Not Pretty Enough helps present a fully-formed portrait of this most public of personae in an age before our current oversaturated, oversharing society.
Helen Gurley Brown has long been a polarizing figure. Since the publication of her debut, Sex and the Single Girl, she was an outspoken champion of sex for pleasure, remaining controversial to both liberal feminists and conservative middle America alike. Her multifaceted public persona and often contradictory ideologies have made her an alternately fascinating and frustrating figure, one very much the product of her own singular worldview. From backwoods, acne-scarred Southern belle to California working girl enjoying the physical pleasures of frowned-upon (premarital) sex to savior of the flagging Hearst Corporation through the dramatic revitalization of Cosmopolitan, she took on many guises throughout the whole of her fascinating life.
It’s easy to see how Matthew Weiner relied on Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl in formulating characters like Peggy Olson on the television series “Mad Men.” Reading the biographical arc of HGB in Gerri Hirshey’s thorough (and thoroughly entertaining) Not Pretty Enough, it becomes nearly impossible to separate some of the specific incidents from the fictional counterparts inhabiting Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. From ill-advised illicit affairs with coworkers to a life-altering, almost paternal working relationship that borders on mutual respect rather than sexual possibilities, the facts mirror an imagined fiction and vice versa. The story of HGB (this is how Hirshey chooses to refer to her throughout much of the narrative) is the story of the objectification, marginalization and professional subjugation of women in the 20th century.
That she eventually turned this notion on its ear through her celebration of unapologetic sexuality and often confounding contradictions made her both an arbiter of sexual politics and the bane of feminists everywhere due to the content she unleashed to help turn Cosmopolitan into not just a successful magazine but a female archetype to which young women would aspire. The idea of the “Cosmo girl”—a young, beautiful professional unabashed in her sexuality—helped add an air of empowerment to what had previously been seen as “loose” or “easy,” turning the tables on the men who had before used these same women for their own means. Unapologetic and very much her own person, HGB eschewed societal expectations in order to pursue the life she felt she deserved.
Not Pretty Enough helps track the making of HGB, chronologically following her rise from backwoods Arkansas hillbilly to the picture of modern sophistication and sexual confidence. Using letters, written accounts and firsthand interviews with longtime friends of the icon, Hirshey manages a fully-fleshed-out character study of a woman who always saw herself as not quite good enough (hence the title). Heavily contradictory and resolutely human in her fallibility, she proves a fascinating subject and ideal avatar for 20th century social restrictions and concerns from a female-centric point of view. Approaching her subject with both sympathy and open-mouthed chagrin, Hirshey paints an altogether loving portrait of a woman who was alternately loved and despised by everyone whose life she touched.
There’s no easy examination of a public figure so unapologetically human—from her time as a kept woman of a vicious anti-Semite to her own self-deprecatory mocking of her “hillbilly” roots to her much-publicized tips for a “semen facial” and more. Rather than attempt to rationalize or contextualize her actions from a social or chronological standpoint, Hirshey presents HGB as she was, acne scars and all. Despite her myriad flaws and social missteps, she remained true to herself, acting for better or worse as an iconoclast well into her eighties. Not Pretty Enough helps present a fully-formed portrait of this most public of personae in an age before our current oversaturated, oversharing society. A true pioneer and sexual revolutionary, HGB proves as fascinating on the page as she was in life—or perhaps vice versa.