🙂
      Your visits and comments are very much appreciated, my friend.

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