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Where Rules Rule: The Pink, Swirly Rise of the Girl’s Guide
Bitch Magazine


In 1999, Melissa Bank published The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, a collection of short stories about a young, droll woman thwarted by romantic love. It was a love-it-or-hate-it media sensation as well as a bestseller, dividing feminists with equivocating messages about women: Was the book a knowingly ironic look at the difficulty of romantic fulfillment, or did it give us yet another female heroine for whom romantic love with a man was the defining life experience?

Whatever the answer, the book appears to have launched 1000 ships, or at least, tens of like-titled offspring. Since 1999, no fewer than 30 titles including the phrase “girls’ guide” have found their way into print. And though the eponymous story in the Bank collection is a critique of the very premise of a “girls’ guide”—in fact, it’s an all-but-overt repudiation of The Rules, the 1996 phenomenon that encouraged women to manipulate men into commitment1—most of these post-Bank “girls’ guides” are less than ironic.

What’s going on? Did Bank’s response to The Rules unintentionally locate a gaping lacuna in the advice market, especially for (young?) women? Or did enterprising authors merely appropriate the titular phrase to capitalize on Bank’s success? And if they did, what is the true nature of their project? How are they telling us to be, and are we meant to take them seriously?

And why are we suddenly girls?

Good Girls vs. Bad Girls

Perhaps no girls’ guides are as visible as Cameron Tuttle’s “Bad Girl” series, currently enjoying an extended stay on your bookseller’s novelty table or check-out counter. In 1999, Tuttle began the series with The Bad Girl’s Guide to the Open Road; Y2K brought us The Bad Girl’s Guide to Getting What You Want; and this year saw the publication of The Bad Girl’s Guide to Perfect Parties (not to mention the Bad Girl calendar). At this point, of course, Bad Girl is a brand—a movement-minded imprint that’s attempting to form a community of “bad”-aspiring girls/women while it encourages a particular persona: “Note to self: Two cocktails before next gynecological exam? Yes!”

Tuttle’s bad girl is a thrill-seeking, rollicking, go-girl femme on a bender against boredom and banality. She wants what she wants, and she’s willing to buck the rules to get it: “She knows when to work a room, when to work the angles, and when to work her curves—or all of the above.” While apparently more powerful, Tuttle’s bad girl is not unlike the flailing Bridget Jones; the underlying assumption is that she’s fleeing the white, middle-class banality of stifling corporate jobs, calorie counting, and disastrous dates in pursuit of fast times, copious anonymous sex, and a kegger in every port: “Being a girl is your ice cream sundae. Being a bad girl is the cherry on top.”

Yes, freedom from obligation and convention play a healthy part in the bad-girl lifestyle, but the end point is frequently the same—sex and beer—as if recapturing the anarchy of the frat party in some way equates with liberation (or at least fun) for women. Typical advice: how to get free drinks at a bar; how to get a man to call; how to get out of a speeding ticket; how to get out of going to work. Of course, the operative concept here is fun, not feminist liberation, and Tuttle’s bad girl is all about the good times. The books are entertaining, funny, and highly imaginative in their details (Who knew that panty liners could be so versatile?). Though Tuttle recommends stashing a copy of The Bad Girl’s Guide to the Open Road in your glove compartment, it’s written in the blurby, bulleted, graphic-and-list-heavy genre most likely to take up residence on the lid of the toilet tank. Where else would advice such as: “Things to do with . . . Marshmallows: Use as press-on nipples to win a wet T-shirt contest” be as welcome?

Is Tuttle joking? Of course she’s joking. At least half of the advice in the “Bad Girl’s” guides is utterly unfollowable, meant to elicit a chuckle and, perhaps, to open your imagination up to just how wild and crazy it’s possible to be (without actually suggesting that you follow through). On the other hand, enough of Tuttle’s books are serious to call her underlying intentions into question. Tuttle really does encourage you to get down with your bad self, which for her means “attitude in overdrive, coast-to-coast confidence, and fast-forward fun . . . your boldest dreams and your inner wild.” Thus the Web site and the bad-girl “movement.” In Open Road, though she begins the section “Living Dangerously” with a caveat against drinking and driving, she then suggests ways of avoiding arrest if you do happen to find yourself pulled over while drunk behind the wheel. Wowsa.

Ultimately, there’s a certain amount of cognitive disjunction in Tuttle’s approach. How seriously are we meant to take (what she calls) the bad-girl swirl? And if the crux of her advice is to shirk convention and ditch the rules, why do we need to be told exactly how to do that? In her introduction, she allows that the bad girl “makes her own rules,” so why has she written a rulebook for how to be bad? It’s hard not to feel a little sad reading these guides, since part of the conceit must be that, as members of its audience, we’re not crazy or wild or powerful enough to be our own kind of bad. It’s as though we have to join Tuttle’s movement, and log on to her site, to engage our “boldest dreams.”

