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The Problem With Women’s Self “Help” Books

10 May

In recent years many so-called women’s “self-help” books have risen to popularity on the Amazon best-sellers list. Women will lay down their hard-earned dollars to learn “Why Men Love Bitches” and how to “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.”

Within these “helpful” books, women will learn valuable life skills, namely how to ensure that they remain  faithful abiders of patriarchal social norms; ie. how to be chaste enough, how to be “feminine” and “delicate” enough, and, when required, how to be manipulative enough.

The women who buy these books may even subconsciously realize that they are being cheated. They don’t want to hear the truth — they don’t want to be told that the best way to get the right man for you, is to be yourself. Or that men and women are really not all that different, and want a lot of the same things. Instead, they would rather read about how “Men are from Mars” and how differently their brains are wired. To comprehend what a man really means when he says he’ll call you, you need to read a self-help book, because if he doesn’t call you, it’s your fault — and it’s your loss.

No need to spend your money, ladies. In a few short paragraphs, I will summarize the three biggest lies points of argument in all of these formulaic “help” guides:

1. You Need a Man to Protect You

If your man isn’t macho enough, you are clearly not going for the right kind of men! Real men are protective to the point of annoyance. Everyone knows that women are trophies, and if he doesn’t guard you like the prize that you are, he’s clearly “Just Not That Into You.” You obviously need to develop your confidence!

I’m sorry, random dude I don’t know who thinks he can psycho-analyse me, but perhaps the real issue that I have even more confidence — the confidence to think of myself as worth much more than a trophy, but a capable human being who knows how to stand up for herself.

In Steve Harvey’s “Act Like a Lady,” he recounts with childlike reverence  an utterly disturbing instance wherein his father physically harmed, and threatened to kill some debt collector or whatever because he had vaguely “insulted his wife.” He also recalls being asked from a young age to escort his mother as she ran various errands to “protect” her, when in reality all he was really doing was accompanying  her, more for his own protection than hers. He was spoon fed patriarchal norms from a young age, which influenced his warped view of reality.

In the real world, mothers protect children, and when necessary, wives protect husbands. Marriage should ideally be a partnership, where the views of both partners are equally respected. If I were Harvey’s mother, I would let the rude debt collector have it, using brains and not brawn, and I would be horrified, and frankly, pissed off, if any man tried to fight my battles for me. I expect my husband to be smarter than that.

I will not pretend to need him when I don’t, or expect him to pay for all my dinners, or ask him to help me to walk my dog because I’m scared to leave the house at night. I will not clap with glee when he fixes a broken shelf, or pretend that I don’t know how to change my own oil. This is the 21st century.

So no, Sherry Argov, I refuse to demean myself by “acting like a prize.”

2. “Good” Girls Need “Good” Men to Protect Them From the “Bad” Ones

This philosophy is based on the idea that there are two kinds of women: “good” girls and “bad” girls (note the infantilization of femininity here), otherwise known as the “Madonna/whole complex.”

“Good” girls are naive, stupid, innocent, and sexually inexperienced. They often get taken advantage of by “bad” men — hence why you need a self-help book! “Bad” girls are knowledgeable, intimidating, confident, and, well, slutty. The “good” men don’t want them.

Argov proposes that you can blend these two figures into the perfect woman who can keep her man on his toes, never knowing what to expect, by offering him the best of both worlds. What kind of man he is, be he good or bad, is of no consequence.

The underlying message in these self-help books is that women need men, but men don’t need women. Women are there for men’s sexual pleasure, and can never display sexual agency of their own. You can either be the Madonna, who finds the good man to protect her in exchange for exclusive rights to her body, or you can be the whore, who gets used time and time again. Therefore, it is important to find a man to whom you can give these exclusive rights. Your body will be his property. In both of these scenarios, it is clear that neither the Madonna nor the whore is in control. Women are helpless objects of desire. It is not the woman’s position to assert her own sexuality.

According to this way of thinking, a woman can be sexy, but never sexual.

