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How Rebecca Eckler’s misguided relationship advice hurts us all

How Rebecca Eckler’s misguided relationship advice hurts us all

How to Raise a BoyfriendDoubleday Canada

Oh, gender essentialism. Friend to marketing tactics and sitcom stereotypes everywhere.  For those of you unaware, gender essentialist approaches assume that men and women are fundamentally different, and that the difference is the same every time. Essentialism is always about binaries and never about overlap. Blue and pink. Mars and Venus. He brings home the bacon and she makes him a sandwich. Essentialism makes lady legs touchably smooth and real men pound brewskies during the Super Bowl. It haunts prime time, triggering laugh tracks with its doughy, clueless husbands and shrill judging wives. It’s the reason we see trend pieces about how women can be good managers and dads can stay at home with the kids. It’s the reason why the media feels justified in questioning a woman’s political leadership when she’s subject to PMS, and it’s the reason why men who are not primary breadwinners or sports fanatics are often made to feel inadequate. It’s also the foundation for Rebecca Eckler’s latest book, a guide for women to raise their men like toddlers.

When I brought home my review copy of Eckler’s How to Raise a Boyfriend, my partner (who has in no way been raised by me) asked genuinely, “Is that a satire?” No such luck. I really wanted to give Eckler a fair shake, the benefit of the doubt, to not judge her book by its cover, its marketing, and, well, everything that everyone has already said about it. Eckler — novelist, columnist, and contributor to publications such as Elle, Fashion, Maclean’s, and the National Post — is the target of so much scorn that it brings out a protective, maternal  (essentialist) impulse in me. She has already assured her detractors that the book  is actually funny and in no way sexist. But the problem with my urge to defend Eckler is that she shows so much patronizing disdain for not just the opposite sex but also her own, stereotyping everyone  into two distinct camps of the disappointing (boys) and the disappointed (girls.) The book manages to put the responsibility of good male behaviour on women, as if we’ve all been collectively  failing them by not being clear about the fact that they’re failures. It’s not just a book that perpetuates the idea that men are idiots, but that women have no other role than to constantly correct them.

In How to Raise a Boyfriend’s privileged universe there are oblivious men and hard-done-by women. There are women who get bikini waxes, who spend entire days preparing for their man’s approval, and who leave subtle hints about the bracelet they want for Valentine’s Day. All women in this universe have given birth or will one day give birth. There are certainly no homosexuals. All couples have or need housekeepers and nannies, and should have two bathrooms and two televisions. How do they find money for such relationship savers? “You always have money if you give something up.” I’m sure there are people who strongly disagree with that classist, insular solution.

Eckler’s guide, divided into various sections of abhorrent male behaviour, features the expertise of her therapist, girlfriends, bikini waxer, ex-boyfriends, and someone’s seemingly “perfect” husband (this character’s advice generally consisting of “men should say what women want to hear”). It’s devoted to policing the behaviour Eckler dislikes — behaviour that she believes is widespread thanks to her scientific process of “polling my gal pals.” As a result, she makes sweeping generalizations about the sexes, including, for starters, that women are perpetually dissatisfied harpies who need excessive compliments, presents, cards, and apologies, and who will use a headache as an excuse to get out of sex. Men, on the other hand, are domestic disasters who have no table manners, bathroom etiquette,  fashion sense, or intuition. They can’t give compliments, can’t say “please” or “thank you,” can’t ask for directions or drive without terrifying her; they never clean up after themselves, and are too incompetent to grocery shop. The binaries continue with “men like porn, women find it annoying” and “men don’t understand that women have no concept of a gas tank.” All men are little boys when they get sick, but they will ignore a woman’s illness. Men like sex with the lights on and women don’t (buy a dimmer, ladies). A car is an extension of a man’s penis. Men don’t pick up cues. Men are disgusting. Men are evil. Men are incompetent.

By the time I got to the section that distinguishes “Pink Jobs” (doing the laundry, cleaning the bathroom, stocking the pantry) and “Blue Jobs” (fixing and carrying stuff), it was pretty clear that Eckler has no interest in doing anything other than furthering lazy, offensive stereotypes. Worst of all, her expectation is that we laugh hysterically and nod emphatically when she dredges up the most archaic beliefs imaginable. I haven’t met these clueless men that she giggles about (although I did take into account a friend’s comment that “saying you don’t know any men like this is like saying you don’t know anyone who voted for Bush while living in New York City”). I instead have met people of both genders with talents and flaws, with bad habits and varying skill sets. I’ve also met people who refer to this book’s brand of “empowerment” as “man-hating bile” — the very kind of backward thinking that those seeking true equality fight against. Not only does it do injustice to men, it also sets back the work of so many women who want to further an honest conversation about gender equality.

The solution to relationship incompatibility the book delivers? Passive aggressive behaviour, lies, tricks, and a patronizing reward system that usually involves the promise of oral pleasure (his, natch). I did a little highly scientific Eckler-style polling of my own and asked one man what he thought of the book’s shameless generalizing of half the population. He managed to see the silver lining: “I could get behind the whole blowjobs-for-training thing. If I’m gonna be ‘raised’ and infantilized anyhow, I might as well get head out of it.”

While How to Raise a Boyfriend occasionally advocates a woman communicating her needs, in general this how-to falls back on rom-com-ish trickery to ply what she wants out of a deluded male. Then there’s the plain ridiculous, such as the idea that men should give their women foot rubs in public as a display of their love, and that a woman can use the phrase “You can see your man boobs” as an acceptable way to detract a man from wearing a shirt she dislikes. Did you know it’s perfectly fine to threaten to throw out a man’s clothes if he leaves them on the floor? The entire book justifies and advocates  female neediness, and then devotes an entire chapter to complain how it’s a turnoff when men are demanding.

Perhaps the most disturbing and damaging part of Eckler’s guide is how frequently she looks at sex as reward, penalty, or bribery.  Promises of sexual activity are frequently used to coerce men into “acceptable behaviour,” while threats of sexual withdrawal are used to punish them. Problems can be tackled by dressing up in a sexy outfit — apparently acquiring a nurse’s uniform is a good way to treat a “man cold.” This notion that women “surrender” sex to their men because their men have been good is not only archaic, it’s also extremely problematic. When women are asked to believe they are “gifting” their sexuality, the pleasure and power in it is lost, and the potential for female sexual agency is removed. Sex is many things to many people, but the last thing it should be is part of a barter system to acquire respect and admiration.

Worst of all, the book makes frequent references to “taking one for the team,” which means having sex when you don’t want to, for what I assume is the greater good of the relationship. The idea is not only absurd, it’s dangerous. At one point sex is compared to visiting the dentist — “You hate going, but you feel great about it afterwards.” This is not exactly surprising from someone who thinks talking about sexual wants and needs over coffee with her partner is “weird.”

So why bother reviewing How to Raise a Boyfriend? Why the dissection when we could instead have a laugh over the premise of promising a blow job if he carries the groceries? While it’s easy to dismiss its contents as light fun and not something to be taken so seriously, I think it’s important to examine how these kinds of mainstream books shape our dialogue about privilege, equality, and gender relations. The more we allow these kinds of messages into our conversations about healthy relationships, however comedic their intention, the more we excuse disrespect, neglect, and borderline abuse as “just the way men are.” We also put the onus on women to police the men in their lives, as if it’s our responsibility to rein in their problematic actions. However unintentional, these messages feed victim-blaming as a reaction to real abuse. In fact, the entire book can be summed up as follows: “If you got into a long-term relationship with a jerk, here’s how to lie, manipulate, nag, and patronize him into making it tolerable.” How is this a paradigm for healthy relationships? Whether or not Eckler is attempting to be “so funny” with her portrait of men as hapless toddlers, she’s communicating a dangerous message. And regardless where readers fall on the spectrum of gender politics, I expect most will agree that communication is a better strategy than patronizing stereotypes and passive aggressive mind-fucks.

Well-executed memoir succeeds because it connects with readers and ultimately makes them feel less alone. It doesn’t exist in myopic isolation — it understands, promotes, and fits into a larger discussion. Whether told seriously or humourously, readers experience a kinship with the author’s story. They feel inspired to overcome, find solutions, and expand their lives. How to Raise a Boyfriend fails because it should be very much alone in its opinions; they’re divisive, damaging, and prevent a real parity between the sexes that so many of us strive for. It becomes pretty apparent that Eckler has written a book about her and her friend’s problems with men, not a book that succeeds in improving more balanced relationships. For the majority of us, it’s simply far better to rely on the genderless approach of “don’t spend your time with someone who treats you like garbage.”

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  • galpal

    rebecca eckler belongs to the subset of journalists who can’t write, don’t have a story to tell but somehow landed a job because they are manipulative and tapped into a ridiculous genre of me-first writing.
    that time has even been given to reviewing her tripe, i fear, may in some way validate its existence.
    never mind. the reviewer is clever. i feel for the time she had to spend reading the book and writing about it — time that would have been much better spent on just about anything.
    rebecca eckler should be ignored. maybe, then, she would go away.

  • http://www.box761.com Box 761

    Such a great review. I was worried that I was alone in my feelings about R Eckler’s “oevre”.

  • Alan Morris

    I can’t believe this isn’t satire. Eckler is gonna give an interview in a year – like Joachim Phoenix – and say, “it was just performance art…”.

    Has to be.

    How could someone who is so well published in this country write this sad book and have it not be satire?

  • http://www.maxfawcett.ca Max Fawcett

    There’s a bright side here, folks: this book serves as an almost infallible human litmus test. After all, if somebody owns this book – date, friend, or otherwise – it serves as incontrovertible evidence that they’re a shallow, self-absorbed, intellectually stunted bore.

  • http://www.picklemethis.com Kerry Clare

    I love this: “For the majority of us, it’s simply far better to rely on the genderless approach of ‘don’t spend your time with someone who treats you like garbage.’”

    A great piece. Thank you.

