Go get 'em, girls

November 01, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- From time to time in the history of relationships, a creature re-emerges out of the primeval muck and into the limelight proclaiming that she has the secret that will lead women into the happily-married-ever-after.

In the 1970s, she was The Total Woman. This icon, hatched by Marabel Morgan, guaranteed nuptial nirvana to women if only they stopped ''nagging'' men and learned to greet them at the door in nothing but a towel. ''The Total Woman'' was responsible for some rather alarmed UPS drivers and one very happy publisher.

Now, in the 1990s, she is The Rules Girl, a female who makes the Cosmo Girl look comparatively liberated. Channelers Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider have taken ''The Rules'' for ''capturing the heart of Mr. Right'' straight from the past onto the number-one spot on the best-seller list.

''The Rules'' is a veritable compost heap of Dos and (mostly) Don'ts for a woman -- oops, girl -- who wants to master the fine art of womanipulation. It's a how-to book: How to make a man desperate to marry a girl just like the girl that married dear old great-granddad.

Hard to get

Among the 35 ''time-tested secrets'' are these: Don't Talk to Him First. Don't Call Him. Don't Split the Check. End the Phone Call and the Date First. Don't Accept a Date for Saturday Later Than Wednesday. Let Him Take the Lead.

All in all, the authors say upfront and repeatedly, ''The purpose of The Rules is to make Mr. Right obsessed with having you as his by making yourself seem unattainable. In plain language we're talking about playing hard to get!''

Now, my opinion on this subject is suspect. As the authors warn, ''Highly educated girls have the hardest time with The Rules. They tend to think all this is beneath them.'' You bet.

But what this book shares with its predecessors is a stunningly low opinion of men -- which in no way seems to stop women from wanting them. The Mr. Rights of ''The Rules'' are hopelessly driven hunter-gatherers ''born to respond to a challenge.'' They cannot escape their destiny: ''biologically, he's the aggressor.''

They are also and absolutely immune to change ''because men never really change.'' At the same time they are easily conned, ''conditioned,'' ''trained'' and twisted around the finger of The Rules Girl: ''Do The Rules and even the biggest playboy can be yours!'' If Susan Faludi penned such a profile of the species, she would be tarred for male-bashing.

The authors' portrait of women isn't a whole lot more flattering. Without The Rules, they'd be quivering, smothering, marriage-lusting losers.

This is an era that has witnessed the return of the girdle and the push-up bra (see Wonderbra). We shouldn't be surprised to see the recycling of the Tender Trap.

This book probably was conceived as a self-defense text for women who started out sharing dinner checks and ended up feeling exploited. In fairness, some rules -- Don't Date Married Men -- make sense. As does the sub-subtext of self-respect.

But this Makeover has some bizarre contradictions for those of us who grew up breaking rules. The same Rules Girl who is informed that ''Men must take the lead'' is also told that ''Men like women who are their own person. . . .'' Single women are supposed to act independent. Without actually being independent. Is it any surprise that another rule is ''Don't Discuss The Rules with Your Therapist''?

The basic problem with ''play- ing hard to get'' is the acting. How do you stop? If Mr. Right falls in love with the role you are playing, do you ever know if he loves you? If you trick him, will you respect him in the morning? And if he's only interested in a challenge, what happens after the honeymoon?

I wish I could introduce The Rules Girl to a friend who tells each of her daughters, ''Be yourself. The only man you will scare off is your future ex-husband.''

The old games were based on mistrust. This ancient hostility skids unhappily across the pages of this modern manual.

''Remember, early on in a relationship,'' the authors warn, ''the .. man is the adversary (if he's someone you really like). He has the power to hurt you. . . . He runs the show.'' But if friendship is against the rules, why play?

Of course, the beauty of a best-selling text of ''time-tested secrets'' is that pretty soon they're not secret. By the time Hollywood turns this text into a parody, even the dim-witted Mr. Right may figure out he's been womanipulated.

In the meanwhile, there's one good piece of advice in this book. ''Before he comes to your apartment tuck this book away in your top drawer.'' Aw hell, put it in the wastebasket.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/01/96

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