The anti-feminist messages in fairy tales, both in their classic forms from the tales of Grimm, Anderson and Perrault, and their sanitized Disneyfied versions, abound. Heroines are frequently passive, resisting even Disney’s “spunkification” and lose their voices or fall into slumbers. They are rescued by princes or kindly huntsmen. Evil befalls them during puberty. Many fairy tales that have permeated the collective unconsciousness are known for these misogynist tropes and particularly for their warnings about female sexuality and its existence as both a threat and as threatened.
Red Riding Hood, which has just been remade into a (by all accounts mediocre) Twilight-esque tale of a dangerous teen love triangle by Catherine Hardwicke, draws on one of the more symbolically rich of these stories. As Hardwicke herself said “When you have problems when you’re five years old, it’s just like ‘Red Riding Hood.’ ‘I’m scared to go in the woods’…Later on, when you’re 12 or 13, you really notice the sexual implications. The wolf is in bed, inviting her into bed. You start reading it on a different level, once you hit that sexual awakening.”
Charles Perrault, who popularized the “Little Red Riding Hood” story, made it pretty clear from the outset that the “wolf” is a seducer, and the story a metaphor for women staying away from sex.
From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers, And it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner. I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition — neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!
It’s quite explicit, isn’t it?
Susan Brownmiller goes even further in her seminal book “Against Our Will,” writing that “little Red Riding Hood is a parable of rape,” with the main character an utterly passive victim. The story serves as a warning to girls about the menace in the woods and is an early indicator of “rape culture.”
Indeed, as Paul Harris of the Guardian wrote in an article about Hollywood’s resurgent interest in fairy-stories, “Beneath the magical surface of a fairytale, with its castles and princesses, often lurk ideas around sexuality, the dangers of growing up and leaving home, relationships between children and parents, and the threat that adult strangers can pose.” And in particular, he notes, there’s a “conservative” streak about female sexuality in these stories which is one of the reasons they continue to get resurrected, retold and deconstructed.
Along with “Red Riding Hood,” archetypical tales like “Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Bluebeard’s caste all share concerns about female sexuality. In “Beauty and the Beast,” the chaste beauty can tame the male beast–even when she’s imprisoned against her will. In “Sleeping Beauty” a bitter old fairy punishes the heroine with slumber when she pricks her finger, a symbol for menstruation (as is Red Riding Hood’s cloak). In “Snow White” the lovely young queen also pricks her finger, becomes sexual and has a child. Then suddenly she “dies” and is replaced by a wicked queen, a witch. Every day this queen gets a talk from her mirror who feeds on her jealousy and her obsession with her youth and beauty until she feels compelled to kill the younger, more beautiful and more sexually alluring young woman. Both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty require resurrection by a man.
Similar symbolism is at work in “The Little Mermaid,” in which a young woman, besotted by a handsome prince, goes to an older witch and exchanges her soul for a pair of legs that hurt her to use and even make her bleed.
Still, ever since there have been fairy tales, there has been feminist re-appropriation of fairy tales. As with the myths around creatures like vampires and werewolves which sometimes intersect with fairy tales, the moral of the story often shifts with the mores of the time. From Anne Sexton’s twisted fairy tale poems to Angela Carter’s brilliant stories to the new tumblr meme which turns Disney heroines into glasses-wearing, irony-spouting hipsters, fairy tales have been fertile ground for re-imaginings and inversions.
As Catherine Orenstein wrote in Ms. magazine about the re-appropriation of Red Riding Hood:
Storytellers from the women’s movement and beyond also reclaimed the heroine from male-dominated literary tradition, recasting her as the physical or sexual aggressor and questioning the machismo of the wolf. In the 1984 movie The Company of Wolves, inspired by playwright Angela Carter, the heroine claims a libido equal to that of her lascivious stalker and becomes a wolf herself. In the Internet tale “Red Riding Hood Redux,” the heroine unloads a 9mm Beretta into the wolf and, as tufts of wolf fur waft down, sends the hunter off to a self-help group, White Male Oppressors Anonymous.
