Friday, 13 September 2013

Why Gender-Specific Relationship Advice is almost always Terrible


In a not altogether surprising development, it turns out Google does not produce many results in response to the search terms ‘gender specific relationship advice bullshit’. I aim to contribute to that this week.
            Let me start by defining my terms. When I say ‘advice’, I’m not talking about every suggestion ever offered from one friend to another – I’m really concerned with popular published books which present themselves as unfaultable guides to dating, as well as columns and articles in high-profile publications such as Cosmopolitan.com. By ‘gender-specific’, I mean that the advice is written specifically with either gender normative females or males in mind. This code-of-conduct genre has been present and popular in western culture possibly for as long as writing itself; in the bible and other religious texts, in the literature instructing young women on proper marriage conduct in medieval societies, and eventually in the self-help literature we recognize today. These texts have a longstanding tradition of espousing the ideas of popular religious and social movements and other trends, with the idea that there is a ‘right way’ of being generally functioning as a driving force at least as much as the genuine intention to help people[1].
            In the field of relationship advice, authors have the opportunity to use these well-established conventions to capitalize on the insecurities of the unhappily single population. There are no specific criteria that a person must meet before marketing their advice and ideologies in this way. This is an industry wherein demonstrated happiness and success counts for much more than a qualification in psychology or counseling, in spite of the fact that these are the disciplines an author toys with when promising a successful behavioral model. Bestselling titles such as The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right have been penned by authors whose main qualification is that they are happily married (ironically, one of the co-authors of this particular book got divorced a few years after it was published)[2]. But my gripe has less to do with the backgrounds of the people responsible for relationship advice literature and more to do with the content of the literature itself.
As times have changed, so have the dominant attitudes in our relationship conduct literature, but some notable trends have persisted. The offering of relationship advice to a select audience based on gender is perhaps the most obvious, and as I see it, the most problematic of these. In the first place, this places all of the responsibility for romantic conduct and communication on one partner instead of acknowledging it as a mutual concern. Again, The Rules gives excellent examples of this behavior: included among the 35 rules are stipulations against initiating conversation with a man, answering his phone calls, meeting him more than once a week and ‘rushing into’ sex, i.e., anything which would suggest mutual attraction[3]. This anti-feminist manifesto places all of the responsibility for initiating and maintaining a connection onto the man, under the false assumption that returning the affections of a suitor will make a woman seem easier to ‘get’ and therefore less valuable.
In this excellent takedown of the ‘hard to get’ game, Rachel Kay Albers identifies how saying ‘no’ to a man when you really just want to make him work a little harder not only runs the risk of convincing a genuinely nice, appealing man that his advances are unwanted, but also encourages men to continue pursuing a woman in spite of her indirectly or directly telling him not to[4]. The Rules and other self-help literature that instructs women to manipulate men by pretending not to return their affections perpetuate social systems wherein it is expected that a woman will always say no to romantic and sexual advances, and thereby devalues genuine non-consent.
Fortunately, The Rules and subsequent books by the same authors have received a fair amount of criticism along with their success. The same is not really true of popular publications that offer bits and pieces of advice in the forms of articles and agony aunt columns, for the simple reason that it’s harder to critique something that is constantly in production than a finite, finished work. Cosmopolitan magazine and its website is a prime example of a publication that doesn’t get its fair share of criticism, especially considering its current standing as the largest-selling young woman’s magazine in the world.
Cosmopolitan.com runs a relationship advice column which promises ‘from navigating man trouble to helping your love life go the distance, we've got all the relationship advice you'll ever need’. From a quick scroll through the archives, ‘man trouble’ appears to include male selfishness, jealousy, inability to communicate and insensitivity[5], all of which I hasten to affirm are qualities not inherent to males – only to assholes. As suggested in the description, these articles tend to suggest ways of navigating around a partner’s unacceptable behavior rather than addressing it directly and openly. He’s pushing you to get engaged, and you’re not ready? Accept a friendship ring as a symbol that you’re ‘taken’, while keeping yourself from being committed to future marriage[6]. He can’t deal with you using a vibrator? Buy a couple’s toy[7]. To me these seem like ways of treating symptoms while ignoring the problems that produce them. If a person is fundamentally jealous, insecure or selfish, no single conversation (or way around a conversation) is going to cure that. Constantly associating these traits with men also has the consequence of perpetuating unhelpful gender stereotypes, and encourages the young female reader to accept that her partner will always be a little bit useless, in spite of her best Comso-approved efforts. On the other side of the coin, the magazine frequently criticizes women for being too insecure[8], with no regard for the ways that the magazine slams celebrities for their fashion and beauty choices (have a look at the Sexy Vs. Skanky section) and constant make-up advertisements contribute to this.
            What upsets me most about these publications and their competitors is that they promote the already popular idea that men and women occupy inherently different internal universes, and that any attempt they make at interacting will always be a process of translation. Women don’t need Cosmopolitan to tell them ‘what his weekend texts really mean’[9] (or what he secretly wants in bed[10]), they need the confidence to address these questions to the only person actually qualified to answer them. And that confidence does not develop from reading literature that profits from the idea of ultimately insurmountable gender difference.

