Part 3: or, Gender and the New Romantics
There is a narrow gender space in the implied audience of It’s Just a F***king Date (which does seem to be almost exclusively straight women). This is perhaps a slippage between the ideal (which could have been broader, we don’t know) and the implied audience. That said, there is a sense in which the particularity of gendered experiences makes it naive or worse to try to reach more than one orientation or identity. How would you write a dating book for transwomen that also works for straight cis-gendered women that is more than empty platitudes? Is it right to write a dating book for a gender identity you don’t share? Should dating books even be recognized as a useful tool in gay, trans, or gender queer communities who don’t usually have access to the kinds of public spaces and discourses that evolved in a heteronormative ideal of courtship? These are all things that bear thinking about, but are legitimately outside the scope of the audience analysis of this book, and my authority as a critic. Still they are at the margins of the book because a dating book, almost any relationship focussed self-help book really, is by its nature an outgrowth of traditional, patriarchal ways of inscribing pathology onto the female body as a way of ensuring participation in a male dominated system of reproduction.
At a certain point, the gendering of the genre is problematic. But it is a result of audience creation. Audiences bring their already existing ideas to a book, and those are shaped by prevailing ideologies and attitudes. The word of advice to women has created an audience of female advice seekers that has learned to speak in the language of traditional gender roles and heteronormative relationship goals.
The British theorist Stuart Hall writes that a media message is encoded by the author, circulated, then decoded by the audience, and used by that audience to their own purposes. This encoding/decoding model gives tremendous power to the audience and imagines it’s decoding process as integral to the work’s reception and effects. The final stage in which the audience uses the decoded message is called by Stuart “reproduction,” because that is when the audience uses the decoded information to reproduce either a dominant position or a subversive position, or some negotiated middle ground response, in their own thoughts and actions. This process of decoding has historically been used to enforce a dominant and hierarchical view that the point of courtship is get a man - any man - and marry him and keep him happy (c.f., The Rules, which counsels less communication, and more subservient actions to “catch” a man.)
The advice book as a genre engages the audience in this active participation, it asks them to decode the information in the book and reproduce that information in their lives. There is a call to action on the part of the audience. This kind of writing seeks to change its audience into people who don’t need advice. They way many self-help books do this is through a dominant position. In this position the audience and the author share the same vocabulary and the same cultural biases so there is no misunderstanding or opposition on the part of the decoding audience. But the author maintains a position of authority, and the language of the communication establishes the hierarchical nature of knowledge and the advice This affirms the dominant cultural narratives and forces the audience to buy in to them in order to understand and the accept the advice. When the audience reproduces this intended meaning, they recommit to traditional social norms and practices through the advice they have taken.
As we have examined before, what is interesting about It’s Just a F***king Date is that it’s structure attempts to construct an audience relationship that encourages the negotiated reproduction of as much of the information as the audience wants to use, rather than the reproduction of dominant modes of thinking in which the audience is passive. What is the call to action in this book? Is it a positive change over other self-helps? I think the call to action is essentially Stuart Hall’s negotiation reproduction. In this model, the dominant language is still used, and the common understanding of things remains intact, but the audience understands that they are free to take or leave those common ideas as they see fit. The idea is that through dating - unfreighted with the anxieties of competition for, or “catching,” a man - a woman can negotiate the kinds of emotional and physical relationships she wants by remaining firmly rooted in her desires. There is not really a game, only the process of coming to understand what you want and why, all through a long process of trial and error. Self-knowledge through sharing and communicating is the secret. The book replicates the very thought processes that it advocates by using a conversational mode and audience testimony. This method makes the audience go on figurative dates with people like themselves (e.g., the section on page 37 where a woman goes “out on a date with myself”) in order to see what sorts of actions and attitudes they like and don’t like. The mode of composition becomes a model of the call to action. “Take what we have done in our relationships, and in writing this book, and use it for yourself in the same spirit of collaboration and fun.”