Orenstein went to the origins of the “Riding Hood” myth and discovered that in its original incarnations, the heroine is much less passive and more of a trickster who ends up outwitting the wolf without the aid of any huntsman. She is just one of many writers who devote an entire book to analyzing Red Riding Hood from a gendered lens, while Carter is one of many artists to re-write the story with an entirely new agenda.
Fairy tales will always be with us, whether being sugarcoated and Disneyfied or fed to us Feminists should continue embrace the retelling and transformation of these tales as part of our ritual for contending with the myths and tropes of patriarchy. Even if Catherine Hardwicke sexualizes the story in a muddled way, she’s taking part in a proud tradition.
Like all of us, Cosmopolitan magazine’s longtime editor Helen Gurley Brown lived with conflicting drives and desires. But Gurley Brown’s ideas and insecurities had a public platform, where she championed sex for singles while downplaying workplace sexual harassment and featured feminist voices while upholding the beauty ideals that made her own life difficult.
A workhorse who played hard, Gurley Brown, who died in 2012, is presented as an often contradictory heroine and an unexpected success story in journalist Gerri Hirshey’s new 500-page biography, Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown.
Helen Gurley Brown’s life and example—almost a classic Horatio Alger “rags to riches” tale—affirms that the American idea of surmounting humble origins is sometimes possible, if improbable. But Gurley Brown’s story also illustrates both personal grit and endurance. Wily, willing to take risks, and sexually audacious, she might be a questionable role model for 21st century women, but her amazing story, as told by Hirshey, will nonetheless inspire and entertain.
Born in 1922, Gurley Brown led Cosmopolitan for 32 years. She moved the magazine, which had been published continuously since 1886, from relative obscurity into the limelight. Known for its brash cover chatter and how-to articles on heterosexual man-pleasing, Cosmo is the world’s highest-selling women’s magazine, with 61 print editions. Its long history—alongside Helen Gurley Brown’s personal story—offers a fascinating window into the intersection between U.S. publishing and burgeoning 20th-century feminist ideologies.
Hirshey (whose earlier books include Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music and We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The True, Tough Story of Women in Rock) presents Gurley Brown as a mess of pushes and pulls: insecure, brilliant, bold, self-effacing, loyal, independent, jittery, and frugal to the point of deprivation. Indeed, Hirshey’s revealing and detailed biography describes the pioneering editor as someone hungry for experiences; a sophisticated New Yorker with deep roots in rural America; and a writer of guidebooks who had trouble taking advice. In short, Helen Gurley Brown was limited by a host of personal issues, but that did not stop her from trying to push societal boundaries and shatter sexual propriety.
A native of small-town Arkansas, Helen’s childhood was marred by tragedy. Her father died in an accident when she was 10; several years later, her older sister, Mary, contracted polio, which left her partially paralyzed. Helen’s mother, Cleo, was overwhelmed and often depressed. Nonetheless, she scrambled to keep the creditors at bay, and the family lived in numerous decrepit rentals during Helen’s childhood.
Poverty was not the only obstacle Helen faced. According to Hirshey, “By the time Mary and Helen were school age, Cleo had begun her steady warnings that pretty girls got the best in life.” While Cleo never used the word “plain” to describe her offspring, it was clear that she did not think them comely. Helen was devastated. What’s more, the fear of being unattractive dogged her for her entire life and she had multiple surgeries to correct “flaws.” She also starved herself and exercised compulsively—and would likely now be labeled as having an eating disorder—to keep her weight at an unwavering 105 pounds.
Her success, Hirshey writes, was the result of luck, tenacity, and sheer chutzpah.
It started in the 1940s, shortly after she finished high school and secured the first of a string of secretarial jobs. During her tenure as a typist and stenographer, Helen cozied up to her male bosses and slept with some of them.
“It was the first time she truly observed and understood that sex is power,” Hirshey writes. “Helen had come to realize that sex was a surprising and thrilling equalizer between the sheets.” Gurley Brown pooh-poohed the idea that people should wait until marriage to have sex and had no problem dating men who were cheating on their wives. The same went, Hirshey writes, for racists and overt anti-Semites. Since she was giving a large part of her earnings to her mother and her sister, it was the size of a man’s bank book, rather than his politics, that evidently curried her favor.
