How Rebecca Eckler’s misguided relationship advice hurts us all
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.”