True to her message, Tuttle is not trying to be good—she’s breezy and unconcerned—but the superficiality of her guides is a little suspect. If being bad amounts to a series of behavioral adjustments (as opposed to getting in touch with something authentic inside of us), then how are her books different from The Rules? When she advocates role-playing or writing your number in lipstick on a man’s stomach to get his attention, it’s just a saucier, more daring form of manipulation. And if we’re being encouraged to change our behavior, regardless of how we actually feel, to get what we want . . . well, it’s hard to see where the power is.

Tuttle’s not the only one promoting bad-girl behavior. Barbara Keesling, sex therapist and former “sexual surrogate,” is an ardent proponent, as she makes clear in The Good Girl’s Guide to Bad Girl Sex. Unfortunately, the way “good” and “bad” breakdown in Keesling’s book is a little Mesozoic: “Bad Girls Have Sex on the Brain” and “Bad Girls Love to Climax.” Keesling’s experience dealing with sexual issues would suggest a familiarity with typical women’s inhibitions, but let’s hope it doesn’t, since that would mean that all too many women still need to hear that they have a right to crave and enjoy sex. (Didn’t we win that battle in the 70s? Or the 20s?)

Keesling’s tone suggests that she’s addressing an older, far more timid demographic than Tuttle’s books—which have long since assumed we’re thirsty for the lovin.’ At the same time, her relentlessly perky, plangent tone suggests her own discomfort with the inner bad: “So click those ruby red Manolo Blahnik stilettos together three times and repeat after me: There’s nothing wrong with being bad, there’s nothing wrong with being bad, there’s nothing wrong with being bad.” Hmm. There’s a real fire-starter. And if Keesling’s so bad, why does she care what we do? Then there’s the depressingly predictable conventionality (and privilege) of her vision. Red Manolo Blahniks? Zzzzz. Surely bad-girl sexuality is more creative than that.

Under the Pink

Though Keesling’s into red, a healthy majority of the girls’ guides are swaddled in pink. Why? In some cases—the Bad Girl series—it appears self-conscious and winking, a have-our-cake-and-eat-it-too reference to stereotypically constructed femininity exactly as it attempts to offer racier, less constrained alternatives. Just as Tuttle suggests telling the police officer that you’re on the run from an abusive husband to evade a speeding ticket, her pink says, “Yeah, I’m a girl. And I’m going to use everything you’re assuming that means about me to my advantage.” It’s one approach to getting what you want, but it’s far from straightforward—as a result, one imagines, of having embraced the “girl” factor in the first place. After all, girls don’t have a lot of personal or political power; for them, manipulation and dissembling (two tactics heavily employed in the Bad Girl way of life) may be viable because they’re the only options available. But, presumably, women can advocate for what they want. Or seize it. Or take it to the Supreme Court. Again, Tuttle’s not advocating womanhood, and her persona is undoubtedly fun. But again, the price is power.2

While Tuttle’s pink may know it’s loaded, the pink in many of the other girls’ guides seems less determined. Jennifer Babbit and Samantha Bank’s A Girl’s Guide to a Guy’s World contributes pretty baldly to entrenched gender stereotypes—boys like sports, cars, home improvement, and beer, and girls can learn about these things by reading this book—so the fact that the spot-color is pink (and that a pair of full, pink lips accompanies the title line at the top of each page and perches perkily on the binding) seems to say what pink has always said within this paradigm: Girls are froofy and delicate and pristine, and we care about nothing so much as our hair. What else could explain the glamorous locks gracing a page about de-icing your windows? Unsurprisingly, the book’s authors assure us that they’re not challenging anything our grandmothers may have said about girlhood: “This is not a book to make you manly—it’s a book to let you know that, as a woman [cameo appearance of the “w” word], you can do anything and everything you put your mind to.” I.e., watching football, chugging a lager, and plunging the toilet. Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last.

What Happened to Women?

Why aren’t these “women’s guides”? For one thing, most are targeted at younger women—women in their twenties and possibly thirties—so the assumption may be that until we hit forty, we’re still, in some sense, diminutive. At the same time, many of the guides are promoting a very particular way of being female, a girly, frothy, cocktail-and-heels version of femininity that is, apparently, enjoying a comeback as hip and desirable. It’s an image that harkens back to Audrey Hepburn’s shift and pearls and asks us to be just as doe-eyed and bubbly. Ambition? Not for us. Achievement? Boring. Emotional depth? Nope. Fun is prominent; hostessing rules.

