Sex and the singles

A frowning op-ed-review-rant published in the Courier-Mail a long, long time ago.


Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl has recently been re-released in the US. I hope it stays there.

Sure, the re-release goes under the guise of “cult classic”, which is how publisher Barricade Books has badged the title. But in a generation of women “identifying” with Ally whinging  McBeal, of Renee Zellweger’s insipidly single specialities, and of successful women again being asked “what does your husband do” at functions (as a columnist in this paper recently endured), then this little cult classic sails too close to the wind of current anti-single-women culture to be even kitschly amusing.

A year before Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique cracked open the illusion of suburban-happy wife and mother, Helen Gurley Brown shocked not just the establishment with a lifestyle guide for the unmarried.

That was in 1963, and Sex and the single girl was bloody controversial in its time: mostly for its defined acceptance of female sexuality. All of a sudden, someone had noted –unapologetically – that women had “urges”. Gurley Brown did this in a chapter titled “The Affair: From beginning to end”.

“The Affair” is how Sex and the Single Girl gained notoriety. Before it, Nice Girls did not Give In. Gurley Brown’s girls not only Gave In, they Gave In with lots of Italics, Capitalisation, and Exclamation Marks! They Gave In! Sometimes to Married Men! But usually to someone Solvent and Successful!

“Where I live,” wrote Gurley Brown, “there is something else a girl can say and frequently does when a man ‘insists’. And that is ‘yes’.”

“Nice, single girls do have affairs, and they do not necessarily die of them!” she wrote. And this was the big deal in the early 60s, one that guaranteed book sales in 28 countries, and, in 1965, editorship of Cosmopolitan, where she stayed for 32 years (she still oversees all international editions as global Editor in Chief).

This proclamation of female sexuality was considered a celebration of the female, and, as a consequence, the entire book deemed a feminist text by some eager readers.

However, the feminist meat in Gurley Brown’s sandwich hid until her second-last chapter. A mere 23 pages in Sex and the Single Girl were allocated to this festival of female sex-drive. (And of these, she lavished a quarter on sex with married men: ask for presents and never cook for him.) The rest was advice for the tragically single. How to spend those awfully dull years waiting for Mr Right so that Mr Right will be impressed when he meets you. Chapters and chapters of the stuff – from Where to Meet Them to The Care and Feeding of Everybody.

And this supposedly empowering book was written by Gurley Brown after her husband suggested she write it.

Mr David Brown must have been pretty happy with the result, too – his starring role begins on page one: “David is a motion picture producer, forty-four, brainy, charming and sexy. He was sought after by many a Hollywood starlet … And I got him!”

Sex and the Single Girl is one of the world’s first self-help books. It aims to help the hapless lass whose train is stuck in single station. Gurley Brown says maximise your assets, girls – the ones that interest blokes, anyway. That is, your clothes, hair, living quarters, and perennially buoyant personality.

Single women – sorry, girls – are encouraged to improve themselves so they’re better prizes for their future husbands. Gurley Brown says you can have a career, as then you’ve got more to offer.

“A career is the greatest preparation for marriage, You are better organized, better able to cope with checkbooks, investments, insurance premiums, tradesmen, dinner parties and the mixing of a really dry manhattan. You know how to please men.”

This re-released book may amuse, but it’s an insult to both women AND men. It says men are stupid and easily manipulated and women want to catch them with their feminine wiles.

Sex and the Single Girl, like the television show Sex and the City, is skin-deep pseudo-empowerment. It exhorts the tragically single (“You’re single. You’d like to be able to stop apologizing for the state. Better still, you’d like to get out of it.”) to be sexually determined, but then sends a message that singledom is all about the search for Mr Right. As if singledom was an ailment requiring treatment.

Our favourite four single New Yorkers, in the sixth and final series of Sex and the City, are testament to this. With the exception of Samantha, they may be single, but don’t seem happy about it. They’re opting out, looking for Mr Right, regretting missed opportunities, and in dire Carrie’s case, whining about it.

Happy singleness – not seen as a mere pit stop between relationships, but as a lifestyle choice – is rarely an option for women on television or in “chick-lit”. Not women in their 20s or 30s, anyway.

Why is it that our culture seems determined to define “single” as “incomplete”? Why is any reference to single in print or on-screen a reference to a state that needs curing? As if to be single was to be unwell?

Culturally, it’s McSingle: the disease.