Nevertheless, being a mistress had a downside, and Helen’s diary reveals that she felt like a “little bird … expected to stay in her cage, always available yet always alone.”
Her fortunes turned shortly after her 26th birthday, when she became secretary to Don Belding, chairman of the board at prestigious ad agency Foote, Cone, and Belding. Belding paid Helen $75 a week and treated her like a long-lost daughter; she considered him a surrogate father.
Alice Belding, Don’s wife, took a particular interest in Helen and, after reading something she’d written, persuaded her husband to give Helen a chance as a copywriter. He did, making her one of the first women to break into the field.
Meanwhile, there were men. Lots of men. “Certainly, men love beautiful women,” Hirshey writes. But Helen realized that when “the lights went out, Miss Universe might just as well be the poor, sooty match girl if she couldn’t make him shout hallelujah.” She loved the power sex gave her, but was hurt during a group therapy session when another participant dubbed her a slut. “Spoken with venom, it had the effect of a gut-punch,” Hirshey writes. Still, it proved clarifying for Helen, allowing her to formulate the idea at the heart of her 1962 book, Sex and the Single Girl: There is nothing shameful about unmarried people having sex as long as it’s consensual.
Helen met David Brown, a high-profile movie executive, in 1958, when she was 36. David was 42, twice married and twice divorced, and had no interest in returning to the altar anytime soon. This was fine with Helen. Nonetheless, as they spent more and more time together, they formed a strategic partnership. Yes, there was love, but Helen Gurley craved financial security, which David could provide. They wed in September 1959.
At that point, David suggested that Helen take a professional detour and write “a guidebook of sorts for single women.” Hirshey reports that he envisioned “something along the lines of ‘How to Have a Successful Affair’” and ticked off possible subjects, including how to snare a guy and dress for conquest. He also wanted the manual to include concrete sex tips. Helen loved the idea and the pair began to work on it, she as writer, he as editor.
Sex and the Single Girl told the truth as Helen saw it. Hirshey notes that the book was meant as a practicum, “and was never intended as an overtly feminist tract. Systemic change was not at all on her radar; she addressed herself to bettering the small, quotidian lives toiling within the status quo, of those, herself included, she would come to call ‘mouseburgers.’ Sexism was not even in her vocabulary.”
Her message was quite simple: Sex needed to be decoupled from marriage. As for gender roles, she was fine with women playing coy. In fact, she explicitly advised women to go out with men only if they could pay for everything, from dinner and drinks to “prezzies.”
There were of course, detractors, but Sex and the Single Girl sold millions of copies and made Helen Gurley Brown a household name. She appeared on countless TV talk shows and was the first woman featured in Playboy’s famous centerpiece interviews.
In the throes of her success, however, David was offered a job in New York and the couple decided to leave California, where they’d both lived for decades. David, Hirshey reports, knew that Helen needed to work, “that Helen unemployed would be Helen unhinged.” Together, they developed a prototype for a monthly women’s magazine that would popularize and expand upon the ideas in Sex and the Single Girl. They called it Femme and floated the idea to every publisher they knew. No one liked it.
Eventually, Hearst Corporation suggested “superimposing” the format on one of the corporation’s least successful publications, Cosmopolitan, with Helen Gurley Brown at the helm.
It worked, not only boosting sagging sales but catapulting “The Cosmo Girl” to prominence. Sexual freedom, Gurley Brown enthused, was in–but apparently only for heterosexuals, since the magazine rarely acknowledged the existence of same-sex relationships or bisexuality.
Nonetheless, the first few issues tackled then-risqué themes, as these titles suggest: “The Bugaboo of Male Impotence”; “I was a Nude Model (and This is What Happened)”; “Things I’ll Never Do with a Man Again”; “The Astonishingly Frank Diary of an Unfaithful Wife”; and “How to Make a Small Bosom Amount to Something.”
