“Why is Helen Gurley Brown trending?” a confused man in San Francisco recently tweeted. The answer is Lena Dunham, who has put HGB back in the spotlight again, with the publication of her memoir/self-help manual, Not That Kind of Girl.
Anyone who has read or simply read about Dunham’s book probably knows that she was inspired by Brown’s 1982 bestseller, Having It All, which she bought for 65 cents at a thrift store in Ohio, thinking it would be “a decorative joke, something for my shelf of kitschy trophies.”
As it happened, the book became an unlikely lifeline. A student at Oberlin at the time, Lena inhaled Helen’s recipes for success (and probably a fair amount of dust), with some reservations. “Most of her advice . . . is absolutely bananas,” Dunham writes in her introduction to Not That Kind of Girl. “But despite her demented theories, which jibe not even a little bit with my distinctly feminist upbringing, I appreciate the way Helen shares her own embarrassing, acne-ridden history in an attempt to say, Look, happiness and satisfaction can happen to anyone.”
As someone who has been working on a book about Helen Gurley Brown for the past few years, I’m thrilled to see her name in the press again, and I think it’s great that Dunham is tipping her hat to Brown in her own memoir, which features a similar structure as Having It All (both books are divided into themed sections), a photo of the author in a classic ’80s power pose, and the line, “I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all.”
I, too, own a copy of Having It All. When I read Dunham’s description of her thrift-store find, which came with a stranger’s inscription, I smiled in recognition . . . My pre-loved copy of the book came via Amazon, with a slight scent of mildew, dog-eared pages, and an ancient, discolored photograph that fell out as soon as I opened it. I do not know the mustached, mostly naked, overly tanned man pictured in the photo. I only know that whoever took the photo used too much flash and must have thought that her boyfriend/lover looked pretty damn sexy posing in a bathroom doorway wearing his tightest black banana-hammock with brown cowboy boots and a thin gold chain. As long as I own this copy of Having It All, he will continue to live among its pages, along with some of Helen Gurley Brown’s best and worst advice. They simply belong together.
Not That Kind of Girl and Having It All belong together, too, in the relatively small canon of cheeky memoir/self-help-books-written-for-women-by-women. I understand why, in press interviews and public talks, Dunham keeps referencing Brown’s guide for attracting “love, success, sex, money, even if you’re starting with nothing.”
Granted, Dunham hardly started with nothing: The daughter of artists, she grew up in Soho and attended the prestigious Saint Anne’s School in Brooklyn, before studying creative writing at Oberlin. Brown’s childhood was far less comfy. Born in the tiny town of Green Forest, Arkansas, she was just a girl when her father died in an elevator accident, forcing her grieving mother to uproot the family to Los Angeles, where Helen’s older sister was diagnosed with polio. I’m guessing that Dunham probably could afford not to work. Helen didn’t have a choice. She worked her way through 17 secretarial jobs before landing the career (and the husband) of her dreams.
The story of Helen Gurley Brown is ultimately one about the power of will, and I understand why, as a college student, Dunham gravitated toward Helen’s belief that, as the Girls creator put it, “a powerful, confident, and yes, even sexy woman could be made, not born.” (See: Having It All, Chapter II, “How to ‘Mouseburger’ Your Way to the Top.”)
But I still think that Lena is spotlighting the wrong book.
The book that she should be talking about—that we all should be talking about, at least those of us who are talking about Lena Dunham and Helen Gurley Brown—is Sex and the Single Girl, which came out 20 years before Having It All, and changed the way people talked about sex (nice girls had premarital sex, too!), paving the way for shows like Sex and the City and Girls. (Props to Marisa Meltzer who made the connection at Yahoo! Style.)
Life isn’t a college syllabus, and it’s not Dunham’s job to talk about a book that didn’t speak to her, or that she may not have read yet. But from a critical perspective, talking about Having It All without mentioning Sex and the Single Girl is kind of like talking about How to Save Your Own Life, Erica Jong’s follow-up to Fear of Flying, without mentioning Fear of Flying.
