Friday, 17 July 2009

Summer Reading: Bad Girls Go Everywhere

In the first of a new series of pieces which we've called Summer Reading (our thoughts on things we're reading during the 'vacation' which inform our teaching and research rather than tips for the beach!), Joanne Hollows discusses Jennifer Scanlon's new biography of Helen Gurley Brown.

As I try to ease myself into a new research project about second-wave feminist identities, I’ve been reading Jennifer Scanlon’s Bad Girls Go Everywhere (Oxford 2009), a biography of Helen Gurley Brown (author of Sex and the Single Girl, long-term editor of the US edition of Cosmopolitan). While the story of Brown’s life is a great read, there is also another story here about histories of feminism. Identifying herself as a feminist, Brown nonetheless has been written out of histories of second-wave feminism and Cosmo, along with Brown herself, was frequently represented as the ‘other’ of feminism during the 1960s and 1970s. The book therefore represents an important intervention in debates about feminism and/in popular culture. While many narratives of ‘popular feminism’ identify how feminism entered the mainstream from the 1980s onwards, Scanlon identifies how many of the issues associated with feminism were promoted within Cosmo in the 1960s. The kind of popular feminism developed by Brown might have been deeply problematic in the eyes of second-wave feminists but it also managed to bring feminist concerns – about the workplace, sexuality and financial independence - to a much wider audience (and this makes good reading alongside Megan Le Masurier’s recent work on the history of Cleo magazine in Australia).

Scanlon also identifies a clear relationship between the Gurley Brown brand of feminism and more recent forms of ‘girly’ feminism, identified with the ‘third-wave’ and located in what are often referred to as ‘post-feminist’ texts such as Sex and the City. From such a perspective, while Carrie and her friends might represent ‘feminism undone’ to some feminist critics, they might also represent a continuation of the earlier forms of ‘popular feminism’ that have their roots in publications such as Cosmo. While this might not meet the rigorous demands of second-wave feminism – and Scanlon clearly identifies some of the more problematic aspects of Brown’s politics – Brown had a key role to play in the mainstreaming of feminist demands for reproductive rights, equal pay, independence and the right to sexual pleasure. Furthermore, Scanlon suggests that Brown’s imagined audience of ‘Cosmo girls’ reached a wider audience – in terms of class if not perhaps ‘race’ – than more ‘official’ forms of feminism did in the period.

There is some useful stuff here too for people interested in feminist debates about sexuality, the magazine industry, fashion and beauty (and there are productive parallels between Scanlon’s position and Linda Scott’s arguments in Fresh Lipstick on the latter). I found the chapter which compared Gurley Brown’s brand of feminism with Betty Friedan particularly illuminating. A lot has been written in recent years about Friedan in feminist cultural studies but Scanlon not only made this fresh but she also made some great points about the different women’s positions in relation to both consumption and domesticity. While Friedan’s critique of consumer culture is well-known (and became something of a commonsense in second-wave feminism), Gurley Brown advocated that women should enjoy the rewards of working in their ability to spend money on themselves (although she was far more strict about how single girls approached money management!) In many ways this parallels some of the debates currently taking place within feminist media studies about consumer culture and post-feminism. Some of these pieces are currently on my ‘to read’ pile (e.g. McRobbie’s recent article, ‘Young Women and Consumer Culture’) alongside Scanlon’s reflections on Gurley Brown’s legacy in Feminist Media Studies and Women’s Studies.

But given that this is also a really readable and enjoyable biography, you could also probably take it to the seaside too!
(Photo Credit: SwanDiamondRose. Permissions.)

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