Ps. Anonymous commenters and commenters who struggle with word verification (looking at you Megan) should be able to leave feedback more easily now. Yay!



[1] Hammond, Lindsey A. Women and Self-help Books. Michigan: ProQuest Information and Learning Company, 2007.

[2] "Ellen Fein." Wikipedia.org. Accessed September 13, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Fein .
[3] “The Rules”. Wikipedia.org. Accessed Sept 14, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rules
[4] “Why I never play hard to get”. Feminspire.com. Accessed Sept 14, 2013.
[5] “Relationship Advice For Women”. Cosmopolitan.com. Accessed Sept 14, 2013.
[6] “How to Get Your Guy to Stop Fixating on Random Sh*t Already”. Cosmopolitan.com. Accessed Sept 14, 2013.
[7] Ibid
[8] “Good to be Insecure? Uh, We Don’t Think So” http://www.cosmopolitan.com/celebrity/news/insecure-women-better-at-dating
[9] “The Top 9 Man Texts That Confuse and Enrage Us”. Cosmopolitan.com. Visited Sept 14, 2013. http://www.cosmopolitan.com/sex-love/dating-advice/confusing-texts-from-guys#slide-1
[10] “What He Secretly Wants in Bed”. Cosmopolitan.com. Visited Sept 14, 2013. http://www.cosmo.ph/sex/mattress-moves/what-he-secretly-wants-in-bed/

6 comments:

  1. "... And that confidence does not develop from reading literature that profits from the idea of ultimately insurmountable gender difference."

    RIGHT. It's so hopelessly ironic that these books and columns, while ostensibly trying to bridge a gap, only serve to widen that gap by insisting on its inescapable existence, as it were.

    But I guess "JUST FUCKING TALK TO YOUR PARTNER" isn't a very sustainable business model. >_<

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  2. Sometimes I can read those advice columns for the sheer hilariousness that that would be the thing that your partner or a person of the opposite sex would want.

    I'd have to agree that I like the "communicate with your partner"-model way, waaaaaaay better. Going both ways, no "this is what he secretly wants" things unless he, or she, actually wants to keep it secret.

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  3. Olle: no, it's not. :( I felt a bit cynical saying that the self-help industry depends and feeds on people's insecurities, but it does. And if 'The Rules' had solved the problems it promised to, they wouldn't have been able to write several successful sequels. :P

    Marie: Me too! I hope I never stop being able to laugh at this kind of thing. The alternative is getting angry or getting sad and neither of those are much fun.

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  4. "all of which I hasten to affirm are qualities not inherent to males – only to assholes"

    Okay, I'm starting to like this aggressive style of writing.

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  5. Thanks Andy. I feel conflicted about it. I chose 'asshole' because it's a gender-neutral insult, even though I would never say it in real life. :P

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  6. Awesome blog!Really like it!
    I am in a great difficulty my relation with my hubby is going really bad.I am really tense and i wanted your suggestions.I have visited one site loveinaclick.org/
    I am really confused whether i should leave him or continue my relation?

    ReplyDelete