Brown published Having It All when she was 60. She published Sex and the Single Girl when she was 40 and much closer to her experiences as a single woman working in advertising and dating around. She married the Hollywood producer David Brown at 37, considered spinster-age at the time. “I am not beautiful, or even pretty. I once had the world’s worst case of acne. I am not bosomy or brilliant. I grew up in a small town. I didn’t go to college. My family was, and is, desperately poor . . . But I don’t think it’s a miracle that I married my husband,” she began, before launching into her if-I-can-do-it-you-can-too spiel for how to lead a “rich, full life” as a single woman.
“Here is what it doesn’t take. Great beauty,” she continued. “What you do have to do is work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up.”
Sex and the Single Girl became an instant bestseller, with chapters giving women advice on where to meet men and how to have an affair from beginning to end. Yes, some of the advice was beyond ridiculous. Want to get a man’s attention? “Paint your car hot orange . . . or shocking pink.” Better yet: “Carry a controversial book at all times—like Karl Marx’s Das Kapital or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s a perfectly simple way of saying, ‘I’m open to conversation,’ without having to start one.”
But Brown also dispensed practical, often wise advice to her readers on how to start a career, how to save money, how to find an apartment, and how to embrace their own sexuality, flaws and all. “What is a sexy woman? Very simple. She is a woman who enjoys sex,” she wrote in a chapter called “How to Be Sexy.” “Being sexy means that you accept yourself as a woman . . . with all the functions of a woman . . . Being sexy means that you accept all the parts of your body as worthy and lovable.”
What a concept! It’s hard to say what Helen Gurley Brown would have made of Lena Dunham and her nude scenes in Girls—in another chapter, she told readers that if they wanted to find a man, “Your figure can’t harbor an ounce of baby fat”—but their message of self-acceptance is similar.
Like so many books that delve into the subject of sex and have been written by women, Brown’s book was a sensation and a shock. After reading the manuscript, her own mother was appalled and recommended putting off publication. Would her book get a lot of publicity? Sure, she said, but then again so would rape or murder!*
In The San Francisco Examiner, one furious male reader called Helen Gurley Brown’s message in Sex and the Single Girl “a libel against womanhood” that threatened the chastity of the nation’s girls. “The breaking down of moral values . . . which this book indirectly advocates is leading Western civilization into a decline,” he fumed.
Fifty years later, I read Sex and the Single Girl for the first time, at the age of 34. I know it was groundbreaking at the time, but the chapters about sex seemed tame; hardly shocking to someone who was still wearing skorts and Scrunchies when Madonna writhed on a bed in a cone bra and sang about being touched for the very first time.
Admittedly, I had a similar reaction when I read Fear of Flying, a book that I now count among my favorites of all time. The “zipless fuck” doesn’t seem quite so scandalous when your mother keeps asking you if you’ve “gotten to that part yet.”
Everyone said these books were about sex, and they were, but they are also about so much more. Sex and the Single Girl, Fear of Flying, Girls . . . as different as these works are in many ways, they are all about young women learning how to be alone with themselves, how to develop themselves, and how to take care of themselves; hard and often harrowing work that, preferably, happens before finding a partner. “When you accept yourself, with all your foibles, you will be able to accept other people too,” Brown wrote. “And you and they will be happier to be near you.”
That’s the message that Dunham is trying to get across, too, and I think she succeeds. I’ve read more than a few reviews in which critics repeat some version of the line, “I read Lena Dunham’s new book. I learned nothing about Lena Dunham,” suggesting that she is putting on a persona that has little in common with the “real” Lena. Really? I felt I learned so much about her, but also about her family, her fears. I was particularly moved by Dunham’s portrait of her younger sister Grace, who used to crawl into her bed as a small child and had “the comforting, sleep-inducing properties of a hot-water bottle or a cat.” (When Dunham was writing her book, Grace was graduating college. “She’s emerged as a surprising, strange adult,” Lena says, sounding more like her mother than her sister.)
Reading about her penchant for “bed-sharing” that continued into college, I remembered girls I knew in college who went to similar lengths to avoid being alone with themselves. Her experiences as a girl growing into a woman, despite being so different from mine, were also deeply familiar. I found her memoir to be personal and unflinching, funny and at times profound. But not everyone did.
