There’s a formula to successful self-help: it has to sound simple enough to be accessible, but complex enough that you need to buy the book or pay for the classes. And the 1990s dating bible The Rules was successful: it sold 2 million copies in its heyday, and was translated into 27 languages.
Its tone was that of a short, sharp, necessary telling off for lovelorn American women: you may have lost your way, it said, but we can get you back on track. And the reason women had fallen from the path to true romance? Feminism. Feminism, which was supposedly telling women they didn’t need a man, even though many women very much wanted to make a life with one. Feminism, which had separated women from the old wisdom of the chase.
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Was feminism really so strong at this time? The proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the US constitution had been dead for more than a decade at this point, so possibly not, but facts never tended to trouble the narrative. You might need to be assertive at the office, but when it came to romance, the book was clear: only by playing the passive, feminine role could women make the right match.
Authors Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider were uncompromising in their instructions. Their method worked, they said, but only if you followed every detail. That included: “don’t talk to a man first”, “don’t rush into sex”, “let him take the lead” and “don’t expect a man to change”. In the worldview of The Rules, all feminism’s successes had left women lonely. “We didn’t want to give up our liberation,” wrote Fein and Schneider, “but neither did we want to come home to empty apartments. Why couldn’t we have it all?”
Of course, when I say The Rules was successful, I mean that in the commercial sense. A cynic might point out that if self-help was successful in bringing out all the personal improvements it promised, its vendors would rapidly go out of business. And yet, the market is still going strong, with new purveyors rising up to solve the same old problems.
Today, feminism isn’t just failing to progress — with Roe vs Wade in danger of imminent collapse in the US, and sexual equality law in the UK threatened by the dissolution of the very concept of sex, it seems to be in retreat. And yet, it’s still getting the blame from a new generation of relationship gurus who want women to reclaim their “feminine energy”.
If you’re a straight woman who feels like you’re caught in a romance dead-end, never able to get a man to actually commit, the problem might just be you. This is the argument of “femininity coaches” Persia Lawson and Sami Wunder, who were both recently profiled in the Daily Mail. Women, they argue, are bringing the macho values of the workplace to the bedroom, and they’re paying for it with loneliness.
The first “macho” mistake a woman might make is to jump into bed with a man. Playing it casual, says Lawson, just means you get treated casually. If women want to be valued, they have to play hard to get: “In days gone by, when we understood the importance of femininity, men wooed women and, if they were successful in their pursuit, considered these girlfriends a great prize,” she told the Mail.
The second mistake is that, even if a woman does manage to get a man to stick around after she’s flopped into bed with him, she’s still liable to sabotage herself by acting like the boss of the couple. Women who are used to being in control at work feel like they need to be in control at home as well, and men are happy to sit back and allow it. Wunder calls this impulse “mothering”, and according to Lawson, it creates “all kinds of tensions and resentments” which ultimately doom the relationship.
Fortunately, and by a stunning coincidence, these gurus can not only tell you where you’re going wrong — they can also sell you the solution. That is, assuming you have deep pockets (and assuming feminine energy is compatible with having pockets). Both Lawson and Wunder command up to £10,000 for one-to-one “femininity coaching”. In this, clients can learn vital womanly lore like “leave the man to do the running”, “resist the urge to plan” and “listen instead of talk, and smile”.
There are clearly women out there who are eager to pay for this advice, according to the testimonials on Lawson and Wunder’s websites. But it’s not obvious that they’re getting anything new: all this, pretty much, can be found in The Rules. Both are the perfect self-help formula: simple, yet complex. Catch a man with this one trick: all you have to do is change everything about yourself. Because for all that “feminine energy” is supposedly innate, it seems to take an awful lot of effort to harness it.
The relentless self-command and artifice these systems require must be exhausting. But then, the essence of femininity is pretence. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote of how young women were deformed into artifice by a middle-class education:
“while enervated by confinement and false notions of modesty, the body is prevented from attaining that grace and beauty which relaxed half-formed limbs never exhibit… and having no serious scientific study, if they have natural sagacity it is turned too soon on life and manners.”
Women, in other words, have always expended a great deal of energy on holding themselves back.
