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
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
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
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.