  • http://www.sexytypewriter.com Sofi

    Sooooo many high fives, SMF!

    Eckler has been terrible for a very, very long time.

    • Nic Boshart

      +1

  • Jenny Cooper

    Eckler’s writing has been a fascination of mine for a very long time. I always hope that one day she will write something that is smart, funny and perhaps not cringe worthy. This day has never come. And I doubt ever will.

    It makes me downright sad for her that her experience with sex and relationships has been so self destructive. I am even sadder than someone out there actually gave her a book deal for this rubbish.

  • Amelia

    “The book manages to put the responsibility of good male behaviour on women, as if we’ve all been collectively failing them by not being clear about the fact that they’re failures. It’s not just a book that perpetuates the idea that men are idiots, but that women have no other role than to constantly correct them.”

    ^ cf. The Victorians, “The Angel in the House,” etc.

    Thanks, Rebecca, for taking us back 150 years. Now please go away.

  • http://www.wornjournal.com serah-marie

    Not much more to say than THANK YOU STACEY MAY FOWLES for being one smart feminist and not being afraid to show it.

  • Sylvia A.

    The big question is why is Rebecca Eckler so popular? Because there’s an audience out there (of women) that buys these books and that responds to her. I don’t believe that she’s stupid. She provokes responses like yours and all kinds of discussions because she mirrors something in us (not all of us) that is already there. She says the things that (some — the emphasis is always on some) people think but would never dare to say out loud. And she pisses us off because her views are offensive and the place that she comes from is horribly unattractive and crass but it’s there and there are readers who find affirmation in her drivel. Not many people simply have the guts to say things that she says.

    She’s essentially a high-end sex worker doling out sex for favours and money and good behaviour, using it as currency, not an instrument of pleasure. Call her out on that, not on being stupid. She’s not stupid. She’s calculating and she knows her audience. Her girlfriends all think in the same way, seeing men as sources of cash and compliments at their best, and, as you said, giant toddlers at their worst.

    I recommend the article Amy Chua and the “Tiger Mother” from the New Yorker — it addresses the problematic subject/ author but it also expands to showcase the issue in a much broader and interesting geopolitical context. http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2011/01/31/110131crbo_books_kolbert?currentPage=1

    • http://www.stratasfear.com Stephenson Price

      If the hypothetical men in the world of the book are giant toddlers at their worst, wouldn’t those also be the ones most likely to dote on someone with cash and compliments when they’re at their best.

      Maybe the whole thing is just wishful thinking on the author’s part . . .

    • metoo

      wow you nailed that!

    • http://www.smartygirl.net jennifer amey

      my question would be: is she really that popular? there seems to be a tendency among the media in this country to anoint certain chosen ones as spokespeople, and then prop them up endlessly regardless of the value of what they produce. i think it’s horrifying that she continues to get published, but how are the books selling? i can only imagine that she inked a multi-book deal and the actual print runs are vanishingly small.

  • HJD

    Thanks for taking this book on, Walrus.

    Eckler is one of those “voices” we’ve frankly heard more than enough from, given the lack of substance and value she brings to the table. She and her ilk seemed dated 15 years ago; can we dispense with this entire genre of weak, pointless Canuck B-list confessional “authorship” already? We have real writers and real thinkers in this damned country that have far more on offer.

  • robert smith

    nice work stacey now get back to your own work you crazy topic gal

  • Mildred Moffat

    The comments on the Walrus blog are literally impossible for me to read. Have you guys heard of contrast? Grey on grey isn’t working for me.

    • Jen

      If you have an argument to make in support of Eckler’s book, by all means, you should make it.

      • Mildred Moffat

        Sorry, I couldn’t read your comment. Please phone me and we can chat.

  • http://clarehitchens.wordpress.com Clare Hitchens

    Fantastic piece. We need more writers like you who are willing to pull this shit apart.

  • Grace

    I’m not going to give my mental energy to the “book” being discussed, I’m just going to say thank you to Stacey for a great article on what must have been a painfully frustrating topic. Smart, restrained, and well-written — Hooray Stacey!

  • Skylar Suede

    Great review. It’s seems to me Greg Behrendt did the same thing…and he got a movie deal out of it.

  • Shannon

    Thank you for this insightful critique. Eckler gives me a rash.

  • Christine

    Wow, I really thought this book was a satire! I mean look at the cover. How can anyone take it seriously? It scares me that even one person might take it seriously.

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  • Jeremy

    How I wish her “hate” blog was still around. It was a masterpiece, completely nailing her for the shallow, soulless fool that she is.

  • mark

    Eckler is Canada’s version of Anne Coulter.

  • JuliaChanter

    Great piece! Thanks for writing intelligently about popular fiction. I think it’s so important to think critically about books that are “just for fun” and “not to be taken seriously.” I’m also excited to see so many feminists are rallying against a book that makes men look terrible (to say nothing of the assumptions made about women).

    Also, this book just looks BORING.

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  • Fedup

    I stopped reading her long ago and nothing can make me change my mind.

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