If there is a book that can be accurately judged by its cover, it is How to Raise a Boyfriend by Rebecca Eckler. It’s a “humour/non-fiction” book offering “sound” relationship advice based on the idea that men are just like children, desperately in need of raising by women. If not the cover or its premise, surely we can judge it by its marketing. (An earnest quote from this video: “You have to disguise the nagging.”)
Not according to Eckler. When people starting talking about How to Raise a Boyfriend in overwhelmingly negative ways, she decided that everyone talking about her must be grumpy. I dropped some real talk. Eckler told me that I was wrong, that her book is funny, and that I had to read it. Okay, Eckler, I thought. Game on. (This is part of my explanation why you are reading about a blatantly sexist book on a feminist blog.)
It took me two long weeks to read How to Raise a Boyfriend. This is because a) I was too embarrassed to read it in public (I see you subway lurkers, reading over my shoulder), and b) I couldn’t make it through a paragraph without scowling. In Rebeckler Land, everyone can afford cleaning ladies and nannies (or should, because “something can always be given up”), as well as regular psychotherapy and body hair removal. No one is gay. Kids are everywhere. Every fault a person has can be blamed on his or her gender. Have a bad temper? Like cars? Can’t pick up after yourself? It’s because you’re a man. Need your partner to call every hour? Break into your partner’s BlackBerry? Translate simple statements into criticism? It’s because you’re a woman. Binaries, generalizations, and more binaries. A few examples:
“Of course, since I am female, I translated that to mean, ‘I totally forgot about you.’”
“I am a woman. Therefore I like getting compliments. If you are like me (a woman), then you like compliments even if you have a hard time hearing them.”
“Remind yourself that men don’t need to hear the words [I love you]as often. That’s not to say they don’t need to hear them. Just not as often as we do.”
While statements like the above make me cringe, they’re not particularly inventive. Eckler claims that she likes to be controversial, but How To Raise a Boyfriend just feeds us the same old jokes based on the same boring gender essentialism and stereotypes we’re bombarded with via sitcoms, commercials, and countless other “chick lit” titles. When Eckler writes something like: “That’s how men get us. They know that if they continue to wear their ripped T-shirts, then we’ll have to go buy them clothes if we want to be seen in public with them;” we’re supposed to wink and nod. Oh men! Stacey May Fowles sums up the lack of humour nicely in her post on The Walrus (I strongly encourage you to read her entire review):
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.
Eckler may have written this book to educate clueless men and women, but the advice she gives is downright awful. Not only is it biased, sourced exclusively from all things Eckler (her experiences, worldview, friends, therapist, crotch-waxer, exes, etc.), but it’s dangerous. Recommended raising techniques include lying about low self-esteem, sending passive-aggressive messages, invading privacy, initiating guilt trips, promising sex acts for good behaviour, abstaining from sex acts as punishment, and the list goes on. As Fowles points out, it’s the use of sex that is particularly 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.
Also disconcerting are the glaring double standards in Eckler’s recommended tactics for dealing with unwanted behaviour. Because, duh, as she writes: “There are a lot of double standards when it comes to boys and girls.” While men are expected to call frequently and give public affection (“Don’t you want to let the world know I’m yours?”) and foot rubs, they have to manage to not be too needy. While Eckler complains endlessly about everything men do wrong, she tells women to plug “reminders” into their boyfriends’ phones for anniversaries, birthdays, and Valentine’s Day. From Fowles:
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.
It is this lack of self-awareness that is How to Raise a Boyfriend’s biggest failure (aside from the terrible, dangerous advice and gender essentialism). Eckler occasionally throws in token admissions of being flawed, writing that she can be “royal nag” and “jealous bitch” sometimes, but she always justifies it with the bad behaviour of men. When discussing her tips for correcting this bad behaviour, or what she calls “tips to get them [men] to do what you [women] want” in the following excerpt from her interview with the Toronto Star, Eckler seems quite clueless:
Toronto Star: With the techniques you’re suggesting in the book, you’re suggesting women should take on that mothering role to some extent. Do women really want to do that?
