Jarring

Carol Lloyd (via Salon's Broadsheet) cleanly skewers matchmaker Patti Novak's dos-and-don'ts list for single women looking to find love. The item as described seemed so incredibly insipid that I had to see Novak's advice for myself.

It seems that this particular write-up of Novak's advice has been published *twice* now... first at Oprah.com, then reprinted at CNN. The short version, predictably, is: women, it's all your fault.

Novak does make a few reasonable suggestions: be self-aware, don't stick to failing relationships merely out of habit or from a misguided sense of loyalty, don't approach a first date as if it's a job interview, take some time off from dating if you find yourself trying way too hard. Fair enough.

But I cringe a bit as she advises a mid-40s woman, in so many words, to grow up and act her age, because her behavior, though not inappropriate for a younger woman, seems indecorous at this phase of her life. Forget about being such free-spirit! Shape up and behave! You don't anyone to think you're *desperate*, do you?

She advises a different woman, a 35-year-old with a competitive streak, to avoid her habit of incessantly one-upping her dates on any given topic of conversation. OK, I agree: 'don't be obnoxious' seems like decent advice to anyone, male or female. But Novak doesn't leave it at that: she blames the woman's success and take-charge attitude. Here's where the antifeminist crapfest really kicks in:




Allison's take-charge attitude is what Patti calls the pickle jar effect. "We are so successful today, women. We're fabulous. We work hard. We make good money. We parent. Sometimes what happens when we spend a lot of time alone, we forget to let them open the damn pickle jar," Patti says.

"The one thing I don't think is ever going to change on this planet is men still need to feel like men," she says. "So let them open it."

So how does a woman ask a man to do something without compromising herself? Patti says that if he's not in the room, go ahead and open your own pickle jar. But if he's standing there, Patti says it's just as easy to ask him to open it. "And know that you are the smarter, clever one for doing it," she says. "It's about attitude."


It's a good thing I don't have a pickle jar near to hand at the moment, because I'd be sorely tempted to hurl it at something. This is the kind of stereotypical sexist bullshit that does neither gender any favors.

Novak's message to women: don't you dare seem to be *too* capable, too with-it, too together, or else your man's fragile insecure ego will be destroyed. Feign a bit of helplessness, a bit of neediness, so that you can dupe him into feeling validated.

I don't think validation based on manipulation is helpful. For one thing, it's a trivial and exceptionally shallow form of validation. It's also easy to see through, at which point it becomes patronizing. Why, it's hard to see how men could possibly survive out in the world at all, so easily and capriciously are our poor egos pumped up and beaten down at every turn!

My advice, to women *and* men: no one rational cares about stuff like who opens the jars. No man should feel slighted if a woman opens her own jar of pickles. Any man who *would* feel slighted by this is clearly not ready for a relationship among equals. Furthermore, a woman *pretending* that she can't do something may indeed be coy, but it isn't cute, it isn't sexy, and it isn't relationship-affirming.

Who opens the jars, who does the laundry, who fires up the barbecue, who cooks dinner, who mows the lawn, or any of a zillion other trivial everyday considerations that all boil down to some variant of 'who wears the pants around here' have one thing in common: people who invest such activities with Deeper Levels of Meaning really need to adjust their perspective. A woman capable of doing something for herself ought *never* feel self-conscious about her abilities, and a man shouldn't take a woman's capability as a sign that his own abilities aren't appreciated.

Patti says to keep the pickle jar effect in mind when choosing the restaurant for a first date. "We are clearly the most decisive creatures on the planet, women," she says. "And men, please no offense out there, they are the most indecisive. But stop letting them getting away with it."

Patti says to initially let the man pick the restaurant -- even if you think your choice is better. "Let him pick it and pay for it," Patti says. "And if he takes you out for a hot dog, well, it is what it is."


"No offense out there?" Good thing I'm so horribly fickle that I can't make up my mind whether to describe myself as annoyed, exasperated, irritated, or disgruntled.

Leaving aside the whole sexist-traditional ball-of-wev about Who Should Pay For a Date - because that *alone* is such a heavily loaded cultural construct that I don't want to get into a huge digression. (Suffice it to say, my short answer is: 'whoever wishes to do so - either person, or both.')...

...my real bone to pick here is the advice, yet again, that a woman should control the relationship by cultivating the appearance of needing the man to be controlling. It's disingenuous, it's unhealthy, and most of all, it's completely freakin' unnecessary. This kind of stuff is how the same toxic ideas about how men and women should relate to one another keep getting perpetuated, generation after generation.

Women are taught to be circumspect, to arrange and wheedle and subtly guide their men - but to avoid simply being direct and stating their preferences. Is it any wonder that men familiar with such a milieu think that women expect them to be mind-readers? That those men who never quite get around to seeing through this ruse must feel constantly put-upon, always having to guess at the right answer, and to take the exasperation that goes with frequently guessing wrong? That those men who *do* see through the levels of indirection wind up feeling manipulated, that they conclude that women are two-faced, are not forthright, and cannot be trusted?

Worse, women are expected to endure a system of never being allowed to be your fully capable self, having to give up on the idea of a mutually interdependent partnership in order to maintain the fiction of always 'needing' a man, because it will be a balm to his ego and make him feel more secure. Sadly, some women get so skilled at playing this game that it becomes force of habit - and thus they devalue their own abilities, perhaps forgetting just how capable they really are. Worse yet, some women may never even catch on that it's a game in the first place, that they may simply absorb from our culture some abstract notion of How Women Are Supposed To Be that includes all this stuff about how women have to manipulate men to get what they want.

The saddest part about Novak's advice is that it seemingly disregards the consequences of forming a relationship in this way... because why should any woman expect a man to suddenly start treating her as an equal when all along she's been pretending to be something lesser? Why should a man expect to eventually have to share decision-making with his mate when he's been first prodded and later conditioned into that very role to begin with? The idea that one could cultivate a dependence - fictional or otherwise - and *not* have such a thing have long-term effects on the dynamics of that relationship seems pretty blatantly misguided.

Am I ignoring my own plea about not sweating the small stuff, getting so worked up about something like crappy dating advice? I don't think so, because Novak's ground-breaking advice actually does little more than reflect the conventional wisdom about men and women, and there are deeply misogynist *and* misandrist threads running throughout: men are fragile and easily threatened. Their egos need soothing. Women shouldn't compete with them or they'll hurt their feelings. Women should look within themselves to figure out why their relationships don't work out, because whenever things fall apart, it's probably something she did - or something she failed to do - that could have fixed things. After all, no one expects the *guy* to be good at relationships. All of the aforementioned are damaging expectations, and they'll continue to warp and twist our society until challenged and discredited.

I would love to see men and women eventually reach a post-Mars-and-Venus consciousness, wherein we realize we're all pretty much human beings with similar wants, goals, aspirations. We all have some things we're good at, as well some other things we need help with. That we all like to make our own decisions sometimes, and that sometimes we also like to have help making up our minds. That we can speak our minds and be honest with our loved ones about our hopes, dreams, fears - and that we value each other enough that we don't have to rely on silly reindeer games to reinforce a relationship by creating additional needs that aren't real. That it's *not* the responsibility of one half of the population to make sure the other half doesn't psychically implode. That we recognize that *every* human being likes to have his or her ego stroked, and that when we do so, it's sincere and mutually helpful, not empty flattery.

That eventually we realize the ideal relationship is a *partnership* and that what makes it work is a sense that one *can* and *may* rely upon the other, not a sense that one *must* do so.

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