In Part 1 of this article, I looked at the connection between the dating manual for women, The Rules, and the story of Cinderella. I contend that the close association of ideas – borrowed from Cinderella by the writers of The Rules – is what made the contemporary text a success.
Cinderella’s satisfying resolution is one reason the tale is so popular. After seeing Cinderella suffer for most of the plot, her evil stepfamily is finally relegated to the margins while she is acknowledged as a worthy human being (by her fairy godmother) and then elevated to royalty (by the prince). This second event occurs in a momentous few seconds at the prince’s ball, when Cinderella is recognized as being “the one” for him.
It’s important to understand that, despite the romance in the tale, young children of both sexes identify with the character Cinderella. As Bruno Bettelheim observes, in The Uses of Enchantment: “Cinderella is a fairy tale which makes nearly as strong an appeal to boys as to girls, since children of both sexes suffer equally from sibling rivalry.” The dynamic underlying sibling rivalry is very simple: for individuals, it is based on the fear of exclusion, and for groups, it is based on the fear of resource scarcity, a phenomenon that can be summed up with the phrase “zero-sum thinking.” Here is a very simple definition:
Zero-sum thinking is the view that one party’s gain is another party’s loss.
Simple illustrations of it are:
If I get the biggest piece of the cake, you won’t
If I get this job, you won’t
Producing more cars leads to more air pollution
Because the rich get richer, the poor get poorer
If I get happy, you’ll feel bad
I was first introduced to this term by Nancy Friday, when I read her 1985 book Jealousy. Her thesis, repeated and expanded throughout her text, is that jealousy is a corrosive emotion that poses a serious threat to our happiness. Although her focus is mostly on intimate relationships, she also examines jealousy in broader contexts and asserts that allowing ourselves to be victimized by it moves us away from potential rather than toward it. She suggests we see our lives in terms of abundance instead, a solution that in my mother’s time might have been expressed with folksy sayings like: “There’s plenty of fish in the sea” or “Men are like buses — there’s another one every fifteen minutes.”***
But what do fish and buses have to do with Cinderella?
If we look at the plot, we see that there are three women – in Cinderella’s household at least — vying for the prince. That number expands when we are told that young women from the entire town will also attend the ball. However, as in musical chairs, that ultimate zero-sum game, only one woman can win the prince’s heart. Unassuming Cinderella is picked out of a crowd and the implication is that she is chosen because her unacknowledged suffering makes her special. She has a fairy god-mother, after all, and that form of magic help appears for a reason – Cinderella needs and deserves aid. So Cinderella’s ultimate reward is our reward too: we root for her because her fate is comforting. If her innate goodness can be divined and then rewarded, so can ours. And divined is the operative word here because if we look at Cinderella and The Rules, it’s clear that no whining or bragging is allowed. The prince, and all other comers, might be put off.
So another theme of the Cinderella story – that the passive good are chosen and the active bad are left behind – drives the plot and drives the success of a text like The Rules. Attaining the upper-hand in that delicate balance of power between the sexes is spelled out very clearly in the latter text: women are advised to be demure and withholding if they want to win the role of parent/judge, that same parent/judge Bettelheim asserts is responsible for some of our worst agonies. Once a woman successfully steps into this role, her infantilized suitor must work and work very hard to get and keep her attention.
And that’s the easy part. The hard part, of course, is that pursuing passive power, generally speaking, precludes pursuing other kinds. For example, it’s hard to be a demure CEO, CFO or COO. It’s also hard to be demure while controlling a classroom full of kindergarten children or winning a Formula One race. There are just some roles in life that require either authority or ambition and that’s the problem with The Rules. For many women the cost of passivity is just too high.
And there’s at least one other problem, one that I can best explain with an anecdote about dolphins.
Many years ago, I went to Sea World in Orlando and a young relative was with me. We went to a dolphin tank and bought small satchels of food to feed them. Dolphins have a reputation for being intelligent and it’s a well-deserved one as I saw first-hand. How did I see? My relative started teasing one. She kept holding the food just out of reach, daring it to jump higher. It’s the sort of game a dog might not object to but a dolphin would. In a memorable act of rebellion, this particular dolphin dipped its snout in the water and splashed her heartily.
I remember the event because it made me realize that even dolphins don’t like being made to perform just because. Like other gratuitous demands — like being made to wait or to perform or to ingratiate — dolphins are smart enough to know when it’s happening and we should too. An awareness of this subtle form of abuse allows us to know when to say enough, when to set limits with people who are withholding so they can gain the upper-hand with us.
And this leads me to my final point: withholding resources, whether they are emotional or material can be abusive. Yes, Cinderella is deprived at the beginning and gets her just rewards in the end. Yes, delaying gratification teaches us patience. And yes, learning patience is a good thing. But advising women to deliberately withhold attention from men just doesn’t seem like a good long-term plan. What if the man gets fed up? What if you slip and let your real self show?
The idea to write about The Rules came to me because in the last few years, I have had to deal with a lot of people – healthcare workers and others – who have withheld resources, usually information, from me. These are people who did not pay attention to me when they should have. People who chose not to share information that would have quelled my anxiety. People who did not think answering my questions was necessary. However, unlike Cinderella, I have not gone passive and hoped for the best. Fairy god-mothers don’t exist in my world, although intelligence and willpower and resourcefulness do. And when I get really frustrated, I remember the lesson I learned from Nancy Friday: there are always — always — other options.
I’ve mentioned that many men responded badly to The Rules when it came out. I suggested it made them feel like the evil stepsisters, creatures who were just begging to be put in their places. This may be because the evil stepsisters, just like the intended victims of The Rules, are also forced to try too hard. It could be that that’s what makes them so unpleasant. Maybe they deserve their fate, but I prefer Toni Morrison’s view instead:
How crippling it must have been for those young girls to grow up with a mother, to watch and imitate that mother enslaving another girl….I am curious about their fortunes after the story ends. For contrary to recent adaptations, the stepsisters were not ugly, clumsy, stupid girls with outsized feet. The Grimm collection describes them as beautiful and fair in appearance…they are elegant women of status and clearly women of power.
I like how Morrison uses the words crippling and enslaving alongside elegant and power. This contrast provides an honest picture of how vulnerable we all feel when we don’t have answers. Think of the powerful CEO waiting for biopsy results, the straight-A student waiting to hear from the registrars at Julliard, the friendly neighbour who gets a call telling her she must go to the hospital now, but is not told why. Waiting in situations like these may be unavoidable, but not all situations are the same. Creating anxiety is what we do when we withhold from others and most of the time it’s unnecessary and just plain mean.
And you don’t need to believe what I’m saying — just ask a dolphin.
*** Friday’s text presaged a sort of minor “abundance movement,” a movement that unfortunately eschewed a scholarly approach and instead came to represent a lightweight and materialistic version of the idea. Jealousy, by contrast, is an incisive, provocative and demanding text. In keeping with the fairy tale theme here, it’s one trail of breadcrumbs you shouldn’t follow unless you’re up for it: if you decide to read it, be prepared to look at some of your ugliest feelings.