How applicable is Helen Gurley Brown's influential tome today?
The late Helen Gurley Brown lived like Peggy, but she plotted like Joan. When she wrote Sex and the Single Girl, she was in her forties, and had been married for years. But that didn't stop her from crafting a book that helped rewrite the Old-Maid-at-Twenty-Three world of being a single lady in the 1960s. The book's influence is immeasurable, but how relevant is it at this point? Can you modernize the language and be left with some solid advice, or does Sex and the Single Girl best live on as a footnote in Brown's career? Read on.
• Chapter 1: Women Alone? Oh Come Now!: "Theoretically a ‘nice' single woman has no sex life. What nonsense! She has a better sex life than most of her married friends. Her choice of partners is endless."
Beyoncé wrote a song about it. Almost every girl I know in New York is… it. "Single" is not a thing to be lamented or pitied. Hell, it should maybe even be celebrated. Brown was ahead of her time in her assessment of single people (or, as I like to say, "people") and in knowing that being single has just as much value and potential for growth as being in one of them — whatchimacallums — relationships. That said, the book eventually starts to make it seem like being single is just a means to the end of not being single, and that's not exactly progressive.
• Chapter 2. The Availables: The Men in Your Life
Brown suggests categorizing your potential bedmates like some kind of slutty anthropologist who I want to get drinks with. It's not a bad idea, actually, to assess your potentials on a scale of dateablity, but that outlook set up eventual Cosmo inanities like "The Hot Sex Prospect," "The Career Booster," and "The Ex-Boyfriend Who's Still Around." This kind of labeling simplifies things, but maybe you don't want to go around sharing your bed with a category.
• Chapter 3: Where to Meet Them
Largely a chapter about flirting, this one argues — progressively — that women pursuing men is a-okay. It's good to be straightforward, to approach someone, and to learn how to handle rejection… then move on. Bravo.
• Chapter 4. How to Be Sexy
Brown's definition of a sexy woman was, quite simply, a "woman who enjoys sex." I think that holds up pretty well. To her, enjoying sex was a holistic pursuit: get to know yourself sexually, develop confidence with all of the parts of your personality (not just the sexy ones), and take care of yourself. Nice work if you can get it.
• Chapter 5. Nine to Five: "Mother Brown's Twelve Rules for Squirming, Worming, Inching, and Pinching Your Way to the Top."
Ew, but, wormy language aside, Brown's best note from this chapter is this: get a job. And that's a fair point. It feels good to do stuff for yourself. Like pay rent. And buy food.
• Chapter 7. The Apartment: "A chic apartment can tell the world that you, for one, are not one of those miserable, pitiful single creatures."
Sure — your home reflects who you are and what you care about. It's worth bearing in mind, however, that Brown's office was completely bedecked in pink and animal print. All things in moderation!
• Chapter 8. The Care and Feeding of Everybody
This chapter covers entertaining (and not some kind of "To Serve Man"-style dystopia), and it's pretty basic and timeless. Brown suggests learning how to cook one or two delicious things and memorizing a few cocktails. Which is great — everybody loves a party!
• Chapter 9. The Shape You're In
Cosmo loooooves a diet tip. And Brown (who weighed about 100 pounds her whole life, and was quoted as saying that was five pounds above her ideal weight) is full of them, for both genders. "What you feed him and them bears no resemblance to what you should be feeding you when they aren't around — to keep you sexy, vibrant and unmorose about being single." So this one hasn't aged quite as well, but it's accurate in the spirit if not the letter: keep it healthy and you'll keep it happy.
• Chapter 10. The Wardrobe: "A black dress is sexy. The black dress. The dress you paid more for than you should have, but every time you wear it you feel bitchy and beautiful."
Two things you can pull from this chapter: 1) plan a wardrobe, don't just acquire it, and 2) the little black dress will never, ever go out of style. Solid.
• Chapter 12. The Affair: From the Beginning to End
One of the more notorious chapters of Single Girl, this one details what will — or should — occur during the beginning, middle and end stages of an affair. Married men, Brown wrote, "have a definite place in the life of a single woman — as friends and confidants, occasionally as dates and once in a great while as lovers (if they live thousands of miles from you and promise only to visit once or twice a year!)" So you should realize that, as shit-stirring as this chapter might have been in the '60s, Brown never exactly advocated for running around detonating marriages like some kind of promiscuity-bomb.
• Chapter 13. The Rich, Full Life: "What you do have to do is work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up… Living dangerously lengthens and strengthens your life."
Ultimately, remember this: "…you may marry or you may not. In today's world that is no longer the big question for women. Those who glom on to men so that they can collapse with relief, spend the rest of their days shining up their status symbol and figure they never have to reach, stretch, learn, grow, face dragons or make a living again are the ones to be pitied."
Not bad, right? So it's unfair to paint Brown as someone who was obsessed only with getting women a man. As the above quote shows, she was all about personal growth with or without a man.