A feminist take on parenting and politics

RSS

Silent, upbeat, with a handbag full of carrot sticks: who wants to be a New Rules Girl?

Rules girls are Stepford wives with “difference™” stamped on back of their swan-like necks. This book makes me glad we live in an age of rampant oversharing and overexposure.

"So then I changed my relationship status to 'it's complicated'". Photograph: Getty Images

Everyone’s an individual and you’re no exception. It’s this homogenized, uniform idea of “individuality” that Sherrie Schneider and Ellen Fein, authors of The Rules for Dating, managed to sell to women in 1995, persuading them that in order to be “a creature unlike any other” they just had to be exactly the same as everyone else. Creatures unlike any other (CUAOs for short) aren’t just white, heterosexual and middle-class. They have long straight hair (because it’s “feminine”), they’re never overweight (because men “do not want to go out with an overweight girl. Call it sexist, unfair or shallow, but it’s the truth!”) and they wear short skirts, giant hoop earrings and a chunky gold watch (“don’t ask, because we can’t explain it; we just know it works”). They are Stepford wives with “difference™” stamped on back of their swan-like necks. And what’s more, they’re back. 

Eighteen years after young women first were told to be mysterious, sexless CUAOs who kept “him” coming back for more with their totally-natural-except-you-need-to-be-taught–it femininity, the dating scene has become even more complicated. First feminism and its uppity ideas about female independence was to blame, but that’s been sorted (“We remember back in 1995 when readers labeling themselves feminists scoffed at the idea of not calling men and rarely returning their calls. Now not calling men first is considered normal!”). Alas, new-fangled technology is now the problem.

Facebook, instant messaging, texting, and other social technologies have made it almost impossible for women to be elusive and mysterious. Every woman is glued to her cell phone and guys can reach her morning, noon and night. Not exactly hard to get! How exactly can a woman do The Rules under these new circumstances, you ask?

How indeed? You might be out getting your hair extensions and giant earrings, but before you know it you’ll have ruined it all by tweeting a photo of yourself mid-procedure. That’s where Fein and Schneider’s The New Rules: The dating dos and don’ts for the digital generation comes in.

The advent of texting, social networking and internet dating has opened a Pandora’s box of rubbish metaphors about how modern technology is all really bad for us. We’re living in the age of oversharing. How’s a Rules girl to maintain her mystique? Can you be a CUAO when there’s a photo of you pissed on Facebook? What about Twitter? Is it still okay to post a random tweetpic of that mouldy potato with the impressive shoot growth which you found in the back of the kitchen cupboard? (Apparently not, but it’s too late because I’ve done it now.) And it’s no good to think “well, I’ll tweet what I want to tweet”. Mr Right might be looking!

It is a good job I found myself plucked off the shelf back in the Stone Age. These days I’d never make it. While it’s the thing that makes me unable to be a CUAO, I’ve always considered oversharing to be one of my USPs. I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t blabbing and exposing weakness and then trying to make a joke of it. Long before my partner ever asked me on a “date” (by which I mean we had sex), he knew I’d suffered from anorexia, that I’d been in a psychiatric hospital and that I’d once written a Daily Mail Letter of the Week (and now you do, too! But please be kind with this info – there’s still a lot of stigma attached to the last one). It’s not that I don’t respect other people; I do try to avoid causing those uncomfortable TMI moments. But I don’t like unnecessary silence, plus, to be honest, I tend to find humour in the worst things that have happened to me (apart from the Daily Mail thing. Even now that just makes me sad).

A Rules girl, on the other hand, shouldn’t give too much away. Moreover, she shouldn’t tweet “anything mundane or anything negative”:

No one wants to hear that you are “walking the dog” or “had a bad day at work”. Your tweets should be important, newsworthy, witty or uplifting. “Training for Race for Life” is a great example.

(NB I’m not sure whether you’re supposed to use the “great example” if you’re not training for Race for Life. Still, I’m sure I’ll find something worthy to do with all those donations.) Moreover, you shouldn’t necessarily tweet about anything you’re actually interested in:

Don’t tweet about love songs or chick flicks, because it shows too much interest in relationships. You want to seem like you are interested in politics, sports, and the world in general, not just guys!

So you might have just been to see the latest rom-com, but you can still make it look as though all the way through you were distracted by thoughts of David Cameron and Boris Johnson (unless you get too carried away with mentions of Bozza, because it’s all your fault if Mr Right turns into a possessive bully. One Adonis is quoted as saying “don’t make me into the jealous boyfriend you hate”).

Whereas in 1998 I bought The Rules and genuinely tried to follow them, these days I read The New Rules and find them unintentionally hilarious. The sheer brutality and meanness of the thing is mind-blowing, and there’s little else to do but laugh. Amongst other things we get: a page devoted to quotations from “college-aged guys” explaining why they won’t date fat girls; repeat references to how “some women can run corporations or marathons”, turn straw into gold, that kind of thing, but “don’t have the faintest idea” what to do around men; a recommendation that one should emulate Jackie Kennedy Onassis by carrying carrot sticks around in one’s handbag (“Her healthy habits in no way diminished her stature as First Lady and fashion icon, so you shouldn’t be embarrassed to do the same”); advice not to “talk too much in the first few weeks”; and, worryingly, the claim that “we even have Rules fans on Facebook who feel that the book should be handed out at birth or at puberty or at least taught in sex education in high school” (although actually, now that I think of it, it’s not really in keeping with the Rules to be a Rules fan on Facebook, so I wouldn’t trust them). Beneath it all, trying to be a CUAO sounds thoroughly miserable.

Say your CUAO “just lost a job or a guy didn’t call her”. Instead of eating a box of cookies or getting drunk to drown her sorrows, she gets a manicure and pedicure and goes to a speed-dating party or updates her online dating profile.

Now, let’s be honest, which of these sounds most rewarding? Hell, I’ve not even had a major crisis today but just reading this has got me breaking open the Hobnobs and swigging the Pinot Grigio Blush.

It’s books like this – and “advice” like this – that make me glad we live in an age of rampant oversharing and overexposure. I’m glad the digital age poses a problem for those who believe we should keep ourselves under wraps. The lack of humanity in The Rules comes off badly against a world in which people can be cruel, yes, but in which they’re also prepared to laugh at mistakes, to re-formulate the mundane details of daily life as wry narratives, and to engage with people who genuinely are unlike any people they’ve met before. I was going to say “and a world in which people are interested in communication, not endless self-marketing”, but that would probably be pushing it too far.

As the kind of person whose heart sinks whenever she loses a Twitter follower – WHY? Was my potato not good enough for you? – I’m conscious of the alternative popularity contest that’s going on. We want followers. We want stats. We want “likes”. We’re not sure why we want them, but we do. It means we’re alright in the end. And yes, I know this sounds shallow. And yet, even if it’s through a screen – even if it’s through the air, with people I can’t see and whose skin I can’t touch – I prefer these values to those of a judgmental, non-virtual reality that calls for physical perfection and silence in the name of “love”.