Rules, Planets, and Hysteria
By Susana McCollom
Freud is not likely to be
a name found on a woman's list of heroes. While he is recognized as
the pioneer of psychotherapy, Freud cemented historical labels of women
as "hysterical" and "neurotic," and recommended
years of psychoanalysis to cure these ailments. And it was Freud who
asked "what does a woman want?"
Lucky for Freud that he was
around in the 1890s and not today. Women of the 1990s would never tolerate
such putdowns, right? Wrong. The Freudian phenomenon is happening again,
right under our noses. It is a more subtle version of Freud's gender
labeling which leads us back to the same "hysterical" women
whose only hope for curing their natural frailties is years of counseling,
anti-depressants, or a steady diet of self-help publications.
Freud's contemporary followers
have one advantage. The capacity for selling these images of women has
skyrocketed as a result of technological innovations and mass media.
The subtlety of these images and their messages is continuously overlooked
as women's educational, political, and financial strides convince many
that gender equality is becoming a reality. Today, the professional
heirs of Freud are joined by marketing wizards (including women) in
helping self-help book authors and publishers, women's magazines, and
pharmaceutical companies to promote and reinforce the notion that women
need help. And women are buying it.
Self-Help and the Packaging
"When a man goes into
his cave, it is important for a woman to do something enjoyable. Read
a book, do some gardening, take a bath, go for a walk, go shopping or
call a girl friend for a good chat."
No, this is not a quote from
Freud. This advice comes from the contemporary relationship expert,
Dr. John Gray, author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (1992).
Gray asserts that men and women are from different planets, resulting
in communication problems which can only be solved by accepting our
gender differences. What, exactly, are these differences? Chapter Seven,
entitled "Women Are Like Waves," is a prime example. He claims
that "a woman's self-esteem rises and falls like a wave. When she
hits bottom it is time for an emotional housecleaning."
According to Gray, women
exhibit "warning signs" which should alert a man that his
spouse or girlfriend is entering her "well." The warning signs
vary according to a woman's mood. She may feel insecure, resentful,
confused, passive, controlling or demanding. But fortunately for men,
there are 101 ways to "score points" with women (as opposed
to 26 ways to score points with men). The theme is very straightforward:
men must learn to appease women's natural tendency to chatter or cry
at the drop of a pin. A man should "compliment her on how she looks,"
"give her four hugs a day," or "pay more attention to
her than to others in public." Women, on the other hand, need to
resist the urge to constantly nag their mates. They "score big
with men," if "he makes a mistake and she doesn't say I told
you so," "if he disappoints her and she doesn't punish him,"
or if "she really enjoys having sex with him."
Like women in the 1800s,
today's women are characterized as neurotic and lacking any sex drive.
Yet Gray has undoubtedly mastered the self-help book market. Since it
was first published almost four years ago, Men Are From Mars, Women
Are From Venus has remained a best seller in the United States. During
this time, Gray has published additional versions of his planetary discoveries,
further advising men and women on relationship skills both in and out
However, while Gray's appeal
to (mostly) women have deemed him a relationship guru, his advice singles
out married and committed couples. For the single, presumably miserable
women who have failed in their attempts to capture a husband, help has
arrived. In The Rules.-Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of
Mr. Right, Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider guide the single woman in
search of the man of their dreams--or any man, really. Unlike Gray's
book, many women and men alike scoff at The Rules and its "outdated"
What are some of these rules?
First, women must "look the part" by wearing lipstick while
they jog or by getting a nose job if it means a man will find them more
attractive. But equally important is acting the part. Fein and Schneider
advise, "Be feminine ... don't be a loud, knee-slapping, hysterically
funny girl ... when you're with a man you like, be quiet and mysterious,
act ladylike, cross your legs and smile ... You may feel that you won't
be able to be yourself, but men will love it."
The authors acknowledge the
differential responses to their "timeless" advice and respond
to skeptics such as the cynical career woman. "A relationship with
a man is different from a job" claim the authors, "...the
man must take charge. He must propose. We are not making this up--biologically,
he's the aggressor." Fein and Schneider's message is basically
that women must play hard to get. Really hard to get. Even if it means
they have to set a timer to ten minutes to get off the phone first.
The authors claim that "when you do The Rules, he somehow thinks
you're the sexiest woman alive! ... you don't have to worry about being
abandoned, neglected, or ignored!"
Fein and Schneider promote
and encourage behavior which polarizes men and women. Essentially, the
authors attempt to reinstate the "say no but mean yes" mentality
that oppressed women for years and which only recently, through advocacy,
education, and policy changes, has begun to subside. So much for the
vindication of women's rights. According to these authors, women are
too stupid to know they have any. While seemingly ridiculous, The Rules
remains a best seller and occupies the authors with a string of public
Women As the Target Market
The irony within today's
self-help mania is that neither Fein, Schneider, nor most men are responsible
for placing this book on the best-seller list. Nor are they the ones
raving about gender planetary differences. On the contrary, women are
the die-hard supporters of the self-help book market
Are women buying the notion
that it is natural for them to need a stack of self-help books? Recent
research suggests that anxiety, the nation's leading psychological problem,
strikes twice as many women as men. Psychologists, women's magazines,
and the general media have seized this finding as they eagerly promote
self-help books, articles, and anti-depressants to women. Through their
advertising they reinforce the concept that women are inherently neurotic--ringing
the 1890s bell louder than ever.
The pharmaceutical industry
also contributes to the perpetuation of this neurotic image. Historically,
"female" diseases were treated through physiological methods
including hysterectomies, a recommended cure for hysteria. Freud's predecessors
also suggested hours of bathing to treat hysteria, often resulting in
life-threatening dehydration. While these remedies are likely to be
perceived as inhumane today, anti-depressants have become the contemporary
physiological remedy for "female" anxiety. By targeting women
in college, at work, and at home, drug companies join the self-help
industry in selling and profiting from the image of the neurotic female.
We've Come A Long Way?
Although the media and self-help
industry produce and perpetuate negative female stereotypes, apparently
much of our society remains willing to accept them. Women--many of whom
are encouraged to undergo years of counseling and physiological treatment
as they did during Freud's era--are the most likely to accept and perpetuate
such stereotypes by succumbing to the means through which they are marketed,
purchasing stacks of self-help books and magazines as fast as they are
means including education, sports, and community involvement, is less
interesting to the profit-oriented media. Such pursuits may enhance
women's self-esteem, but they don't sell as many books. Even exercise
or a healthy diet are not sold to women as ways to relieve stress, but
rather as methods to lose unattractive pounds. The ultimate message
is that there is something wrong with women, either mentally or physically.
It is unfortunate that negative
female stereotypes are continuously accepted in our society. More tragic,
however, is that so many women acquiesce to the subtle but massive marketing
of Freud's depiction of them. His labels are bought again and again,
in printed or bottled versions of products that cause too many women
to accept their own worst self-perceptions and make many men perceive
them as the basket cases they were--and still are--advertised to be.
Research may show that women are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety
as men, but if this finding is accepted at face value and is mass marketed,
it not only implies that psychological problems plague a huge number
of women today--it indicates that we have a serious social problem and
a potential self-fulfilling prophecy.