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These Are The Feminists My Mother Warned Me About:
Undercover at a "Rules" Workshop

These Are The Feminists My Mother Warned Me About:
Undercover at a "Rules" Workshop
by Greta Christina

It all started with an innocent Chick's Night Out at the Lexington. There we were, enjoying the garish red walls and the cheap drinks and the cute bartender at the only dyke bar in San Francisco. My review of The Rules for the Spectator had just come out, and we were cheerfully raking the book over the coals when one of my companions said to me, "You know, the Learning Annex is having a workshop on The Rules. The women who wrote the book are teaching it. It might be kind of interesting to check it out." (Or words to that effect. That night is a bit of a blur, what with the cider and all...)

Maybe it was the hangover. I don't know. But the very next day, I found myself on the phone with my esteemed editor, begging for the opportunity to go undercover to this "Rules" workshop and write about it for The Spectator.

I guess I'm more of a masochist than I thought.

In case you've been out of touch with the mass media and aren't familiar with "The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right" (Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider), here's the deal. A by-women-for-women self-help book on how to catch a husband, The Rules works on the theory that men like a challenge, want to be the aggressors, and only value what they can't easily get -- and that therefore women should act more aloof and play hard-to-get if they want to catch a husband. The chapters are divided into specific rules with explanations and examples and practical applications, including "Don't Call Him and Rarely Return His Calls," "Don't Meet Him Halfway or Go Dutch on a Date," "Always End Phone Calls First," "Don't Talk to a Man First (and Don't Ask Him to Dance)," "Let Him Take the Lead," and "Don't Accept A Saturday Night Date After Wednesday." The Rules is not just a book; it's a way of life, a philosophy, a religion even, with support groups and evangelists and a sisterhood of Rules Girls passing along the secrets of manipulating men -- excuse me, the secrets of a happy romantic life. (It's also a hell of a scam for the authors; they've sold 2 million copies of their book, they travel around the country giving seminars like this one, and they do private phone consultations on how to do The Rules -- at the rate of $250 an hour. Nice work if you can get it. Hell, I'd love to tell people how to run their love lives for 250 smackers an hour.) I've written a couple of pieces savaging -- er, reviewing -- The Rules, so covering this workshop seemed right up my alley.

But first things first -- Getting Dressed.


THE MISTRESS OF DISGUISE

Sadly (or perhaps not), I really don't have all that much in the way of normal grown-up clothes. I haven't felt much need for them in a while; I work as a freelance writer, a field where nobody could give less of a flying fuck what you look like and you could dress in a hula skirt, a down parka, plaid high-top sneakers and a Carmen Miranda hat as long as your copy's in on time. Sure, I have a day job too; I work for a small mail-order smut and sex-toy catalog, and while my esteemed colleagues would certainly be entertained by the sight of me in a hula skirt, they ultimately wouldn't much care as long as the thing didn't get caught in the stock shelves and send all the dirty videos tumbling down on top of me.

So the fact that I generally wear miniskirts and combat boots, or ripped-up bomber pants and combat boots, or shorty shorts and combat boots, or long black Morticia dresses and combat boots, and the fact that my hair is uncut and tangled and comes in just about every shade of blue and purple that Manic Panic puts out, and the fact that I weigh just under 200 pounds and dress like I love every ounce of it and not like I'm trying to hide behind the drapes, and the fact that I have a gold ring stuck through my eyebrow, is almost never an issue. I just don't move in many worlds where I have to pass for a normal grown-up person. And while this is generally a blessing for which I daily thank every God and Goddess I can think of, it does make for a challenge when you're trying to pass for a Rules Girl at the Learning Annex.

I had planned to spend a couple of hours a few days ahead of time putting together an outfit. I'd even planned to consult with a lawyer friend of mine, a super-sharp dresser who can actually look like a grown-up without looking boring, to get her words of wisdom on passing for a normal grown-up person. But what with one thing or another (I like to call it "having a life" -- it has a much better ring than "shameless procrastination")... well, I didn't actually get around to putting an outfit together until half an hour before I had to leave. (Only half an hour to work that presto-chango girl-magic? No problem. I always did work best in a hysterical, panic-stricken crisis anyway.)

The hair was the biggest issue. There is just no way to look like a Rules Girl with blue and green and purple hair. Under a hat it went, pinned up in a bun so it wouldn't slip, with a black headband added to keep any stray hairs from sneaking out and giving the game away. I knew I'd have hat-head for days, but I'm happy to suffer for my Art.

The ring in the eyebrow, however, would just have to stay. I wasn't about to make a whole trip to The Gauntlet to get them to take the ring out just so I could go to this stupid class incognito.