3. You Must Never, Under Any Circumstances, Tell a Man What You Really Think

“Good girls” are mysterious, whereas “bad girls” are obvious. If you like him, keep him guessing! Men are hunters, and the fun is in the chase.

My main issue with this way of thinking is that there is a very fine line between manipulative mind games and emotional abuse. Honesty is always the best policy. Dishonesty will not make him want you more. There is nothing wrong with a confident woman telling a man what she wants from him. In fact, it’s sexy.

On the other hand, the implication given by these women’s “help” books is that if men are hunters, women are prey. I, as a woman, refuse to accept that. There’s nothing fun or sexy or desirable about being prey. I’m not prey. I’m a fully fledged human being, and if I want to be the chaser, not the chased, I will be. If I don’t want to be, I’ll tell the man in question exactly what I think. The Madonna/whore complex, is a myth. Women are more complex than that, and each and every one of us has a unique and individual attitude towards sex, love, and dating. We all have our own comfort levels, and we should express these feelings to the men in our lives. There is no need to try to find Argov’s ridiculous balance of “nice girl” with an inner “bitch” that will keep him crawling back for more, not knowing what to expect from you. There is no need to tease him, meanwhile keeping him waiting for sex, lest he think you actually like him. Harvey even advises some 90-day “probationary period” wherein a man should earn his “promotion” into your bedroom. Gross. I’m worth more than your Christmas bonus.

So ladies, if you want to hop into bed after the first date — power to you! If you’re waiting for a ring on your finger, go for it! Who cares what weirdos like Harvey, Argov, Pease, or Behrendt think about your life choices.

To summarize: I can protect, provide, and even profess for myself. I am not a bonus, a prize, or prey. I do not need a man in my life, but if I find one that I like, I’ll tell him. If I want to talk to him, I’ll call him. If he asks me where things are going, I will tell him exactly what I want out of the relationship. But hey! Maybe I’m old-fashioned.

Feminism and Chauvinism in The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness

8 Apr

You know a book is good when after you finish reading it, you just can’t stop thinking about it.

I just finished The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness by Brianna Karp, the memoirs of a woman who found herself homeless during the recession despite years in the workforce, a great resume, and a seemingly stable job. And yes, this post will contain spoilers.

I could not put the book down.

One thing I really admire about the author is her borderline self-deprecating honesty. A former Jehovah’s Witness, she openly admits that stigmas attached to homosexuals and racial minorities have been difficult for her to overcome, and in fact, she still struggles to un-learn them and think beyond instinctive gut-reactions.

Even sexism dies hard with her, and she explains why. When she talks about the things that she’s had to overcome with such brazen clarity, I feel almost voyeuristic for reading on, yet I couldn’t stop. I really wanted to see her triumph in the end. She knows that America is a patriarchy, and in certain circumstances (dealing with cops, etc.) she even finds ways to use her social disadvantage to her advantage, in a sense, which made me admire her. There is something about her–perhaps this reflective honesty she possesses–that makes you instantly like her. As a middle-class North American woman of about her age, I felt an instant bond with her. I felt that despite my liberal-minded parents and much easier upbringing, I could relate to her, and I rooted for her. Her sense of perseverance was inspiring, and made me want to root for her even more.

One thing I found unsettling was her love interest. She had met and fallen in love over the internet, which made me sceptical, but I supposed it could work in our tech-y age–the guy seemed all right from what she’d said about their e-mails and Gtalk sessions. But as soon as he got off the plane to meet her, something seemed off. He made snide comments about his ex-girlfriend, infantilizing her, which I found incredibly chauvinistic. All of his “you’re-so-much-more-intellectual-than-my-childish-ex” crap seemed shady. She adored him, of course, but he needed someone more cultured. Why were you with her, then? Why would you be with someone you have no regard for and use-and-abuse her just because you needed the place to stay and the emotional pick-me-up? Doesn’t that say more about you than it does about her?

