About Inventing the Cosmo Girl: Class Identity and Girl-Style American Dreams by Laurie Ouellette

As editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan for more than three decades and author of several brazen self-help books, such as Sex and the Single Girl and Having It All, Helen Gurley Brown left behind a complicated (feminist) legacy. Although she encouraged women to free themselves from the economic and sexual roles they appeared to be firmly tied down to during the mid 1960s and early 1970s, Brown’s advice on how women should transcend themselves was frustratingly outdated—even for the late 20th century. Her principles on topics, such as marriage, premarital sex, and class positioning, seemed to fall between two stools; while Brown empowered women to become self-sufficient and to liberate themselves from the negative stigma behind enjoying sex before marriage, the actions behind her arguments seemed rather antagonistic and sexist. For instance, during her tenure at Cosmopolitan, Brown placed special importance on the awareness of female sexuality.

She invited women to secure equal opportunities in the workplace by establishing a sexual barter system in which “young, unmarried workers trade ‘sexual favors’ ranging from flirting and kissing to sexual intercourse for small presents, material comforts and luxuries.” Her credo made the idea of upscale prostitution seem more physically attractive than it actually is. Above all, it largely appealed to the male vision of womanliness and sensuality. However, despite the unsettling sexual ideologies, one thing is for certain: Helen Gurley Brown modified the established social and moral perspectives in relation to sex during the 1960s and 1970s. Women, specifically pink-collar workers, felt as if they had a voice. Even today, you will find Brown’s retro ideologies in modern works of non-fictions, consider Sherry Argov’s Why Men Love Bitches, a modern take on how women should win over a man’s heart. Nevertheless, how helpful are these self-help books and do they really work? Can they truly produce the change in our lives that they promise?

In this essay, I will be reflecting upon Laurie Ouellette’s Inventing the Cosmo Girl: Class Identity and Girl-Style American Dreams by outlining and assessing the author’s argument about Helen Gurley Brown and her credo. I will start by summarizing Ouellette’s main contentions, considering the strengths and weaknesses of her discussion and exploring how her analysis is useful as a method for interrogating contemporary forms of dating, self-help and relationship books. More specifically, how does the author’s argument permit us to interpret and understand books about love and relationships.

I will then use self-help books as media artifacts to exemplify larger trends in media or society. Based on my examination of Ouellette’s research article, Brown’s works, self-development books and Cosmopolitan magazine, I am proposing that books that extend guidance and counsel on the premise of change (especially those that target a female audience on the topics of love and relationship) do so in a covert and derisive matter. They lure in women who are desperate for the secrets of happiness and tell them exactly what they want to hear. However, I am not suggesting that all self-help books work this way. Some of them, especially those dealing with topics, such as mental health, offer well thought out advice. My suggestions are mostly centered on those that deal with methods to improve one’s own relationships and love life.

Inventing the Cosmo Girl: Class Identity and Girl-Style American Dreams

As the person responsible for revitalizing Cosmopolitan into one of the most influential magazines in the world, Helen Gurley Brown had a lot to say about women’s most powerful weapon: sex. She once stated, “If you’re not a sex object, you’re in trouble.” Considering she lived during a time when most teenagers only wed to marry and be good mothers, her prose opened the doors to a feasible existence that at the time seemed more like science fiction. She believed women could have everything they wished for: a professional career, a devoted husband, great sexual experiences, jewelry, children…

Ouellette’s article on the Cosmo girl delves deeper into how Brown shaped the contours of the modern woman and how her writings lit the fuse of the sexual revolution. In many ways, Brown tried to redefine what it meant to be a woman. But was that philosophy liberating for women or regressive? Nowadays, Cosmopolitan magazine is not seen as a particularly feminist publication (perhaps a euphemism). Instead much of its content focuses on how to please men. Take into consideration columns found on Cosmopolitan such as “The Beautiful Phony,” “Why I Wear My False Eyelashes to Bed,” and “Be a 9-to-5 Show Off,” all three being pieces that linked female sensuality to male desire.

Books such as Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl,

In Inventing the Cosmo Girl, Ouellette’s main argument seems to be how “Brown articulated legitimated sexism and the capitalist exploitation of women’s labor, while simultaneously expressing hardships and desires in a voice that spoke with credibility.” She wanted to do more than simply set women free from the patriarchal double standards prevalent at the time. Brown also wanted to provide women a step-by-step guide to help them transition within classes. This is something that deeply resonated with single girls of the 20th century who were searching for independence, sexual freedom and a life beyond marriage. As mentioned by Ouellette, “through a combination of self-management strategies, performance tactics, and upwardly mobile romance,” Brown and Cosmopolitan inspired a new point of view that appealed especially to the youth. Drawing from her personal experiences as a secretary to becoming an advertising copywriter, Brown had endless and genuine advice to share with girls who wanted to have affairs, material comforts, and a list of eligible men.

Her standards for American women and her recommendations on social mobility created the identity behind the Cosmo girl: a young American (white) woman who lacked the funds, economical or social, to imagine and blend themselves into a traditional, male-oriented society. Cosmo girls wanted to move up the ladder and did so by remodeling their identities. One of the strengths of Ouellette’s discussion is the way she illustrates how women during this time traded the roles they were given for the roles they desired. For example, in her research article, Ouellette describes one of the ways in which women could reinvent their identities and the characteristics that came with it:

Brown’s credo required an understanding of identity as something that could always be reworked, improved upon, and even dramatically changed. Sex and the Single Girl promised every girl the chance to acquire a stylish and attractive aura by copying fashion models and wealthy women. Expenditures on clothing, cosmetics, and accessories were presented as necessary investments in the construction of a desirable (and thus saleable) self. Cosmopolitan columns with names like “So You’re Bored to Death with the Same Old You” (1972) extended these possibilities by offering women the ability to construct a “whole new identity,” defined in terms of fashion and style

Becoming a Cosmo girl went beyond using one’s physical appearance for economical and social betterment; it was also about being fluid with your identity and okay with the idea of being phony. In other words, faking it until one made it.

One of the weaknesses of Ouellette’s discussion I believe is the lack of stress laid on how Brown’s methods for mobility and reconstruction seem to feed off of female vulnerabilities. In essence, I think they portray women as individuals that can advance because of their physical features or how capable they are of constructing an identity that is most appealing to men. While clever to play off of what they know will allow them to move forward, Brown’s ideals disguise the presence of patriarchal sexual ideologies by presenting them in the form of a guide which I personally consider absurd. She addresses this briefly in one paragraph before moving on to speak about pink-collar sexuality and girl-style American dreams:

Drawing from John Berger (1972), Ellen McCracken has shown how commercial women’s magazines trade on female insecurities by offering a temporary “window to a future self” rooted in male visions of idealized femininity and consumer solutions. Jackie Stacey discusses something similar in her analysis of women and film stars, but proposes that the perpetual gap between “self and ideal” is the subjective space where female identities are negotiated. In Sex and the Single Girl, Brown extended these processes by constructing an idealized but never fully realized class subjectivity for her readers, which then manifested in the fragmented identity of the fictionalized Cosmo Girl. Although rooted in upper-class reverence and materialistic desires, her advice is difficult to dismiss as entirely co-optive or advertising-driven, because it was presented as a guide to overcoming the gendered barriers Brown encountered.

Brown clearly pushed the limits. As a reader who finds some issues with her methods, I think Ouellette should have delved deeper into how her beliefs conflict with modern ideals. Nevertheless, the author’s argument and the emphasis placed on cultural reconstruction permit us to interpret and understand better books about love and relationships. Similar to several contemporary literary works targeted towards women, the methods these books encourage for a better love life are in direct conflict with what many of us today consider feminist principles. Brown certainly had numerous recommendations that made you pause and think, “Wait, did she just promote young women to engage in sexual activity in exchange for material comforts for the sake of cultural construction?”

The Intention of Self-Help Books

There are those who smoke one cigarette after another. Those who use pills to sleep. And others who turn to self-help books for guidance. Self-help books are characterized by their intention to contribute to the well-being of the reader. Its goal is that the audience is able to see their problems and concern with other eyes and aim to reach a solution. Most of the problems that appear in this genre are interconnected. They typically deal with wellness, health, happiness or success. Among so many, it is only natural for us to begin asking ourselves: do self-help books really work?

All bookstores are stuffed with new self-help books that hide between its pages the secret to happiness and a full life. At first, you like them because you feel identified with everything they say, but in the end, you realize how they often spread the illusion that anguish will be resolved quickly, even if it is complex. They can produce certain effects, but they are superficial and transitory. In a context of permanent change, self-help books give quick answers. However, there are issues in which they seem to have less effectiveness.

Books such as Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl often disclose a conflicting message, in the sense that they pretend to place the power on the reader but the advice they share is anti-feminist and antagonistic. Take into consideration Sherry Argov’s Why Men Love Bitches. In one chapter, the author encourages the reader to “agree with everything, explain nothing… Praise is an effective tool in getting him to treat you the way you want. Don’t complain.” However, forward a couple of pages and Argov is encouraging female readers to “ignore anyone who attempts to define them in a limiting way.”

These inconsistent and opposing messages are most prevalent in books about relationship, dating and love. Similar to Brown’s legacy, these literary works are complicated. They attempt to address the economic and social problems women face. However, they only seem to worsen the matter with the kind of solutions they offer. Given the prevalence of the feminist movement, these books minimize the progress society has achieved since the late 20th century. Thus, it is important to remember how these ideals are less applicable to today’s population, especially the millennial audience. Authors such as Helen Gurley Brown and Sherry Argov need to consider how a woman can achieve happiness and fulfillment without taking a men’s point of view into consideration.

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