Helping us help ourselves

Found through Jezebel, Kiri Blakeley of Forbes writes an article about the eternal popularity of self-help books for women.

It’s easy to see why the self-help genre, especially the relationship category, might inspire some snickers–or cringes. The titles alone are enough to embarrass: Women Who Love Too Much; Men Like Women Who Like Themselves; Smart Women, Foolish Choices; Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them;He’s Just Not That Into You. But 13.5 million of these types of self-help books were sold last year, a 22% increase from the year before, according to Nielsen BookScan. And in 2008, women purchased 74% of books sold in the relationship and family category, according to book consumer trends tracker R.R. Bowker.

What gives? Underneath the powerful confident career woman is there really just a desperate neurotic who hopelessly chases, is married to or is separating from a jerky guy?

While “self-help” books can offer advice for anything from acing job interviews to getting over shyness, the article focuses mostly on dating and relationship advice, which, along with dieting books are the most popular of the genre with female readers.  It asks not just why they’re popular with women, but why they’re equally unpopular with men, and the answer seems pretty clear: because as women we are taught from an early age that there’s some aspect of us that always needs to be improved, whether it be our looks, our weight, the way we dress, how we talk to people, how we present ourselves to our families, our children, our friends, our romantic partners, our co-workers, our bosses.  No matter how well we think we’re doing, there is always room for improvement.  Men, on the other hand, are given a different kind of short shrift: they’re encouraged to be set in their ways and not to change for anyone or anything until they’re damn good and ready.

I must admit to being a little baffled at the continued success of the self-help industry, mainly because it plays into the notion that women are generally incapable of thinking for ourselves.  This is evident when you consider two of the most successful of these books currently on the market: He’s Just Not That Into You, which offers advice that should be patently obvious (“If he doesn’t call you after the first date, he’s probably not interested in a second date”), and Skinny Bitch, a snarky, foul-mouthed manifesto on veganism disguised as a dieting advice book, with weight loss tips that come within a breadstick’s width of promoting anorexia.  Both books suggest that women are daft, oblivious creatures who need everything carefully spelled out to them.  At least He’s Just Not That Into You keeps it relatively simple, as the majority of other relationship advice books make things far more complicated than they need to be, suggesting everything from good old-fashioned passive-aggressive mind games to literally writing out lists and charts with your partner, falling just short of giving him a gold star sticker if he remembers to take out the garbage.  No wonder men don’t want to read this shit, the authors tend to treat their readers as if they’re children who need their hands held through every aspect of their lives.

Dating advice books can be easily boiled down to this: “fuck him.”  That’s what my dating advice book would be called, Fuck Him, by Dr. Gena Radcliffe (joke partially stolen from Denis Leary).  I don’t mean literally have sex with him, I mean if you go out on a date with a guy and don’t hear back from him afterward, fuck him, you’re better off.  If you’re dating someone for a little while and he keeps pulling the hot and cold “I don’t have a grip on my emotions” thing, fuck him.  Unless you get off on that sort of thing, in which case enjoy the inevitable heartache it’ll cause.  Women shouldn’t have to be told these things, they’ve just been conditioned to believe that if a date or potential match doesn’t work out, it’s because of something we did wrong, and it’s up to us to obsess over every little detail of it and figure out what it was.  Again, it’s left up to us to be the instigators of change and improvement, while men are just written off as stubborn, mysterious beings impervious to change.

Once they’re actually involved, the most useful piece of advice anyone can apply to improving their relationship is “talk to your partner.”  An advice book that consists of four words, without any well-meaning but empty platitudes and a chatty “just us girls” tone probably won’t sell much, but it’s true.  You shouldn’t need to “entice” him into doing more around the house or “trick” him into proposing to you.  If your partner needs to step up to the plate and help out more with household chores, you should be able to tell him “Honey, I really need you to help me with this.”  Old-fashioned social standards be damned, if you want to get married, ask your partner “Hey, honey, have you given any thought to our future?”  Who wants to say they tricked or manipulated their partner into marrying them, or that they had to treat him like a third grader to get him to clean the toilet? There’s no victory there.  The real victory is taking control of your own life, without the help of someone shilling a book on Oprah or The View, and treating your partner like an adult.

If the two of you are incapable of just sitting down and talking about the state of your relationship without a bunch of plotting and scheming beforehand, you may already be beyond help, and that seems to be what fans of relationship advice books fear.  It’s that fear that authors like Marianne Williamson and John Gray capitalize on, promoting the idea that their books can “save” a relationship.  I honestly have no idea how many marriages are pulled back from the brink of destruction thanks to books that describe men as being “like rubber bands” and comparing women to waves; perhaps it was mutual eye-rolling over this corny shit that brings couples closer together.  It doesn’t really matter what the end result is, as long as the author profits from it.  Just as we should know that there’s no such thing as a “dating expert,” we should know that dating and relationship advice book authors really aren’t our friends, they don’t know us, and they don’t know what’s best for us.

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One Response to “Helping us help ourselves”

  1. …. you’re my hero.

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