His other favourite compliment, “you’re-so-unlike-how-I-imagined-you-shallow-American-girls-to-be” line, I found equally unimpressive. He even mocked her parochial upbringing and shamed her for the remnants she couldn’t shake loose. To be honest, it seemed a bit like Karp just lapped it up because she was in love with the idea of being in love, thrilled that someone she truly admired and e-loved (because there is no real “love” over the internet) had taken an interest in her. Her feelings were requited for the first time in her life, which was a self-esteem boost. Although he gave her backhanded compliments that might serve as red-flags for other women, she liked being different from stupider, shallower women. What she called “two crazy kids madly in love with each other” I called one young lady and one kinda-sleezy mid-thirties divorcé with a mid-life crisis that came early.

All right, so this guy’s lame, but I love this girl, so I’ll hope the best for them, I thought. But the chauvinism continued: despite his admission that a bout of depression lead him to indulge in promiscuous sex for a while, he was super judgmental when Karp confessed a racy tale of her own. To me it seemed like the kind of thing most men genuinely interested in a girl would brush off, or even find kind of impressive, especially for someone with a sexual history typical of a Jehovah’s Witness. His judg-y attitude showed me as a female reader that he thought that his emotional and sexual experiences were somehow more legitimate than hers, and that he had more  right to a sexuality. And he actually seemed a little jealous, which was creepy.

Then came the xenophobia (176): “I’ll never understand your American system. Do you realize that in the UK, everybody gets free health care–homeless people go on a short waiting list and get a free flat, and you can live there the rest of your life if you want to, never even have to get a job or anything if you don’t want to. That’s why I was only homeless for a short time. It’s all cradle to grave there. We care about our people there.”

Hmmm, that seemed like strange talk to me coming from a homeless activist. If homeless people have it so easy in the UK with their government handouts and free flats, what’s this dude advocating for? And if the UK is anything like Canada, that whole free health-care schpiel is a lie, too.

I was also really pissed off that he said “WE” care about “OUR” people…as opposed to you and “YOUR” crazy backwards American system.

If you try to feel superior to me because of the country you happened to be born in, I’ll leave you right there.

This man was totally disregarding her feelings when it came to seriously important topics, like having children. He insisted that her fears were irrational and that if it was so bad, women wouldn’t keep doing it. This type of devaluing of women’s experiences really unsettled me. Why is she irrational for voicing her deepest concerns? Because she is a woman? Because she doesn’t feel ready to have your children when you are both essentially homeless?

Ridiculous.

I was fuming at this privileged white British man, with all his sexism, xenophobia and smug superiority. Why had he escaped his great life and free flat in the UK for a fantasy getaway with an e-love? It didn’t make sense.

Then Karp went to meet the douche in his homeland, and suddenly it did.

She found him in his flat with his ex, and suddenly she was no longer the fiancé, but the other woman. She was not allowed in the house, and he was verbally abused by this woman who had been described to Karp as the sweet and loving, but simply not-up-to-my-level ex-gf who could not take a hint and move on. Suddenly it became clear: he was the abused, not the abusee. He could not get out. She owned him.

Much like petty officers who morph into petty tyrants upon promotion (ex. Henry Morton Stanley, General Dyer, most colonizers, really), Doucheface enjoyed being able to escape his shitty life and put himself in the position of power when he ran away to meet his e-fling, as he put on an uppity British air that was never his own. He delved into his would-be life with her, living in a Victorian mansion raising snottishly “cultured” children with shelves full of leather bound (EW!) antique classics. Worst of all, he let her buy into it, too. But he never had any intention of leaving this so-called “ex” of his. Still, he let Karp make sacrifices for him. 

As I finished the book, I still got the impression that Karp is unaware of the full extent of his douchebaggery. In lieu of her unusual ability for self-reflection, and even self-critique, when she reflects on her former romance with The Douche, she becomes all butterflies and irrationality.

I was almost relieved when he left her after abandoning her in the snowstorm (And you’re a homeless activist? Seriously?) because I knew that she wouldn’t do it herself. Which is sad because she can do a lot better than him, and she will.