Cynthia Rowley’s and Ilene Rosensweig’s Swell: A Girl’s Guide to the Good Life is the sina qua non of the Girl Hostess genre. From the title, you might expect a hearty endorsement of aggressive financial management or a spiritually oriented guide for seekers of emotional peace. Instead, it’s a hostess manual, complete with a drink list and bar tricks to liven up your every date. Apparently, your job as a swell girl is to entertain others. Boredom is cardinal, so don’t tax your partner by sharing intimate stories after sex! Amusingly, marriage gets a single paragraph in this book, most of which is occupied with a Zsa Zsa Gabor quote about keeping your hubby’s flame ignited. She married eight times; she ought to know.

Highballs and High Heels: A Girl’s Guide to the Art of Cocktails distills the genre into a recipe book, in which instructions for assembling drinks are preceded by flirtatious ruminations on girl style and surrounded by retro, pastel-hued graphics. With drinks like “Blonde Bombshell,” “Stiletto Cocktail,” and “Getting Layered,” there’s a pretty clear directive around the activities available to you as a girl: First you wear the dress, then you make the drinks, and then you have the sex. Groovy!

In these and other guides, “girl” is a very small word, scarcely expansive enough to contain the stiletto heels so saucily recommended (for your feet and his drink). It can’t countenance entire fields of existence, such as gainful employment or social activism or intellectual pursuit or emotional growth. (It can’t even contain a single authentic intimate relationship.) But perhaps more than anything else, “girl” seems particularly pressed to admit power. A swell girl? Leading an organization or a political body? But that doesn’t sound like fun.

In fact, if The Girls’ Guide to Power and Success is any indication, the word “girl” disappears the moment that serious discussion of power begins. In the first sentence of her introduction, wherein author Susan Wilson Solovic discusses her motivation for writing a book “for women,” she expresses feminist indignation about “social prejudice, bias, and stereotyping.” The next few paragraphs are occupied with the importance of power—“without power, success is nothing”—in which, unsurprisingly, the word “girl” never appears. In fact, after its prominent debut in the title, the word seems to have made a hasty exit offstage, with one exception. Solovic tells us that “Your first step toward power and success is to stop thinking like a good girl and to start thinking like a smart, savvy woman.” Clearly, Solovic’s book, a serious attempt to empower women in their personal and professional lives, is of another genre. So, um, the title? Marketing gimmick—and an unfortunate one.

The Perils of Sincerity

Solovic isn’t the only writer sincerely trying to empower women by writing a guide. With the same intent, Julia Bourland takes on an entire decade. At 29, Bourland emerged from her harrowing twenties with a fulfilling career, a happy committed romantic relationship, and a fair amount of emotional stability. She wrote The Go-Girl Guide: Surviving your 20s with Savvy, Soul, and Style in the attempt to ease the journey for her younger peers.

Bourland’s advice is often clear-minded and noble. She offers powerful tips for negotiating on the job and a frank discussion of sexual health. But more than occasionally, Bourland’s advice is curiously personal. For instance, she advises twentysomething women to date men in their 30s, as they have “a little more patience” for dealing with “our weird 20-something relationship fears and antics.” The evidence supporting this oddly specific (and self-hating) assertion is that Bourland’s current boyfriend, in his 30s, is a keeper.

But what’s most disappointing about Bourland’s book is its utter conventionality—and, therefore, its ultimate lack of empowerment. While her title may cheerlead our efforts with its “go-girl” modifier, in fact she seems to be urging us toward nothing more promising than a low-rung assistantship in a corporate office and the search for a committed, monogamous, heterosexual relationship.3 Where’s the encouragement to hop an Alaskan fishing boat, climb to the top of the Amazonian canopy, or organize a labor strike? Even within the conventional paradigm, why is there little or no mention of starting our own businesses or non-profit organizations, running for local office, playing professional sports, or pursuing advanced degrees?

Worse, Bourland doesn’t seem empowered herself. She’s got the career and the man (rewarding for her, though maybe not for us), but she admits that she’s waiting for a marriage proposal. Within an endorsement of cohabitation, she writes, “And if he ever gets inspired to pop the question, he can rest assured that I’m absolutely 120 percent ready to get hitched.” 120 percent? So why doesn’t she ask him?

