Thursday, 4 March 2010

"don't waste the pretty"

i decided to read He's Just Not That Into You. oh my, it's terrible, for the most part. i guess you could've just told me that, i really didn't need to go find out for myself. i'm not going to waste time here describing its hideously normal, fashionable, for-the-modern-woman sexism and so on. but i do want to say what i like about it! bear with me...

i saw it in a charity shop and was suddenly intrigued - because, most importantly, my work is talking about relationships. and control and manipulation in relationships is so normal, outside of those that will ever be defined as abusive. so i wanted to look at how 'normal' relationships are talked about in the mainstream, shiny-happy self-help world, and if books like this have anything to say about control and manipulation.

well, this one does. and it's by far the best part of the book. at the start of the chapter entitled "He's just not that into you if he's a selfish jerk, a bully..." (unfortunately the end of that sentence is "or a really big freak" but let's overlook that(?!) for now) it says:
" 'He's got so much good in him. He really does. I just wish he wouldn't tell me to shut up all the time.' Yeah, that's a problem. Try not to ignore it."
i'm impressed by this book's inclusion of abuse-awareness by stealth. i mean, if someone has read this far through the book (it's the last chapter) in quest of relationship advice then they must be pretty vulnerable really - if they've taken seriously the ten preceding chapters of the male lead-author's icky joshing-bossy tone then i would say that they might well be at risk of being dominated in a relationship! however the tone actually gets a bit less icky and much more compassionate in this final chapter.

the writer uses three examples of abuse but doesn't name them as such at first. First there's a boyfriend who is cold and neglectful and 'trying to change,': "You've got to be kidding me... He may think he loves you, and maybe he does. But he's really bad at it..." Then it gets more impressive with the advice to a woman whose partner yells at her and then apologises:
"There is no reason to yell at anyone ever, unless you are screaming 'LOOK OUT FOR THAT BUS!'... And it's not temporary. People who yell are people who think they are entitled to yell... Don't wait for Mr Hyde to turn back into Dr. Jekyll." 
I'm sorry, but shoehorning entitlement-to-abuse issues into a 'trashy' self-help book that's supposed to be anti-feminist?! Plus, 'like Jekyll & Hyde' is a phrase i hear many times a week by women accessing support for the first time (along with 'walking on eggshells') so i even wonder if that is inserted deliberately to give readers a chance to recognise their situation as abuse. i have to say i'm impressed.

Then there's an example of a boyfriend who is 'perfect' in private but makes fun of her a little in front of her friends: "He sounds perfect, if you like bad people... Which Ivy League school has a program in public belittlement? Because that's what this guy majored in if he thinks that insulting you in front of your friends is going to make him seem anything other than an idiot." And finally, one who is 'supportive' in her weightloss by telling her what she can and can't eat:
"This guy doesn't sound like your personal trainer, he sounds like your personal bully... He knows that you feel bad about yourself and leaps to take advantage of that... It's time to use your quads and hamstrings - to run away from him and never come back." 
Erm, acknowledgement that men take advantage of, i.e. benefit from abuse - a fact that is overlooked in almost all anti-domestic violence work and books that i've found...?! I no longer care about the preceding ten anti-feminist chapters. this is cool. then he gets to the point:
"There's lots of behaviour that can be considered abusive that doesn't include being beaten about the head and neck. That includes getting yelled at, being publicly humiliated, or being made to feel fat and unattractive. It's hard to feel worthy of love when someone is going out of their way to make you feel worthless. Being told to get out of these relationships may not work for you. Knowing that you're better than these relationships is the place to start. You are better than these relationships."
Anti-abuse work doesn't have to be more complicated than this. there certainly are a lot of dodgy things about this book, but it seems to me infinitely less harmful than almost all the self-help books that are actually about domestic violence - there are so many horrific ones out there that pathologise and disempower the women readers they are aimed at while diverting responsibility from the perpetrators. HJNTIY on the other hand has straightforward messages for women who are questionning whether to stay with someone who treats them badly:
"You want to believe that you are better than all the crap you've been taking from all these men all these years. Well you are. You are an excellent, foxy human being worthy of love, and the only way you can pursue that idea is by honoring yourself. At the very least that means ridding your world of dudes who are not worthy and setting a standard of excellence in your daily life. Let's start with this statistic: You are delicious."
Maybe i'm a fool, but reading that almost made me teary, thinking of how much women i work with just need to hear something that directly compassionate and them-centred. i think it's cool.

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