A Goose-Step Guide to Dating

What’s weird about The Rules.

“We’ve just been sent a memo telling us we’re not supposed to talk to the media,” said the young male clerk at Barnes & Noble when I asked if he was selling a lot of copies of The Rules: Time Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, the slender, much-publicized manual of retro dating strategy for women. “But yes”–eyeball roll, sigh, grimace–“it’s flying out of here.” There went my theory that the book’s sales (advertised as 800,000) reflected warehouse-size orders from the same cabal that inflated the numbers for Ancient Evenings, The Closing of the American Mind, A Brief History of Time, and many other supposed huge sellers that you’ve never actually seen outside a bookstore. Choosing my copy from a miniwall of identical pink paperbacks, I figured I should probably abandon my fallback theory too, which is that the only people who take the Rules seriously are journalists assigned to write about them. Certainly the B & N clerk, a dating man if I ever saw one, took them seriously. “It’s all about mind games,” he volunteered scornfully. “I hate that book.”

“Mind games” is right. The thesis of Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider’s book is that for women who want to marry, lunacy is the best policy. Women who take the initiative–a broad category of behavior that includes most signs of life, not to mention common politeness–“destroy male ambition and animal drive. Men are born to respond to challenge. Take away challenge and their interest wanes.” So, become a Rules Girl. Having first transformed yourself (Rule 1) into “a creature unlike any other”–radiant, confident, fashionable, mysterious, elusive, quiet, and, if necessary, nose-jobbed–don’t talk to a man first (2) or too much (3), don’t go Dutch (4) or sleep with him on the first date (14), don’t call him and rarely return his calls (5), always end phone calls (6) and dates (11) first, and never accept a Saturday night date after Wednesday (7). As you might expect from a book that mingles pop Darwinism with the Weltanschauung of Cosmopolitan, the Rules can be a bit mysterious and elusive themselves–you can’t introduce yourself to your neighbor, but taking out a personal ad is OK, and how’s a girl to square the whole project of “conditioning” the marriage-averse man with Rules 17 (Let Him Take the Lead) and 18 (Don’t Expect a Man to Change or Try to Change Him)?

You could see The Rules as a weird fantasia on the theme of, “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” But what sets it apart from, say, “Dear Abby,” is the demented, quasi-military precision of the Rules. Buy a timer and set it for 10 minutes when he calls. Practice the rules on the doorman and the butcher–let them say “hello” first to you. If your beau fails to come across with a “romantic gift” for your birthday and Valentine’s Day, he obviously doesn’t love you; so show him the door! Don’t just read the Rules–memorize them. By the end of the book, when you’re being advised to join a support group to help you resist the urge to have a normal conversation with your boyfriend, the whole enterprise has a distinctly cultish flavor. (Rule 31: Don’t Discuss The Rules with Your Therapist.)

The Rules isn’t just about manipulating men; it’s about manipulating the reader too. The eerie assurance with which the authors insist that the Rules always work and that any deviation brings disaster is strangely nervous-making, like one of those chain letters that alludes darkly to people who dropped dead after failing to pass it on. Could it possibly be that my 13-year-long marriage was jinxed from Day One because I called my future husband first and suggested coffee–in his neighborhood, yet, instead of my own? Actually, no. Life’s much more complicated. Sure, men like a challenge–but so do women. And nobody likes to be challenged all the time. I know plenty of long-standing happy couples who slept together right away, spent hours yakking on the phone, split checks down the middle, and lived together for years before the wedding. The notion that female initiative is useless because men know what they want is particularly odd–most people don’t even know what they want for dinner. Even odder is the notion that what men want is a woman who’s always on her way out the door.

S ince The Rules do not reflect reality, what is their appeal–and to whom? Undoubtedly, the book owes much of its visibility to the general mood of anti-feminism and family-values conservatism. But to see its popularity as evidence of rejection of feminism by “women” is much too vague. In the pages of The Rules, men are a barely individualized collection of amiable dolts, but the Rules Girl is a particular social type–and it isn’t the choosy free spirit lectured in such anti-feminist self-help books as Smart Women, Foolish Choices. The woman depicted as in need of the Rules is a voracious doormat, the sort of woman who sends men Hallmark greeting cards or long letters after a single date, who rummages in men’s drawers and pockets, suggests couples therapy when brief relationships start to crumble, throws away a new boyfriend’s old clothes, cleans (and redecorates) his apartment without asking, and refuses to see the most obvious signs of disengagement. Her problem isn’t too much liberation; it’s incredibly low self-esteem. For women like this, The Rules might seem like a way of setting boundaries on a personality that has none, of giving a sense of purpose and structure to a life that seems “empty” (a recurrent word), of offering women who fear they are worthless a way of acting as if they were precious–“a creature unlike any other”–in the hope that the pose may become reality. Of course, this is unlikely–a motormouth cannot be “quiet and mysterious” forever, timer or no timer, and The Rules’ blithe assurance that Mr. Right, reeled in by your “friendly, light, and breezy” persona, will accept your edgy, insecure, and engulfing true self is, perhaps, the cruelest fantasy in the book.

Although the Rules Girl is anything but Everywoman, the world depicted in the book is unfortunately the one in which millions of single men and women live: a corporatized and highly competitive world of office jobs and aerobics classes, personal ads, nose jobs and diets, singles dances, self-help seminars, and spiritual fads. It’s not a very warm or kind world, or one with much room for originality or playfulness or waywardness or even what I would call “romance.” Friends matter because you need someone to rent a beach house or go to a singles dance with. Politics and volunteer work and books are just ways to keep busy between dates.

The Darwinian theme prominent in much of the discussion about dating just now reflects this world well: men and women, different by nature and with innately opposed interests, each trying to exploit the other first. You don’t have to like the other sex–you don’t even have to like your lover. You just have to need him or her–for sex, babies, “romantic gifts,” attention, money, acceptability in a society organized around the couple. Indeed, the subtext of TheRules is resentment toward men: As the authors put it in their inimitable fashion, “[T]he man is the adversary (if he’s someone you really like).” Why? “He has the power to hurt you … he runs the show.”

When feminists suggest that men run the show–any show–they get labeled man-haters and whiners. But then, feminists want to change the rules, not memorize them.