Vanessa Summers, former model and stockbroker and author of Get in the Game: The Girls’ Guide to Money and Investing, is more empowered (if only by virtue of having been abandoned by a man, a stepfather) but equally assuming. From her open-legged, barefooted, cascading-blond-tresses photograph on the cover, she warns that even if you do manage to find a financially supportive husband, you may not stay together; even if you stay together, statistics favor your outliving him. (Lesbians and women who choose to be single? Invisible.) At the same time, Summers’ premise and, more pointedly, her overly-encouraging-cum-condescending tone, assumes that young women are terrified of handling money. “You can do this . . . just keep reading!” she writes in an oversized, spot-color font, as though the realization that we’re responsible for our finances has sent us whinnying towards the hills.

There’s a problem with attempting to deliver sincere sisterly advice, especially when the empowerment is less than evident. Implicit in this kind of guide is the assumption that there’s a right and a wrong way to go about every aspect of our lives. Sure, the authors allow room for individual preference, but the underlying conceit is that there are better and worse ways of behaving. Whereas surely feminism (if not sheer humanism) has earned us the right to act exactly as we wish? And to revel in our mistakes? Where, one wonders, is the permission to err, and to learn from having erred? Isn’t that very process empowering?

One way to avoid this trap is to give non-behavioral advice. That is, instead of telling us what to do, a la Tuttle, with nary a glance into our emotional interiors, we could be instructed to investigate our motives, name our goals, and set forth on a path toward maturity through awareness. (The other approach is simply to tell us to break the rules at every turn—again a la Tuttle—but then why offer advice at all?) To their credit, Bourland occasionally employs this tactic, and the entire course of Summers’ advice is predicated upon the advisee’s having first determined her monetary values and goals.

But one senses that any kind of deep incursion into emotional depth would skirt a little too closely to self-help, a dowdy genre that both Bourland and Summers seem determined to avoid. Indeed, though Bourland includes an entire section on what she terms “emotional theatrics,” she’s anything but comfortable with the idea that feelings might be messy and dark. After a short, apologetic segment on rage (“Rage is not cheery, I know”), Bourland exits with a plea: “Let’s move on (please)!” She does recommend psychotherapy, but as a solution to the problem of rage, not as a tool for gaining personal power. Here as elsewhere, Bourland’s twentysomething striver seems to have enrolled at the swell-girl university, in which “desirable” female identity cannot accommodate something as powerful as rage. This attitude invalidates the sweeping range of human emotions even as it encourages us to examine it.

Why, one is tempted to ask, do we need so much advice? Why, as women, do we need to be guided, as opposed to advised, counseled, and/or supported, through personal life events? Are we so helpless that we need to be handed a list, a series of behaviors that, if pantomimed correctly (true desires and persona notwithstanding), will secure our quarry?

There seems to be a connection between the “girl” and the “guide”; that is, the former renders us powerless enough to admit room for the latter. If we were women, we might be empowered to do what we want when we want, conventionally or otherwise, and to learn from our mistakes. We might even have enough power to eschew the idea of mistakes entirely and revel in the swervy road that is, inevitably, the way life goes. Sure, we could handle a little support from the sidelines, perhaps—to use an ungirly sports metaphor—but a guide? A guide is for identifying the birds of the Atlantic seaboard.

Of course, it’s easy to understand why it’s raining girls’ guides. It’s fun to give advice and, after having been through a trial or two, eminently tempting. It’s not hard to believe, as these authors must, that prescribing behavior could save a younger girl the heap of trouble that you so sorely suffered. But the assumption that any one person can tell us how to behave—and that, more particularly, her experience has anything to say about ours—is a little insulting. And, to the extent that it infantalizes us, it’s antifeminist as well.

Footnotes

1It’s worth mentioning that, at least from a feminist perspective, Bank’s story gives with one hand and takes away with the other. That is, Banks defenestrates The Rules’ retrograde entrapment recipe only to replace it with fantasy, rewarding her protagonist with an idealized romance far more Victorian than whatever the cynical authors of The Rules appear to believe women are seeking (and can effect). In this sense, the promise of Banks’ story—that if you just act authentically, you’ll be pursued and begged for immediate and long-lasting commitment by The Perfect Man—may be as undermining as the manipulative theatrics promoted by The Rules.

2Which is not, apparently, how Tuttle sees it. In her press kit, under “Looking for a news magazine quotation?” she writes: “The Bad-Girl movement isn’t a feminist thing. It’s a femme realist thing. I respect feminism, but the term feminist has served its purpose and done its time. A femme realist is a woman who is into her feminine power and into reality enough to know how to use her power to get what she wants.” Hmm. Would that be the power whose source is male sexual attention? Sure, trumping the objectification card is one way to deal with sexism, but what about drawing power from within?

3She does dedicate a section to homosexuality, but everywhere else in the book, the assumption is that we’re seeking men.

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