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.

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”.

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

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Donald Trump's rise is a reaction to Obama's two terms as president

This week, from Barack Obama’s legacy to memories of Angela Carter.

My children can’t believe that I grew up in a racially segregated Alabama, or that I reported on the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa (for this magazine). One of their earliest memories is of helping a family friend sell coffee and hot chocolate in sub-zero temperatures to the crowds celebrating the inauguration of Bar­ack Obama in Washington in January 2009.

My past is ancient history to them. I strongly recommend that anybody who still feels that way watches In the Good Ol’ Days, the YouTube trailer for a documentary called 13th by Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma. It splices physical abuse of black people at Donald Trump’s rallies (and his taunts about how they would have been “carried out on a stretcher” in the past) with documentary footage from the 1960s. It’s chilling.

When Obama won the Democratic nomination for president, I went back to my old school in Montgomery to see how attitudes had changed. It was no longer segregated, of course, but it was still predominantly white. A former classmate told me that when he was five, the family handyman got chucked over a bridge and left for dead by the Ku Klux Klan. We never heard these stories in school. Then I met the progressive headmaster, who assured me that everything was non-discriminatory now. But, as I left, I was escorted to my car by the school bursar, who told me he didn’t trust Obama because he was a “Muslim”. The way he said it made it sound like the N-word to me.


Going South

There has been surprisingly little discussion about the extent to which the rise of Trump has been specifically a reaction to Obama’s two-term presidency. Yes, we have heard how Obama’s legitimacy has been questioned by the “birther” movement and we have listened to Trump crow about forcing the first African-American president to produce his papers (or rather his birth certificate). But when even a former grand wizard of the KKK – an absurd title – says that Trump talks “a lot more radically” than he does, it is impossible to ignore the racial dimension to this election.

The two big states that Trump still hopes to swing his way are Pennsylvania – memorably described by the Clinton adviser James Carville as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with “Alabama in between” – and Ohio, where my mother was born. She is from the northern Democratic stronghold of Cleveland; Cincinnati, she used to sniff, was the South. She didn’t mean geographically.


Bill and Hill

There are many good reasons to be wary of Trump but I have never felt comfortable with Hillary Clinton. The governor of Alabama in my day was Lurleen Wallace, who was in office because her notoriously racist husband was ineligible to run for a consecutive term. She didn’t even bother to disguise that she was a proxy candidate and ran as Mrs George C Wallace, while he became known as “the first gentleman of Alabama”.

Admittedly, Hillary Clinton is far more her own woman than Lurleen ever was but Bill Clinton, remember, is a former Southern governor, of Arkansas. Bill and Hill had the idea long ago of a “twofer” run at the White House – and they’ll definitely have known about the Wallaces’ example. Alas, it’s too late to dwell on how much better it would be if the first female president of the United States hadn’t already been its first lady and Bill Clinton hadn’t set his sights on returning as first gentleman. But it’s Trump v Clinton and, thus, no contest.


Granny knew best

Enough about the US elections, hard though it is to tear our eyes away from the car crash. Last week, I went to the launch party at Daunt Books of Edmund Gordon’s wonderful biography of Angela Carter, a literary heroine of mine. I was a young publicist at Virago in the late 1980s when I visited Carter at home in Clapham, south London, where she was living with her much younger husband, Mark, a potter, and their little boy. She looked like a magnificently eccentric granny to me, with her shock of thick, wavy, grey hair. I thought that she was ancient because she’d had a baby at 42 but, as ever, she was just ahead of her time.


Partial eclipse

I’d no idea until I read The Invention of Angela Carter just how many Virago novelists she had nurtured. Pat Barker, for instance, the author of the Regeneration trilogy about the First World War, was one of her protégées. The photographs, though, show Carter with the young men who eventually eclipsed her: Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro. She taught Ishiguro creative writing at the University of East Anglia and introduced him to
her agent, Deborah Rogers. He told me at the party that there were only half a dozen students on the course with him and the university couldn’t be bothered to find enough people to fill the places the following year. Yet it has since become the stuff of legend.


Lost treasure

Carmen Callil, Carter’s great friend and the founder of Virago, was also at the party. She told me that her joy in publishing faded when Carter was offered only £60,000 for her last novel before she died of lung cancer in 1992. By then, the men – Rushdie, McEwan, Amis, et al – were getting far bigger advances of several hundred thousand pounds, even though she was every bit as good as them (or better).

At the end of her life, her thoughts were on money and how her “two boys” – her husband and son – would manage without her. She told her literary executor, Susannah Clapp, to give permission to everything and anyone who wanted to use her work for commercial purposes, however naff or vulgar. Her last book, by the way, was to have been a fictional life of Adèle Varens, the vivacious young ward of Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre. How I would have loved to read it.

Sarah Baxter is a former political editor of the New Statesman and the deputy editor of the Sunday Times

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood