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Given that all fetuses start off as female, and it’s only after some hormonal thing happens that male babies develop, you’d think no one would ever need advice on how to be a girl. After all, we’ve all been one for at least a few weeks. But for some reason my gender comes with instructions — for operation and maintenance.
I notice them everywhere: Little pink guidebooks on how to be a “bad girl” or a “swell girl” or a girl who can “survive” on “three black skirts.” Each is adorably illustrated with drawings of long-lashed girls in the big city. I’ve been lingering over displays of these hardbound confections, eyeing them at registers, fingering them when no one is looking. I’m drawn to these girl bibles with a mixture of attraction and repulsion, like a furtive pervert to a bicycle seat.
Maybe it is a case of repeated exposure leading to need. In 1999, we had Cynthia Rowley and Ilene Rosenzweig’s “Swell: A Girl’s Guide to the Good Life” and Cameron Tuttle’s “The Bad Girl’s Guide to the Open Road.” In 2000, we had Tuttle’s “The Bad Girl’s Guide to Getting What You Want,” Anna Johnson’s “Three Black Skirts: All You Need to Survive” and Julia Bourland’s “The Go-Girl Guide: Surviving Your 20s With Savvy, Soul and Style.” This year brings advice from a fictional character, Helen Fielding’s “Bridget Jones’s Guide to Life”; a power grrrl, Susan Jane Gilman’s “Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a Smartmouth Goddess”; an archetypal throwback, Laren Stover’s “Bombshell Manual of Style”; and a former Prozac waif turned difficult, naked “Bitch,” Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Radical Sanity: Common Sense Advice for Uncommon Women.”
“OK, I bought one,” my friend Sarah admits over the phone. “I was depressed.” By the time she confesses this, I am lost, up to my neck in a bathtub full of bubbles — as suggested by at least three guide authors — gorging on five books at once and starting to feel queasy.
Of course, there’s an element of harmless narcissism that goes along with reading these books; everybody likes to read about herself, especially in the movie version. And there’s something undeniably uplifting and, yes, empowering about the way they urge young, single women to live happily and creatively. But the same thing that makes the genre attractive is what makes it vaguely unsettling. The newer guides, though no doubt more enlightened than the old, share with them the assumption that single women still need instructions on how to be happy and creative on their own. There’s something ultimately deflating about a guidebook that explains how to be cheerful and zany and eccentric, and something sad about a woman who buys one. It rings of “Oh, my God, I’m a single woman in a city.” If she were just fine with that — which the books say she should be — why would she need to buy a manual? Regardless of the virtues of this latest batch of how-to manuals for single women, it’s the continued existence of the genre itself, which has been around for at least 150 years, that is ultimately depressing.
At first glance, the genre’s history seems to trace a gradual movement from hidebound dependence on men to eventual autonomy. But things are not that simple. Guides for “spinsters” in the late 1800s were more melancholic, but perhaps less hysterical and confused, than the new ones. In 1859, two years before the outbreak of the Civil War, it was assumed that an unmarried woman of 30 was finally emancipated from the eternal cycle of male-oriented thinking and domesticity and free to focus on other things, namely service to society. And while these visions of corseted old maids are not exactly uplifting, there’s something liberating about the idea that unmarriageable women were encouraged to get over it — and themselves — and move on. The newer guides for city girls appear to be more enlightened — they’re much too sophisticated to deal in “tips on how to hook a man” and other such retro advice — but in some ways, the feeling of single-girl desperation looms even larger despite, or because of, their keep-smiling, create-yourself aura.
For all their attitude, the new guides still dispense tips on how to cultivate an “intriguing personality” (code for marriageability) — the most intriguing, these days, being the sort of eccentric, madcap spunkiness of Holly Golightly minus the prostitution, the bad past and the doomed future. So maybe she’s Corie in “Barefoot in the Park.” The “Bad Girl,” for example, has at her disposal at least 10 good excuses for getting out of the office (“My toilet backed up, overflowed and flooded my whole apartment”) and 10 suggestions for things to do with panty liners (“disposable gym slippers”).
The girl with the three skirts has a list of things to do while alone and happy (“Dance naked in Ugg boots”), and of things to do when alone and sad (“Play music, commune with your spirit, cook a weird recipe, volunteer in a soup kitchen”). The “swell” girl tips her manicurist with confidence and knows her beluga from her osetra. She never takes her friends for granted but will, when pressed, buy a Sara Lee cheesecake, bisect it with dental floss, stuff it with warm blueberries and lie to these same friends about its origins. She remembers to “keep the lighting low. Garnish. Get rid of the evidence!”
Why the nutty affectation of domesticity? The blatant lie? Do takeout containers in plain sight make a girl less than swell? It’s unclear how the new urban girl with the zany personality and the store-bought cheesecake will find the appropriate context in which to be impressive. The new guides may suggest condoms and joke about feminine hygiene products, but they are as focused on domesticity, personality, what to serve and what to wear as their centuries-old predecessors — the hundreds and hundreds of etiquette, charm, style, entertaining and other “feminine arts” manuals designed to help young or unmarried girls correct their errant civil status.
“You’re still supposed to be a mysterious woman,” says Lynn Peril. “Charm and personality are code words for femininity, which is a code word for marriage marketability.”
Peril is the author of the upcoming “Pink Think: How to Become a Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons.” She also is the editor of “Mystery Date: One Gal’s Guide to the Good Stuff,” and a columnist at Bust magazine. Peril’s obsession with vintage sex and dating manuals, etiquette and self-help books, and health, beauty and fashion guides has caused her to amass a collection of close to 1,000 books, which fill the floor-to-ceiling shelves and twirling paperback racks of her Oakland, Calif., office, as well as large parts of the floor.
In the early part of the century, Peril explains, it was assumed that a girl would marry and that she would face serious consequences if she didn’t. Books like “The Afternoon of Unmarried Life,” written in 1859 by an “Unmarried Gentlewoman of England,” were designed to help the unmarried woman figure out what to do with the rest of her life after she hit 30 without a husband. Its anonymous author suggested that “spinsters” devote themselves to serving others according to the principles of “True Womanhood: purity, piety, submissiveness and domesticity.” In other words, if you were single and 30 in the 19th century you were advised to stop mooning and start ladling.
The image of the freewheeling single started to come into being around the 1920s and ’30s. Then, it was still assumed that a girl would marry, but if she didn’t, she could still find ways to make her life fairly agreeable. While readers of “The Afternoon of Unmarried Life” were encouraged to “repress selfishness,” Marjorie Hillis, author of “Live Alone and Like It: A Guide for the Extra Woman,” wrote in 1936:
You don’t have to turn out your light when you want to read, because somebody else wants to sleep. You don’t have to have the light on when you want to sleep, because somebody else wants to read. You don’t have to get up in the night to fix somebody else’s hot-water bottle, or lie awake listening to snores, or be vivacious when you’re tired, or cheerful when you’re blue, or sympathetic when you’re bored. You probably have your bathroom all to yourself, too, which is unquestionably one of Life’s Great Blessings. You don’t have to wait till someone finishes shaving, when you are all set for a cold-cream session. You have no one complaining about your pet bottles, no one to drop wet towels on the floor, no one occupying the bathtub when you have just time to take a shower. From dusk until dawn, you can do exactly as you please, which, after all, is a pretty good allotment in this world where a lot of conforming is expected of everyone.
Twenty-six years later, in 1962, Helen Gurley Brown published her infamous “Sex and the Single Girl,” which, according to the paperback edition, “torpedoed the myth that a girl must be married to enjoy a satisfying life.” Like other guides for single girls, it also included advice on dress, decorating, fitness and financial matters. Unlike other guides, it urged single women to have “unadulterated, cliffhanging sex,” free of remorse. Of course, Gurley Brown also encouraged girls to go ahead and date that married guy and look upon gifts from men as part of “the spoils” of being female.
Eventually, of course, Brown’s views on recreational sex became the norm and everybody was shocked when girls in the ’90s started writing about abstinence and modesty. But despite Brown’s “succès de scandale,” books for young women in the ’60s still contained quaint advice on dilemmas such as how to handle fresh boys while remaining fascinating. This, from Millis Duvall, in her 1967 book, “The Art of Dating”:
The inexperienced girl may wonder, “If he tries something, shall I slap him and run, or just run?” The more mature girl knows that she doesn’t need to resort to either slapping or running in order to deal with the too-amorous boyfriend. She wards off unwelcome behavior with a firm refusal to co-operate, accompanied by a knowing smile and a suggestion of some alternate activity. She may say, “Not now, Ambrose — let’s go get a hamburger; I’m hungry.”
It’s funny — not in small part because just reading the name Ambrose is funny — but this advice is not that different in style or effect from, say, a tip from Tuttle’s 2001 “Bad Girl’s Guide” on “how to lose a loser.” She suggests you “make a huge stink when the flight attendant/bar waitress serves your meal,” declaring: “I ordered the Wiccan meal. Of course I’m sure. I practice the craft.” (It’s funny, but not as funny as Ambrose. It’s also unlikely that anyone other than Sandra Bullock could actually say this line and not instantly impale herself on her fork for shame.)
When Abigail Grotke first came across “The Art of Dating” in a thrift store, it was 1987 and she was in college. She and her roommate took the book back to the dorm to read it aloud to each other. Fifteen years later, Grotke has a collection of 600 advice books, which span the 1820s to the 1970s and cover topics such as single life, dating, love, living together, marriage, sex, etiquette, home repair and housekeeping.
In 1997, Grotke launched Miss Abigail’s Time Warp Advice, a Web site dedicated to dispensing “Old Advice for Contemporary Dilemmas.” As Miss Abigail, Grotke answers questions about single life, dating or etiquette, using appropriate passages from the old books that overflow the shelves in her one-bedroom apartment.