In The Guardian, book critic Hadley Freeman suggested that Dunham’s memoir be filed in a new genre of writing called “clit lit,” “books by young women writing about what is usually described as ‘all their flaws,’ which means everything that happens in their vaginas, from masturbation to menstruation, from sex to cystitis,” writes Freeman, who, at a certain point, began counting the number of times that Dunham uses the word “vagina.” She stopped when she reached 25.“ There’s sexual honesty, and then there’s just sticking your head up your vagina.”
Maybe Freeman is just trying to be funny, I don’t know. I do know that Dunham uses the word “vagina” when describing the pain she felt after being raped by a guy she knew in college and before going to see her mother’s doctor, who, upon examining her, acknowledged that, “It must have been pretty rough.”
Dunham also uses the words “vagina” and “uterus” liberally in a chapter recounting the severe stinging sensation in her crotch that sent her to her gynecologist, who diagnosed her with classic endometriosis, a disorder of the uterus that can lead to problems conceiving children. “I’m afraid that I’m infertile,” she says later in the book.
Are women writers not supposed to use the word “vagina” when discussing such subjects? Or is the problem simply discussing the subjects themselves? As for the writer at New York’s “Vulture” who, weighing in on Hannah Horvath’s nakedness on Girls, said not to apply the word “brave” to Dunham because, as he put it, “she’s not a rape victim, she is a writer-actor-director who is exceptionally well compensated both financially and in the artist’s capital of choice—attention,” maybe you should read the chapter in Dunham’s book called “Barry.” (Also, forgetting Dunham for a second, how could you assume to know this kind of personal history about anyone? )
A lot has happened since 1962 when Sex and the Single Girl came out. Lena is able to write about subjects that Helen wasn’t, including what constitutes “rape.” (In an early draft of Sex and the Office*, Brown’s 1964 sequel to Sex and the Single Girl, she included a vignette called “Rape—More or Less,” recounting one woman’s experience of being attacked by a man she knew from work. The term “date rape” didn’t exist yet, and the story never made it to her final draft.) And yet, as two women who wrote memoir-manuals more than a half a century apart, they have been treated very similarly in the press. They weren’t honest enough. They were too honest—narcissistic navel-gazers.
“I’m an unreliable narrator,” Lena writes, before recounting the story of her rape, an episode that she told differently earlier in the book.
Like people, stories change. It doesn’t mean that they’re not true. Any memoir is an exercise in reconstructing memory. Every narrator is flawed. It’s not that Dunham is more flawed than anyone else. As was the case with Helen Gurley Brown, she is just more willing to look at her flaws, to write about them—and in the process, to rewrite herself.
Like stories, people change. It doesn’t mean they’re “not real,” a popular accusation that critics have been hurling at Dunham as of late.
“How much is Dunham inhabiting a persona—in effect wearing a mask made from her own face?” New Statesmen critic Helen Lewis asked recently. “Her whole life is a performance art piece where she plays a noxious brat with great skill . . . Reading this book, you realise that Lena Dunham has been playing ‘Lena Dunham’ for a long time. She is not real.”
This just seems goofy to me. We all have our public/private faces. To some degree, we are all performers in the daily dramas of our own lives. We are all unreliable narrators of our own stories. We are all editors who choose which truths to reveal, and which to tweak or cut out altogether.
I’ve been remembering a story about Helen’s teenage cousin, Lou, who visited her in the Pacific Palisades shortly after Sex and the Single Girl came out. When Lou stayed with Helen and David in 1962, copies of the book were still in boxes, stacked in the den. One day, she asked Helen for her own copy of Sex and the Single Girl.
Lou stayed up all night reading. She was riveted. But she couldn’t help but wonder if Helen really believed everything she had written about life as a single girl—how it’s OK to sleep with guys before you get married, or have affairs with married men.
“Do you really believe that?” Lou asked Helen the next morning.
“Absolutely,” Helen said. “I believe the things I said. I just didn’t talk about how lonely it can be.”
As Dunham continues her book tour, I hope someone raises the question that Helen’s cousin asked her all those years ago. Do you believe everything you wrote?
Who knows how she would answer . . . But no one can accuse her of not talking about how lonely it can be.
*From the Helen Gurley Brown Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College