As the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s took hold, Cosmo flourished, albeit steering clear of covering racial unrest, the Vietnam War, or the counterculture and anti-militarism movements. Likewise, if Gurley Brown had any thoughts about the civil rights or peace movements, Hirshey neglects to mention them. She does note that for Helen, “readers of color scarcely registered.” It’s too bad this is not probed more deeply in Not Pretty Enough, and why the editor remained above the fray—was it fear, disinterest, or hostility?—remains unclear.
The women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s did capture Helen’s interest, though, and she considered herself a devout feminist, with a particular passion for promoting reproductive rights. She wrote numerous articles about the need to overhaul abortion policies pre-Roe v. Wade, openly declaring that “it’s a shame that girls have to go to Mexico or Europe to be operated on.” At Cosmo, she cheered the arrival of the birth control pill in 1960; hailed the 1965 Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut that gave married heterosexuals access to birth control; and was exuberant when Eisenstadt v. Baird gave unmarried couples the same right to control their fertility in 1972.
Sexual harassment, on the other hand, was befuddling to her. Remembering her days as a secretary, she dubbed slaps on the ass and sexually suggestive comments to be harmless fun. “When a man finds you sexually attractive, he is paying you a compliment,” she wrote in a monthly Cosmo column. “When he doesn’t, that’s when you have to worry.”
Small wonder that Kate Millett picketed Cosmo for its “reactionary politics” or that Betty Friedan slammed it for its sexism and preponderance of inane articles on keeping men happy.
Despite disagreeing with these thinkers, Helen Gurley Brown marched down New York City’s Fifth Avenue to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage in August 1970 and published articles written by prominent feminists as the 1970s unfolded.
Then, at the height of the AIDS crisis, Gurley Brown stepped in it. In early 1988, Cosmo ran an article that minimized the possibility of heterosexual transmission of HIV and made it sound as if straight women were immune from infection. Equally horrifying, the author, psychiatrist Dr. Robert E. Gould, was overtly racist. “Many men in Africa take their women in a brutal way,” he wrote, “so that some heterosexual activity regarded as normal by them would be close to rape by our standards.”
Oy. Readers were aghast, and Gurley Brown was roundly and deservedly criticized. Even Surgeon General C. Everett Koop weighed in, saying the article did “such a disservice” by suggesting that the risk of contracting the virus was low for heterosexual women. Hirshey reports that, inexplicably, the article was never retracted or corrected.
By this point, however, Helen was showing signs of dementia—she had periodical temper tantrums in public and was becoming less reliable and sharp—so Hearst Corporation brought in several new editors, albeit without firing Helen. She continued going into the office until shortly before her 2012 death. She had done paid work for 71 years.
Hirshey’s sources range from primary documents and in-person interviews with people who knew Gurley Brown, including Gloria Vanderbilt and Barbara Walters. Correspondence and recorded talks between her and friends such as Jacqueline Susann and Joan Rivers provide incisive, funny, and poignant anecdotes. These interviews give the book reportorial gravitas and intimacy. And although Hirshey had only a passing acquaintance with her subject—she had interviewed Gurley Brown decades earlier for an article about marriage proposals—she nonetheless manages to show Gurley Brown as a regular Jane who spoke openly about her nagging doubts.
Many readers will feel as if they can relate to Gurley Brown’s struggles and triumphs. Throughout the book, I felt sad for her, but also wished we’d met.
In fact, I closed the book wanting more; among other things, I wanted to better understand what it was like for her to move between near-poverty and the upper crust. Did she feel like an impostor? Did her lifelong conviction that she was not pretty enough or smart enough keep her from feeling connected to others? Did she ever feel truly secure?
Perhaps Gurley Brown’s self-doubts are what kept her from becoming arrogant or abusive to others; even those who hated Cosmopolitan or were frustrated by her racial and political blind spots admired her kindness. Similarly, these doubts did not prompt her to disguise her eccentricities—among them, pilfering from petty cash and always taking public transportation rather than cabs. Indeed, whatever Gurley Brown felt about her own appeal, Hirshey’s biography presents Helen Gurley Brown the woman as quirky, humble, and utterly fascinating.
A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”
This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.
That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.
According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.
The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.
Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”
The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.
And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?
Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.
The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)
Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.
Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”
Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.
Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.
But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”
Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.