Back in the mid-1990s, a very popular dating manual for women was published. It was called The Rules and was subtitled, Time-tested rules for capturing the heart of Mr. Right.
I didn’t buy the book – honestly – but on a 1996 road trip to New York City, a friend read it in the car. She did so mostly out loud, which meant there was no escape. I recently looked for the book on the net and found a site called The Rules Way of Life. Here is the advice the authors have for women who are looking for a mate:
1. Be a creature unlike any other.
2. Show up to parties, dances and other social events, even if you don’t feel like it.
3. It’s a fantasy relationship unless a man asks you out.
4. In an office relationship, do not email him back every time unless it’s business related.
5. If you are in a long-distance relationship, he must visit you three times before you visit him.
6. When using personal ads, let men respond to you.
7. If he does not call, he is not that interested, period.
8. Close the deal: rules women do not date for more than two years.
9. Buyer beware: observe his behaviour so you do not end up with Mr. Wrong.
10. Keep doing the rules, even when things are slow.
Apart from nods to technology and other aspects of contemporary life, what is striking here is that The Rules borrows quite heavily from themes expressed in Cinderella. This probably accounts for its popularity since as a text it is mostly angry, divisive and simplistic. It works, however, because it promises not only to give women an edge when it comes to finding a mate, its underlying template is a very potent one that speaks to some of our deepest fears. Cinderella is a powerful tale and we can measure its power by looking at its popularity: it exists, in some form, in all known cultures, both current and historical. There are literally thousands of versions out there.
In 1910, Antti Aarne, a Finnish folklorist, published one of the first classifications of folktale types. He did this to help scholars track the origin and evolution of tales and he did so by focusing on basic motifs – those cornerstone events in a narrative – that come together in a pattern that is recognizable as belonging to a particular story. So in the case of Cinderella, there are six basic motifs, the majority of which can be found in all versions:
1. a persecuted heroine
2. magic help
3. meeting with the prince
4. proof of identity
5. marriage to the prince
6. the value of salt.
When we look at the classic Cinderella tale, like the one portrayed in Disney’s 1949 film, we see that five of the six motifs appear. The persecuted heroine is Cinderella, she gets magic help from her fairy godmother, she meets the prince at the ball, passes his slipper test, and then finally marries him. The value of salt (in some versions) is meant to apply to Cinderella’s father and is perhaps best understood if we think of Cordelia, from Shakespeare’s King Lear. Of the king’s three daughters, she is the only one not looking to profit from his retirement. However Lear only recognizes Cordelia’s worth after it is too late – after she dies — and in some variations of Cinderella, a similar motif appears, albeit with a more satisfying ending. Cinderella’s negligent father recognizes the true value of his degraded daughter only after she has abandoned him to marry the prince.
So why am I thinking about Cinderella and The Rules? I’m interested in their prescriptive qualities, how The Rules and some versions of Cinderella, Charles Perrault’s 17th century version for example, teach women behaviour that will supposedly lead them to find happiness, specifically with a man. Both extol the virtues of patience and passivity to an arguably pathological degree, and it’s this advice that has me thinking of some of the difficulties I’ve been experiencing lately.
To be blunt, I am not a patient woman. I move quickly, think quickly and mostly sprint through life with an underlying and sometimes inchoate sense of urgency. I don’t know where the mercury in my blood comes from, but somewhere around the age of 40, I stopped asking why and tried, instead, to work with it. If I felt tormented by others’ slow tempos, I eventually learned to accommodate them or to place a buffer between them and myself, a buffer that would still allow me to be me while at the same time shielding them from the worst of my speedy ways. People who are constantly feeling prodded, I came to realize, do not make happy workmates.
At the same time, I also tried to stop seeing my life’s natural rhythm as a liability and understood that like many character traits, it had its upside. As an undergrad, for example, I had the wonderful experience of working for two of my university’s most esteemed research professors. One reason I got to work with these men was precisely because of my celerity. Although I was studying literature and these men were in the sciences, I had a facility for acquiring their latinate jargon and for forming a basic understanding of their work. These two skills allowed me to fall in with their tempos in a way that was both productive and invigorating. Looking back, I know these experiences led to other great experiences – with other equally accomplished people — and contributed profoundly to my overall sense of potential in life. My farming family never understood my obsession with intellectual pursuits and so finding myself in the presence of real-life genius was thrilling. It was demanding work, but work I relished: I felt blessed in those days and it showed.
So why am I focusing on a singularly unremarkable book like The Rules? It’s an uncharitable thought, but it’s true that even complete idiots are, statistically, likely to get something right once in a while. So while the book may have made it to the bestseller list, it is, as I’ve observed, not the quality of the thinking or the writing that put it there. No, what I remember from that long-ago road trip were men’s reactions to The Rules. The authors did see fit to include the wary and unhappy thoughts of some of them and it was what these men said that I’m thinking about now. There were also comments, jotted here and there in the popular press, that indicated men were less than happy about the book’s premise.
What were men saying? Two things mostly: one, that they begrudgingly believed The Rules worked, and two, that they were just as willing to inflict them on women. There were even some men who tried to start small counter-Rules movements, which is, of course, what led me to conclude that this book, and others like it, are hopelessly divisive and contribute little to peaceful relations between the sexes.
So it’s as I said: the unlikely success of a book so fundamentally lacking in substance can be explained quite simply: it piggybacks on the success of a far greater story, the story of Cinderella. And why is Cinderella so successful? Here’s a theory posited by Bruno Bettelheim in 1975:
No other fairy tale renders so well as the Cinderella stories the inner experiences of the young child in the throes of sibling rivalry, when he feels hopelessly outclassed by his bothers and sisters. Cinderella is pushed down and degraded by her stepsisters; her interests are sacrificed to theirs by her (step)mother; she is expected to do the dirtiest work and although she performs it well, she receives no credit for it; only more is demanded of her. This is how the child feels when devastated by the miseries of sibling rivalry.
It’s the last sentence of this quotation that is the most important because it isolates, in a simple way, why we like Cinderella the character so much: we identify with her suffering and her triumph over evil — evil as personified by her stepsisters — feels like a triumph for us as well. The stylized nature of the story makes it easy for children to identify with her, and when her long-suffering virtue is recognized and rewarded we, like her, are relieved of the burden, the agonies, of the sibling rivalry that started it all.
So sibling rivalry and its resolution are key to understanding the appeal of the story. And what is sibling rivalry? Simply put, it’s when we feel jealous of a brother or sister we think is getting more attention from one or both of our parents. It’s a passion that stirs in us a need so overwhelming that we yearn, deeply, to find relief, to find a way of vanquishing our rivals even though we’re related to them. In this vein, much has been made of the fact that Cinderella is up against stepsisters rather than blood sisters. The theory is that this distance makes safe the venality of the feelings a child feels when hearing the plight of Cinderella. This need for safety may well be true; it may be necessary to mitigate those overpowering and Oedipal yearnings to possess, at the expense of one’s siblings, the full and complete attention of one’s parents.
And let’s face it, getting the attention of those folks is exactly what a book like The Rules is really all about.
So far I’ve covered two strands of thought here: the rigid floor plan of The Rules and its relationship to the powerful tale of Cinderella. My goal in writing this article is to explore, in a general way, the male reaction to the book. I have a theory and it goes something like this: it is a text that makes men feel a little like the evil stepsisters: creatures who are inherently ugly, overbearing and just begging to be put in their places. I feel some sympathy with men in this regard. Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this article, where I will explain why.