Almost two centuries later, we had the vote and the second wave was taking oppression to task at the social, sexual and economic levels; still, the definition of “woman” was something phoney and cultivated. In The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer railed against all this:
“I’m sick of the masquerade. I’m sick of pretending eternal youth. I’m sick of belying my own intelligence, my own will, my own sex. I’m sick of peering at the world through false eyelashes, so everything I see is mixed with a shadow of bought hairs; I’m sick of weighting my head with a dead mane, unable to move my neck freely, terrified of rain, of wind, of dancing too vigorously in case I sweat into my lacquered curls. I’m sick of the Powder Room … I refuse to be a female impersonator. I am a woman, not a castrate.”
In 2021, the ways in which women are expected to impersonate femininity are as creative — and as punishing — as ever. The (horrifyingly dangerous) Brazilian butt lift, to craft outrageous curves of provocation. Lavish lip fillers, which turn female mouths into voluptuous doughnuts clearly meant for kissing and sucking rather than talking. And what can’t be changed on the body can be dealt with using photo editors. The epitome of femininity is a look that no unaltered female body could achieve.
The most depressing take on the modern crop of femininity coaches is that these are women simply doing what savvy members of their sex have done forever: finding a way to monetise sexism, rather than challenge it. From one perspective, it takes an almighty level of neck to make a business of telling other women to pretend to be something they’re not. You don’t need to resolve your conflicts with the man in your life if instead you can remake yourself as the perfect, passive girlfriend.
But, however much I squirm at the political set-dressing of femininity coaches, I cannot — hand on heart — say that all the advice is bad. Smuggled in under the feminism-blaming, you’ll find some stuff that would make even the most devoted second waver give a hearty cheer. Take Lawson’s command that women should eschew “faux casual indifference” towards men. She’s right that, if you’re looking for commitment, it is deranged to pretend that you aren’t, and then be disappointed that men aren’t looking to commit to you. Be clear about what you want, and you’ll attract men who want the same.
Or there’s the rule about not “mothering” a man. The imbalance of housework in heterosexual domesticity is an exhausting statistical truth. That’s not because women are misguidedly wearing the trousers at home, but because despite feminism’s cajoling, men have still not been inspired to pick up the pinny. If you want a relationship where you aren’t doing all the drudgework, don’t start out by doing it. The men you deter would only have been a drain on you anyway.
All this points to the idea that men can’t be reformed. All you can do is avoid the bad ones. Even the hoary old Rules has a chapter titled: “Don’t Expect a Man to Change or Try to Change Him”. This isn’t a supine injunction for women to fit themselves around a man. Instead, it’s an order for women to stop kidding themselves that their self-sacrifice can turn a deficient man into a decent one: if he sucks when you’re dating, he’s not going to un-suck just because he puts a ring on it. If anything, he’ll probably suck harder once the doors are bolted.
Look at this another way. The “femininity coaches” aren’t solving problems created by feminism. They’re solving problems created by femininity itself — the sex role that puts women in the role of universal caregiver. To reconstitute yourself around someone else’s needs, to never asking for more than the almighty man has signalled that he is willing to give — these are very, very feminine ways to behave, and all part of the mass transfer of labour (both the emotional and the physical kinds) from women, to men. A hefty chunk of the femininity coaches’ advice is actually telling women to be less feminine, while giving the appearance of selling a hyper traditional model of gender.
But no one ever lost money by pinning the blame on women. Think of the safety advice doled out to women after the murder of Sarah Everard: don’t put your hair in a ponytail; don’t go out after dark; even, astonishingly, don’t allow a police officer to arrest you. Not one of these things is practical defence against male violence, but they all came more easily to people’s minds than anything which would actually help. But ludicrous as this stuff is, women find reassurance in it. It gives a feeling of power and security, however illusory: if I can follow these rules, I can make it home safe.
There has always been a voracious female market for news of our own deficiencies. Some women sign up to be told they aren’t “leaning in” enough at work. Some pay through the nose to be berated for the sins of their race. And some simply want to hear that love is obtainable if they can get beyond their unappealing, masculine habits. Talk less, smile more. It might take all your powers to reinvent yourself as someone new and amenable, but it’s still less effort than trying to reinvent the world to be fair to women.