October 10, 2011: See updates below.
A while ago, I wrote about The Hip Girl’s Guide to Modern Life and how I appreciated it as a source of ideas for maybe streamlining parts of my domestic life. Since then, I’ve read a couple more books in that sub-genre (is this self-help? DIY? I can’t tell!) and well, I think I peaked with Hip Girl’s.
The first book I read was Three Black Skirts by Anna Johnson. The title comes from Johnson’s philosophy that every girl should have at least three black skirts, one short and casual, one professionally appropriate, and one “long black skirt for seductive purposes.” (I’m paraphrasing, as it’s been a little while since I read the book.) That pretty much sums up my feelings on this book. It has great ideas for getting your life together in a casual way and how to be professional and then how to sink your hooks in a man. Never mind doing this stuff for yourself. At the end of the day, you’re still supposed to have a man to seduce. (The Goodreads blurb includes the line “It’s about man handling.”)
The Modern Girl’s Guide to Life by Jane Buckingham follows in a similar fashion. Get your self sorted, be professional, keep your man in line. Buckingham includes advice for being able to choose your own furniture (give him the choice between shopping with you all day or staying at home watching football) and keeping him entertained (stock up on guy friendly music like Radiohead and movies like James Bond and Braveheart).
First, let me say that both of these books include extremely useful, clever tips for just getting your life together. Buckingham includes a thorough descriptions of how to change your own tires, checking your own oil, preparing for job interviews, and many other things that every person should know. I would like to give specific examples from Three Black Skirts but again, it’s been a while and I can’t remember; I do know that Johnson also provides a lot of great ideas and inspiration.
But I’m overwhelmed and kind of turned off by the approach both writers have taken to summing up their ideal readership, and especially some of the things Buckingham writes about male partners (neither writer assumes the possibility of a same-sex partner). Perhaps it’s where I am in life—a heterosexual woman who has been single for a long while and lives on her own—but it’s driving me batty to be reading like this: “oh, that’s a good idea. Oh, clever. WTF why do I have to have scotch on hand just so my man can drink it?” (For the record, this panda likes her Johnny Walker Black label with just a little bit of water.)
I grew up a tomboy. I grew up teaching myself how to do things because I hate relying on people to do things for me (this is both a good thing and a bad thing and I recognize that). I grew up playing basketball and volleyball and even a little bit of golf and watching football—I don’t need a chapter in an entire book to tell me the basic principles of those games so I can “hang out” with my man on a Saturday. And even if I didn’t know those things—for example, I know nothing about soccer—if a guy didn’t want to be with me because I knew nothing about soccer, then why would I want to be with him? I can’t stand watching baseball (I just broke Allyson’s heart a little bit); any guy I end up with is going to have to understand that I’m going to do my own thing while the baseball games are on (Allyson, if there’s baseball watching in a pub, I’m down for that, at least I can drink my way through the game).
I do recognize that there are women who would be better served by these books than I am, women whose lives fall into those patterns more than mine does, and that’s fine. I’m just frustrated that 67% of the books I’ve read in this genre (yes, 2 out of 3, I’m a layman researcher without a lot of time for a proper sample size) all come back to something that feels like “here’s how to be the best girl for your man” instead of “here’s how to be the best you overall.” Because while we women shouldn’t live in a vacuum and we should surround ourselves with men and women who love us unconditionally, either platonically or romantically, how can anyone truly love us if we’re so focussed on being “right” for them?
Maybe this is why I’m still single, but I learned long ago that trying to be good for other people does absolutely nothing for anyone.
I’ve also got The Bust DIY Guide to Life by Debbie Stoller and Laurie Henzel in my to-read pile from the library. I do love BUST magazine and Debbie Stoller’s general approach to sharing life experiences (fellow knitters should recognize her name from the Stitch N’ Bitch series), so I’m optimistic that this will be more along the lines of Hip Girl’s Guide to Life in it’s tone and content. I will not take up any more of this post by bitching about the PINKNESS of these covers. Really, publishers? Women will only read DIY books if they’re pink? Blech.
(I don’t mind pink as a color, I just hate the whole “women only love PINK” mentality that WILL. NOT. GO. AWAY.)
UPDATE Some clever if abridged Twitter conversations (140 characters, ugh!) lead me to update this a bit. Context is crucial to reading anything, but especially books that kind of accidentally veer towards defining gender roles. I don’t believe that definition was at all what the authors above were going for, not by a long shot, but in their writing, they somewhat inform readers as to their ideal gender roles, which is difficult to not do when writing about modern women.
Three Black Skirts was published in 2000, Modern Girl’s Guide in 2004. I’m not going to suggest that women are necessarily leading better lives across the board in the last seven years, but there have been some changes, notably, more acceptance of same-sex partnerships and more of a movement toward do-it-yourself and do-for-yourself that neither writer could have predicted when writing these books (likely in the late 90s, given most book publishing schedules run two years ahead of release dates, though not all). Perhaps if I had read these books right when they were published, I would have had a different reaction to them, though I still question the pinkness.