“The problems haven’t changed,” she says.
Strangely, the answers aren’t that different, either. In 1969′s “Why Isn’t a Nice Girl Like You Married?” writer Rebecca Greer suggests the single girl “keep busy” by filling her unaccompanied hours with physical activities, “for anger, tension, and frustration all produce energy that requires an outlet.” Greer continues:
Instead of pacing the floor and becoming more distraught, take up jogging, join a ski club, enroll in a ballet class, indulge yourself — because when you’ve just lost a man, you need all the other pleasures you can get. It’s the one time in your life when you should be a complete hedonist. Buy a sexy new dress you can’t afford, eat a whole box of chocolates by yourself, spend an entire weekend going to every movie in town. Do anything you like … and enjoy it.
In last year’s “Three Black Skirts: All You Need to Survive,” author Johnson reminds us that “sometimes, alone time gives rise to a power surge of energy: Use it to get things done. Make two huge pots of soup and freeze them, or jar enough stewed fruit or pesto sauce to keep you going through the month.” She also suggests we “indulge in a bathtub pedicure” and “invest in the best Chinese satin pajamas and marabou slippers.”
Advice books of every vintage seek the mysterious alchemy that will turn loneliness into self-actualization. Being single is fine as long as you act like a character from a Truman Capote novel — especially while alone. “Do all the crazy stuff that privacy permits,” Johnson writes, like “watch four pre-taped episodes of ‘The Nanny’ back-to-back. Do your housework in a crochet bikini, an apron and a raspberry beret. Speak Italian to your plants. Take Polaroids of your breasts for future generations to admire.”
The current boom in girl guides seems like the next natural step in the “chick-lit” explosion of recent years. That genre has been a trusty cash cow in publishing since Fielding hit a nerve with “Bridget Jones’s Diary” in 1998 — so lucrative, in fact, that it inspired Harlequin Enterprises, purveyors of heaving, historical romance, to get in on the “grrrly” action. Harlequin recently launched a new imprint, Red Dress Ink, to publish one City Girls novel (and that name has been trademarked) each month. There’s a familiar pattern.
Red Dress Ink hopes to corner the market on the fictional adventures of “20-something-plus women who are discovering themselves, sharing apartments, meeting men, struggling with careers and stressing for success.”
“Red Dress Ink books are about how single urban females really are,” read the imprint’s submission guidelines. “We see life in all its messy details — meddling moms, rivalries at work, unfaithful boyfriends. But driving the story is the heroine’s development into a strong woman, supported by close friends. And if she finds love along the way, what a bonus! These books are Ally McBeal meets ‘Sex and the City,’ ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ meets ‘The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing.’”
Do we need as many as one of these novels a month? Margaret Marbury, Red Dress editor, recently told Inside.com, “We have indicators that this is what readers are asking for.”
Apparently, there are indicators that readers also are asking for “irreverent” guides of all types. “Guides are happening right now,” says Jay Schaefer, an editor at Chronicle Books, which publishes Tuttle’s books.
If you’re not seeing anyone, writes Tuttle, “date yourself.” Do this by eating over the sink by candlelight, treating yourself to a new outfit, “gently caressing your hand or thigh at the movies.” Buy yourself a diamond, Rowley and Rosenzweig murmur, learn how to gamble, slip a few bills to the hostess at a popular restaurant if you don’t have a reservation.
“Jesus,” my boyfriend says, scanning a pert volume from the top of the heap, “you’d go broke doing all this stuff.”
And it occurs to me — as I survey my stack of candy-colored manuals — that you would go broke, and not just because of the money you’d spend. The girl in these books is slightly hysterical. She’s the kind of girl who buys the conflicting messages that lead to addled, self-absorbed, neurotic heroines like Bridget Jones. She sets up impossible hoops for herself to leap through and then binges on anodynes when she fails.
Of course, not all girl guides are meant to be taken seriously. In bookstores they might be shelved under Women, Self-Help or Humor. All of them tend to self-consciously wink and nudge the reader from flap to flap.
Maybe the girl-guide writers feel guilty. Maybe they know deep-down their readers are frantic and scattered. After all, they have undergone a major transformation — from demure, pious, pure 19th century lady to independent, self-sufficient 21st century woman who still can’t measure up to the bad, swell, world-ruling girly in the book. And she feels really bad about it. So maybe she’ll buy this book, because there are consequences in any period for women who do not fit the current ideal image of femininity — soft, hairy or bad. But to spend one’s life pursuing a whimsically concocted or fashionable ideal seems both exhausting and futile. Even Wurtzel, that bulwark of do-me feminism, gets that. So what does she suggest we do instead? “Do settle down,” she coos toward the end of “Radical Sanity.” “You’ve been single long enough. You don’t want your life to go into reruns, so stop the syndication deal before it starts. Enough. It’s time to settle down. So find some good man and just do it. Just like that.”