The actual outfit was easier than I'd expected. A short-but-not-too-short black skirt, a pair of kicky little ankle boots, a soft-but-sharpish crepe jacket thing, and I was in business. I probably wouldn't pass muster in the Financial District for long; but then, I didn't have to. I just had to get into this workshop, take notes, and get out again without anyone discovering that I was an imposter.

Then we have makeup. Is anyone else vastly amused by how quickly American culture has shifted on the topic of makeup? It wasn't so long ago that heavy makeup marked a woman as a disreputable tramp; now it marks you as proper, respectable, one of the gals. Not wearing makeup is what makes you look shady. Pretty silly, if you ask me; but it does make passing for a normal grown-up person a whole lot easier. Slap on some lipstick and eyeshadow, and you're halfway home.

I was planning on shaving my legs. Really, I was. But what with my fun-filled, action-packed, zany wackathon of a life (not to mention Star Trek Voyager being on the night before), somehow or another I just didn't get around to it. So I trotted off to Safeway, grabbed the darkest pair of pantyhose I could, and hoped for the best.

I love Halloween.


SECRET AGENT GIRL

So there I am, sitting in a folding chair at the meeting room at the Union Square Holiday Inn, in my makeup and pantyhose and snappy little crepe jacket, reading the New Yorker and surreptitiously watching the other women filing in, trying to keep the freakazoid vibe I always give off shoved up under my hat with my hair, and waiting for the show to begin.

And what a show it was.

I was actually kind of hoping that nobody would show up; hoping that San Francisco would uphold its honor as Sex-freak Gender-fuck Girls-will-be-boys-and-boys-will-be-girls City. But no such luck. The place wasn't sold out, but it was awfully goddamn full. I do tend to forget that the entire Bay Area is not made up of my immediate circle of friends and the greater sex-radical community of whores and queers and perverts. I tend to assume that every dress-for-success suit or skirt is concealing a leatherdyke or a crossdresser, a sex party aficionado or a member of a three-way relationship. Being in a room full of Bay Area women, all of whom believed that women were women and men were men, all of whom were willing to cough up forty bucks to get advice on manipulating rigid gender roles to their advantage, and all of whom wanted to catch a husband more than anything, was a rude awakening.

The weird thing is... no, I can't start this paragraph that way. I could easily start the next several paragraphs by saying "The weird thing is." A weird thing, one particular weird thing in the middle of a whole barrelful of other weird things, is just how evangelical the Rules authors are. "This is going to keep spreading," Ellen Fein said in her opening remarks. "In a few years, you won't hear about relationships that end in five years." She continued on about how exciting it was that The Rules were spreading, how the fact that the book had sold over 2 million copies proved that their method worked, how different her life had been before and after The Rules. She even said that The Rules had saved her life. I kid you not -- those were her very words. It sounded like a prayer meeting. Before I found Jesus, I was a miserable sinner who asked men out on dates and told them I liked them before they said they liked me. But now I have found the One True Way, and with God's help and yours, the rest of the world will soon see the light.

I don't think they're faking it, either. They really seemed to think that the world would be a better place if all women did The Rules. They said that men would treat women better, that women would have more confidence and self-respect, that relationships would be happier and more stable and longer-lasting, if all women did The Rules on the men in their lives. They said that doing The Rules will prevent abusive relationships, unhappy relationships, relationships that end in adultery and divorce. They're quite intent on it. "This is really important," they informed the crowd. "This is life or death." Do you want to follow The Way and be rewarded with a marriage made in heaven, or do you want to burn in the eternal flame of spinsterhood?

In a twisted way, these women are very feminist. They want women to get what they want, and they don't give a hoot about whether men get hurt in the process. "You have to treat him a little bit like dirt," they advised the crowd. It's not that men like to make all the first moves, they advise. Of course they'd like it if you did. It's that making them make all the first moves is how you'll get them to marry you and treat you like a queen. And Ellen told an ever-so-charming story about meeting Sherrie's mother-in-law, who took her to task for teaching The Rules to Sherrie and told her how unhappy they had made her son. "I'm sorry about your son," Ellen replied. "But he married my friend in nine months." Sisterhood is indeed powerful. It's kind of funny to think about it, but Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider are more like the ball-busting, man-hating, "what women want is all that matters" bitch-feminists than any radical lesbian feminist I've ever known.