Eckler: Well, no, here’s the thing: You have to figure out your own fine line. They’re not tips to mother them. They’re tips to get them to do what you want. But not in a mean way. I always say, when I think about it, women are just as clueless as men. Men might do these clueless things, but we’re also clueless in telling them how to do it properly or why it upsets us, so we just turn into the naggy bitch when really we should be raising them.
Really? Invading privacy, pointing out “man boobs,” and throwing out clothing isn’t mean? And there’s a difference between “raising” and “mothering?” I don’t buy it. Oh, and more essentialism. Gross. I’m with Anne Fenn, who wrote in her Globe and Mail review: “You can get away with acting like a bitchy, shallow, needy, immature princess and relationship expert who goes through boyfriends faster than bikini waxes if you know you are one.” But alas, Eckler does not.
How to Raise a Boyfriend isn’t useful or funny. Not to me or Fowles or all of my Twitter followers who encouraged me to stop talking about Eckler in hopes that she’ll “go away.” So, why not listen to the guy who told me “I hope you know you’re just helping her sell more books”? Because dissecting books like How to Raise a Boyfriend is important. I agree with Fowles:
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?
It isn’t. And despite this, How to Raise a Boyfriend has already succeeded. It’s been published. While I may run in a social circle that would never take Eckler seriously, there is an entire market of women (and men) who agree with her. For them, How to Raise a Boyfriend is useful (or they hope it will be), funny, or a perfect example of Eckler “telling it like it is.” For many of these people, Rebeckler Land is, in one way or many, reality. And when one considers this, it’s easy to understand how Eckler and her devoted fans would appreciate this book.
But why? How can people be so accepting of a reductionist and factually incorrect worldview? One explanation could be that gender essentialism (and thus, ideas like Eckler’s) is insidious and constantly reinforced by media and entertainment. Over coffee, a friend of mine told me: “Our idea of what love and relationships should be like is influenced by books and movies. We read and watch and start to think everything should be passionate and perfect at all times and we’ll never be happy otherwise.”
And I agree. While art often mimics life, art more often influences life. How to Raise a Boyfriend exploits and reinforces longstanding, troubling stereotypes because they already exist. Eckler didn’t invent any of her ideas; they’ve been around for decades. Many have been raised in households that taught and encouraged gender binaries and have had few corrective experiences to counter it. Many women have encountered crappy man after crappy man, men who don’t give compliments or communicate or help with heavy loads. I’ve met guys (and gals) like that too. So, I understand why people might relate to How to Raise a Boyfriend.
Another explanation could be that the Eckler way of thinking about and perceiving the world/sexes is easier. In Rebeckler Land, there is little acknowledgment of personal wrongdoings or character flaws, or the fact that people just may not be compatible. There is only “she is right” and “he is wrong.” This one hits home for me, as I’ve been a few relationships during which I felt the urge to improve someone. I found myself thinking thoughts like: “If only he did that more often, we could be so happy.” These thoughts, and ongoing attempts to “correct” my partners’ behaviour, only contributed to my denial that the relationships were falling apart for natural reasons that were beyond my control. Simply put: sometimes things just aren’t meant to be.
In Rebeckler Land, relationships aren’t about what you want and deserve, or how well you get along and communicate; they’re about what you can handle and where you draw the line. Relationships develop problems because men are unraised and women don’t know how to raise them. How to Raise a Boyfriend attempts to remedy this by telling women to be needy and demanding (because they’re women) and recommends passive-aggressive manipulation to cure their relationship woes, encouraging patterns of trying to fix the unfixable. Somehow, all of this is supposed to result in perfect love and bliss. It probably won’t, but Eckler tells us to follow her advice because it’s easier to blame gender or “cluelessness” than to be truly introspective and solve problems in healthy, productive ways. There is a reason why there are no clear success stories in the book.
The truth is this: Not all men are the same. Not all women are the same. But as adults in adult relationships, we’re all raised already and we’re the only ones who can change ourselves. Once everyone accepts that, I can start ignoring books like How to Raise a Boyfriend.