Thursday, August 16, 2012

Helen Gurley Brown: An American Courtesan

In the wake of Helen Gurley Brown’s death feminists are debating the issue that is nearest and dearest to them: was Brown really a feminist?

How could the ultimate girlie girl, or, should I say Gurley girl, be a genuine feminist?

When Brown emerged in the 1960s Gloria Steinem was happy to embrace her radical message and her pioneering lifestyle. Betty Friedan and some second wave feminists denounced Brown for encouraging women to become sexual objects.

By now, all seems to be forgiven and Tracie Egan Morrissey elevates Brown to the role of feminist icon:

In Morrissey’s words:

In her seminal advice book Sex and the Single Girl, HGB encouraged women to be financially independent and sexually satisfied—a full year before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. Telling women to prioritize getting paid and getting laid over motherhood and homemaking was beyond radical in 1962. It was unheard of; it was immoral; it was the antithesis of feminine behavior. It was what would eventually define the modern, single, liberated woman.

Funnily enough, Morrissey claims that "none of us would be here today" were it not for Helen Gurley Brown. Using that phrase to refer to a woman who was childless is peculiar, indeed.

Brown insisted that she and her husband had chosen not to have children, but she married in 1960 when she was in her late 30s. At the time reproductive endocrinology was not what it is today, so we should not be so quick to assume that she had the choice.

We owe the idea of having it all to Helen Gurley Brown, but, to her mind having it all did not include having children.

Yesterday Judith Thurman recommended that young women take Brown as their role model.

In her words:

But there is ultimately something heroic about her brazenness. It was a kind of feminine courage, proportional to her insecurity. She set an example worth emulating, at least in one respect: she triumphantly owned her desire.

Perhaps she “triumphantly owned her desire,” but Helen Gurley Brown got ahead in the world by selling her sexuality. I accept that you can own your desire and still sell you intimacy to the highest bidder, but still.

Thurman describes the activities that made Brown “an example worth emulating:”

When she was young and struggling—a poor girl from Little Rock, with terrible acne and buck teeth—she traded her favors for a free meal or a cab ride. She made sure that her admirers replaced the liquor that she served them in her love nest. A married boss paid her rent, for a while—she was never embarrassed about being kept. She had graduated as the valedictorian of her high school, but she couldn’t afford college, so she worked and slept her way out of the steno pool—and into a brilliant career in advertising. Lovers mentored her along the way, including her husband, whom she, in turn, spoiled “like a geisha girl,” she said, but she won her own laurels and earned her own money.

For my part I find it hard to believe that feminists are encouraging women to sleep their way to the top, but, that’s what Thurman is saying. Who am I to suggest that women cannot compete on a level playing field with men.

As it happens, there is a venerable term for a woman who trades her sexual favors for favors, who is well versed in the arts of sensual delights, and who has a career of her own but who attaches herself to a wealthy man in order to gain social and economic advantages.

That word is “courtesan.”

A courtesan is not a cheap floozy who trades sex for free meals. She is more like an official mistress, whose role is to entertain and to delight a man, to offer him the kind of romantic love and even intelligent conversation that his wife cannot provide.

Why could a wife not provide those things? Simply, because in the old days marriage was an arrangement. When marriages were arranged for reasons of power and property, romantic love took semi-permanent residence in the relationship with a courtesan, a mistress, a favorite, or a demi-mondaine.  

Consider this. In her book Having It All, Brown advised young women: "Never refuse to make love, even if you don't feel like it."

A woman who never refuses to make love may be called many things: “wife” is not one of them.

Brown’s originality was in creating a role that had never really existed in America. You might associate courtesans with Venice, but not with Boston or New York. The role never existed because America had never honored the practice of arranged marriage.

Admittedly, Brown’s was an especially vulgar variant on the role, but still, the courtesan could only thrive in a nation where marriages were arrangements.

Otherwise wives would have risen up in rebellion. Worse, yet they would have shamed adulterers.

Today, the triumph of marriage for love has put an end to the socially recognized role of courtesan.

Or, it did until feminists came along and tried to dig it up from the graveyard of bad customs. 

Courtesans were in it for the sex more than the procreation. Contraception would have been a courtesan's best friend. Since a courtesan was unmarried, her children would have been bastards and would have suffered a social stigma.

Similarly, today’s feminists insist on dissociating sex from procreation.

The methods of contraception available at the time might not have been as effective as the ones we have today, but still a courtesan was supposed to be a lover, not a wife or mother. She was certainly not going to be a housewife or a homemaker.

Her place was in the boudoir, not the kitchen.
By all appearances, the feminist idolization of Helen Gurley Brown represents a reactionary wish to return to a time when a woman’s most significant role was to be girlfriend or live-in concubine.

If you believe that marriage is just a piece of paper, or worse, if you believe that marriage represents the institutional oppression of women then it makes sense to reject marriage in favor of long term relationships between men and women.

They are equivalent to the relationship between a man and a courtesan, only, most of the time without there being any wife in the picture.

If women are not to aspire to the roles of wife and mother, they are being encouraged to live adopt all of the habits of the courtesan. Women who embrace this role by following the tips presented in magazines like Cosmo should not be surprised if their men choose to marry someone else.

True enough, Helen Gurley Brown did succeed in being transformed from courtesan to wife, but she did not become a mother or a homemaker.

Then again, Brown made her decisions more than fifty years ago. It might simply have been the weight of social custom in a pre-feminist age that required her man to marry his courtesan.


Rachel said...

Thank you! I used to call women who act like her in their 30s/40s/(50s??) attention whores...they give favors/attention to men only because they want the return attention so bad. And they do it later in life, because that is when their skills are honed (personality, flattery, etc.) Courtesan is a better term....This culture HGB helped to create(something like Sex and the City) has been really appealing to women my age. Maybe we are coming off it, and starting to see what a bad deal it is. I guess HGB did have a long-term marriage, but I wonder... why did she need to wear mini skirts when she was 80, 90 years old then? She made herself special, through her brains and manipulations, but in the end she only wanted to be beautiful. It's really very sad!

Recruiting Animal said...

I was shocked by the info you provided about HG Brown.

However, what feminists are promoting - as you describe it - is not the role of a courtesan - but of an equal.

Motherhood interferes with this so they have negative feelings about the traditional family. That's your beef.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I was thinking in terms of all the traditional female roles throughout human history. I don't see "equal" as a role. If a woman does not want to be a wife or a mother, if she has rejected those roles, and does not want to be a homemaker, but wants to live with a man as a lover... it seems fair to call her a courtesan.