It was definitely like being on another planet. "Remember when you were 22 and graduating," Ellen asked, "and all your friends were getting married and you started to panic?" Well, no, actually. I don't remember anything even remotely like that. I remember panicking about trying to find a job someplace other than McDonald's with a bachelor's degree in (giggle) comparative religion, but I don't remember panicking about marriage, and I don't remember any of my friends getting married at all. "And how many women bungee jump?" Ellen asked. "Women don't do that. Men do that; men are different, they like the rush, they like a challenge." If Ellen and Sherrie have never known women who have bungee-jumped, or skydived, or gone rock-climbing, or hitch-hiked across the country alone, or taken any number of other insane risks for no reason other than the challenge and the rush... well, then we definitely come from different planets. It's not that men are from Mars and women are from Venus; it's that Rules Girls are from Saturn or something, and I'm from... I don't know where. Somewhere nowhere near Saturn.

Then we got to the question and answer session, and suddenly it's like being in the middle of a Seinfeld episode. You know the way on Seinfeld that they're always making up dating rules: if you've been out with him more than six times you can't break up over the phone; if you've had sex you have to wait two weeks before you break up; if you clean the tub before she comes over then you're in love? It was like that. He should say "I love you" after you've been dating for three months. If he's not asking you out for Saturday night dates, it isn't going to work out. After nine months, it's okay to ask him, "Do you love me?" If he asks you what movie you want to see, he doesn't like you. (That one is still making my head hurt.)

But the scary part is -- once you've been listening to it for a while, it begins to make sense. I mean, if you accept their assumptions -- that men want to be the aggressors and will respond to passive women, and that this is biological destiny that cannot be disobeyed or denied -- then what they say does make sense. And it probably does work; if what you want is a Rules Husband, then being a Rules Girl will probably get him.

Sure, their philosophy is rife with contradictions. "The Rules aren't about not being yourself"; but "I was a completely different person before I started doing The Rules, that's just not how I am really." Or: "After a couple of months, I'd let my guard down"; but "you have to do the Rules until you get engaged, even after you get married." Or: "The Rules aren't manipulative"; but "if you want him to act a certain way, you need to consciously choose to act in these ways that he'll respond to." But if you accept their assumptions and goals, and if you can overlook the contradictions and inconsistencies, then it does all fall into place. After it was all over, I found myself quite unexpectedly filled with doubt and insecurity, and had to consciously remind myself that I totally don't want what they're selling. I even called a couple of my hetero male friends afterwards and begged them to reassure me that the world wasn't really like this.

And yet... the philosophy is so weak. The question and answer session eventually got around to me (no, of course I didn't manage to keep my mouth shut during the entire session), and when I gently (and without blowing my cover, I hope) pushed them on a couple of the ickier bits of Rules -- don't tell your therapist that you're doing The Rules, and doing The Rules will get you a guy who loves you so much that he's jealous of your friends -- they folded like a pair of sixes in a riverboat poker game. No, they'd changed their minds about therapy, now they said that you should tell your therapist and get her to help you do The Rules. And yes, hubby's jealousy of time you spend without him is one of the downsides of doing The Rules -- but it's worth it anyway. (Funny, they didn't put it that way in the book. They presented hubby's jealousy as being a positive selling point.)

But the hardest thing about being at this workshop wasn't the icky gender politics or the creepy evangelical cultism. No, the hardest thing was being in a room filled with women, a lot of whom were single and a whole lot of whom were pretty damn cute -- and not being able to cruise. I mean, for years now, my entire cultural reference for a room full of women has been Dyke City. Being in a room full of some pretty hot women, all of whom were hell-bent on catching a man and utterly uninterested in flirting with one another (or more to the point, with me) was disorienting as hell. It took all my best efforts not to catch eyes and hold gazes and smile that inviting little half-smile.

Well, maybe not all my best efforts. I actually did try a little flirting; the Bay Guardian had a table set up, giving away free personal ads, and one of the women working the table was... oy, my God. This vision, this big, gorgeous, voluptuous woman, with light brown skin and big brown eyes and long dreads and rings in her face. I tried to chat her up, tried to make small talk about the Guardian personals. And of course, I got absolutely nowhere. I mean, even assuming she was a dyke (which I guess she might not have been)... why should she give me the time of day? Why would she think that I was even flirting with her? As far as she knew, I was a Rules Girl. I had just coughed up forty bucks to learn how to catch a husband. There's no way in hell that I would have registered on her barometer.

So if anybody knows the gorgeous woman with dreads who works for the Guardian Personals, please pass this on to her. I'm not a Rules Girl, I promise. I went home that night, shook my blue hair out from under my hat, washed off my nice-girl makeup, and got myself into a Silence=Death T-shirt and a pair of disintegrating harem pants and my beloved combat boots. And if she calls, I promise I won't treat her like dirt to make her marry me.


Copyright 1997 Greta Christina. Originally published in the Spectator.

     

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