Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Remembering Helen Gurley Brown: Sex and the Hollywood Girl

I’ve always been fascinated by the career of Helen Gurley Brown. Come to think of it, I’ve always been fascinated by the name of Helen Gurley Brown. Not easy to take her seriously, when the “girly-girl” aspects of her personality seem to be spelled out in her moniker. But I digress. The fact is, she changed America’s view of female sexuality. Brown’s publication of Sex and the Single Girl in 1962 proclaimed that women, like men, could enjoy sex outside of marriage. Sex and the Single Girl, which tells working women how to meet, entice, and perhaps eventually marry the men of their dreams, was a bestseller that helped usher in the Sexual Revolution.

Brown’s book heartily endorses the sex act, but is surprisingly mum about possible biological consequences. This despite the fact that the Sixties had introduced a medical breakthrough that would transform women’s intimate lives. In June 1960, the birth-control pill first came onto the market. Though greeted enthusiastically by many, it was banned in some states until a 1965 Supreme Court decision permitted its use by all married women. The unmarried in numerous locales had to wait for a follow-up legal decision in 1972, but a Baby Boomer memoirist recalls that co-eds of his acquaintance “obtained prescriptions through dermatologists who were willing to support the conceit that it cleared up acne.” Gradually, oral contraceptives filtered through American society, leading to what John Updike called in Couples, his much-discussed 1968 novel about wife-swapping in suburbia, “the post-pill paradise.” Mrs. Robinson might not have approached Benjamin so boldly without this handy and nearly foolproof way of covering her tracks.

We might assume that movies from the early Sixties onward would reflect women’s uncertainties about their new options. But Hollywood instead stuck closely to its old formulas. When Sex and the Single Girl became a movie in 1964, it was less an exploration of female sexuality than Doris Day redux. A pretty but vacuous Natalie Wood portrayed Helen Gurley Brown, who in the screen version is a psychologist as well as a best-selling author. Her notoriety has led a scandal rag to accuse her of being a “twenty-three-year-old virgin.” Little does she know that a new patient (Tony Curtis) is both a cad and a snooping journalist determined to pin down an answer to a key question: “Does she or doesn’t she?”

Sex and the Single Girl steals shamelessly from 1961’s Lover Come Back. Like Doris Day, Wood dresses in gleaming white to emphasize her innocence. (She also combines crisp white with stark black, thus resembling a human Rorschach test. Only in the film’s last scene, as a woman in love, does she switch to feminine, flowing peach hues.) Like Rock Hudson, Curtis pretends to be sexually insecure and turns to Wood for help. As her infatuation with him grows, she may spout both psychological jargon and feminist rhetoric —- “When I do get married, it’s not going to be for love or sex or romance. I can get all of those things outside of marriage, just as easily as you can” —- but in fact the movie firmly endorses a double standard. By the end of the film he’s proposing, and she’s talking about giving up her career. At a time when American females were beginning to separate the idea of sex from matrimony, Sex and the Single Girl sticks to the old notion that the business of women is to get married. As the film’s catchy theme song tells us, the single girl who plays her cards right, sexually speaking, will find “that suddenly she’s not single anymore.”


  1. What a crazy time the 60's were in cinema - at the one end you have movies like this and Where the Boys Are and Lover Come Back, which so desperately want to break the bonds of staid cinema but don't, in the end. At the other end you have movies like Easy Rider, The Graduate, Look Who's Coming to Dinner - all in less than ten years. Amazing!

    I haven't seen Sex and the Single Girl. In all honesty, I probably won't. I do appreciate you letting me in on it - and this post is a nice remembrance of Helen Gurley Brown - who certainly gave the rag of life a good wring - making it to 90 before moving on! Now that's a long life! I hope she enjoyed every second of it! Cheers, Ms. Gray!

  2. Thank you, Mr. Craig. You use a metaphor that's new to me -- "gave the rag of life a good wring" -- but it's certainly memorable. Not that Helen Gurley Brown was into rags, except in the rags-to-riches sense!

  3. Sticking to the old notions--perhaps that's why the movie made no impact.

  4. Good to hear from you, Carl! Yes, the movie didn't stick around long. Today it's a relic of times gone by, of interest only to those of us who see the irony in Hollywood's highly conventional handling of Helen Gurley Brown's explosive ideas. Natalie Wood was pretty cute, though.

  5. Not trying to change your beliefs, yet, proving what’s Upstairs as you’ll soon find-out: the Warning shall influence humanity to choose — Greetings, earthling. Because I was an actual NDE on the outskirts of the Great Beyond at 15 yet wasn’t allowed in, lemme share with you what I actually know Seventh-Heaven’s gonna be like for us: meet this ultra-bombastic, ex-mortal-Upstairs for the most-extra-blatant-and-groovy, pleasure-beyond-measure, Ultra-Yummy-Reality-Addiction in the Great Beyond for a BIG-ol, kick-ass, party-hardy, eternal-warp-drive you DO NOT wanna miss the sink-your-teeth-in-the-smmmokin’-hot-deal. YES! For God, anything and everything and more! is possible!! Cya soon…