Jennifer Scanlon


On her book Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown

Cover Interview of May 29, 2009

The wide angle

Bad Girls Go Everywhere is a biography and a cultural history.  It charts a woman’s life through several significant eras in American history: the deprivations of the Great Depression, the restrictive mandates of the “long decade” of the 1950s, and the social upheaval of the 1960s and later.  Brown was born in 1922 in the Ozarks and grew up in Little Rock and Los Angeles.  Her father’s death in an elevator accident when she was ten years old meant that she and her mother and sister faced the worst of the Depression with few prospects.  When at nineteen Helen’s sister Mary contracted polio, the teenage Helen assumed significant responsibility in her family.  Like many of her peers, she entered the secretarial world after high school.  She held seventeen different secretarial jobs, leaving one for the next anytime she could earn a bit more money.  In the meantime, she lived an active single life, dating widely and engaging in sexual relationships with unmarried and married men, but firmly holding on to the notion that paid work, rather than men, was her ultimate source of support.

Brown documented the conflicts she had with postwar notions of marriage and respectability in Sex and the Single Girl, which offered advice not just about sex but also about money—and the single girl’s need to earn it, save it, and safeguard it.  She would continue to argue that men were great additions to women’s lives but that women had to make it on their own, right on through her editorship of Cosmopolitan.  At the same time, she argued that it was perfectly fine for women both to initiate sex and to surrender to it; that it was perfectly fine to be both a sexual actor and an object of someone else’s sexual desire.

The book also explores, in concrete ways, what feminist theorists talk about as the performance of gender.  Many second-wave feminists counseled women to avoid the trappings of femininity.  Short skirts and make-up, they argued, made women subservient to men and prevented them from moving towards full equality.  Helen Gurley Brown, on the other hand, recognized that her audience of secretaries and receptionists and flight attendants hardly had the freedom to forgo makeup, dresses, or shaved legs.  On top of that, she realized that many of them enjoyed those performances, which she viewed primarily as giving women, rather than men, pleasure.  In short, she rejected the victim philosophy of the second wave and instead promoted what some have referred to disparagingly as “deep cleavage feminism.”  Huge numbers of women responded to Brown’s approach, seeing the performance of femininity as empowering rather than debilitating and wanting, as I argue, a role model rather than a movement.

Bad Girls Go Everywhere brings together several strands of my scholarly research: the histories of consumer culture, women’s magazines, and feminism.  In my first book, Inarticulate Longings: The Ladies’ Home Journal, Gender, and the Promises of Consumer Culture, I explored the ways in which the advertising and magazine industries developed together in the early twentieth century, creating a construct of the American woman as white, middle-class, happy in her domestic world, and above all, perhaps, interested in shopping.  In order to promote this construct, however, these industries also had to acknowledge women’s “inarticulate longings” for sensuality, economic independence, and self-worth.  We can read women’s magazines and advertising against the grain, I demonstrate, to see both the messages women received and the longings they felt.

In other work I have explored women’s relationships to chick lit fiction, their creation of online communities, and their relationships with each other in the space created by beauty salons.  My intellectual interests lead me to wonder how, in a variety of venues, women negotiate media messages.  My resistance to seeing women purely as dupes of advertisers or magazines provided a clear link from my earlier work to Helen Gurley Brown and her life and life’s work.