One cannot write a book for an audience that isn’t there, in a language the existing audience does not speak, not if one wants that book to sell. The existing self-help, dating advice audience is composed of women who have been told that there is something wrong with their desires. They have learned to speak the language of female anxieties as pathology, that they are broken and need fixing. Amiira and Greg cannot write a book that tells women that attempts at gender liberation have been swiftly co-opted to serve the sexual predilections of straight men, that you feel bad because you are made to feel bad, and half the battle is coming to terms with your own desires, and that a post-modern response in the form of reclaiming dating as a ritual focussed on female empowerment is a sound strategy because dating’s now old-fashioned appearance means it antedates, and therefore avoids, that co-option in its structure. But they can write the book they did, which amounts to the same thing without being as annoying as what I just wrote.
There’s something very appealing about it. Although this book is not for me, it does convey information without hectoring or shaming. (And the demolition of “Brad,” who seems to hate women for not wanting him effortlessly, is a welcome corrective to the toxic culture of “nice guys”.) The thesis of the first half of the book (which apes other self-help books with 8 Principles to follow for successful dating) is summed up on page 27 during a discussion of the first principle: “Because when your self-esteem is in the shitter and you don’t feel worthy, you look to others for validation, you settle for crappy things and all you get is crappy things and who wants that?” (emphasis mine). This sets a theme on a sort of new romantic economy.
When I think about dating advice, I think about Jane Austen. She is the acknowledged master of the courtship novel and the marriage plot. And one of the things to come out of the feminist turn in Austen scholarship in the 1970s and ‘80s is the idea that Austen’s comic novels of single women of the gentry finding their husbands are not only stylistically masterful, but also deeper in their social critique than at first glance. Sandra Gilbert and Sunsan Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic explores the dark side of female novels, in that work they examine Austen examining her world:
“…in all her novels Austen examines the female powerlessness that underlies monetary pressure to marry, the injustice of inheritance laws, the ignorance of women denied formal education, the psychological vulnerability of the heiress or widow, the exploited dependency of the spinster, the boredom of the lady provided with vocation”
Here is the master, straining at the conventions of her time. Austen is using the dominant language of the old system of romance in which women were only made whole through a man, but she is imagining a new romantic: a woman who is whole on her own and can seek a man for her own gratification, not his. The problems of courtship in Regency England were the problems of disenfranchised women looking to read themselves against popular, dominant narratives of dependence and subservience. Austen’s famous take down, in Northanger Abbey, of sentimental and Romantic works like The Castle of Otranto, was the most outspoken attempt to use a novel to decry the damaging stereotypes perpetuated by novels at the time. Austen is straining to create a new kind of audience, young women who read light novels, but who know that something is deeply wrong with the roles they are asked to play. The light surface of her graceful prose is the oil on the waters roiling underneath.
I choose to read It’s Just a F***king Date in the same way. While it uses the forms of the typical dating-advice self-help book, it attempts to highlight the absurdities and injustices in a system that doesn’t produce happy women, but just more alienation. Like the courtships of Austen’s day, modern courtship rituals often ask women to measure their self-worth through their partner. This strands women emotionally, professionally, and, even still, economically. Amiira and Greg’s message that “YOU CAN’T LOOK FOR SOMEONE ELSE TO GIVE YOU VALUE!” is a useful intervention in a field where too many women find themselves caught up in an economy of others rather than a valuation of the self. This romantic economy imagines status as a commodity tradable through romantic partners, but it doesn’t locate self-worth in the actions of the self. Instead it devalues women’s happiness until it is just an adjunct of the esteem of their partners. Women are told to change themselves to participate in the market for a few eligible male partners who will solve all their problems. They must be whatever the man is supposed to want and be willing to enter any arrangement that man desire, sublimating their own desires and self-image into the ether. Instead, It’s Just a F***king Date imagines a new romantic subject along the lines of Austen’s. Dating becomes market in which personal happiness comes from personal actions and attitudes in contrast with (or combat against) the idea that only the committed perfect couple can be happy, all else is the life-and-death struggle for that goal. One’s worth in this dating economy is one’s self-possession and desires; literally, one’s sense and sensibility.
This book is not for me, but who it is for, and why it is for them is an interesting story (well, it was until I made it a boring college class). The ways that authors use multiple voices to construct virtual audiences for composition and then the ways that audiences imagine and constitute themselves in the process of reading and reproducing knowledge are important avenues of inquiry. This is not only for the purposes of literary analysis and criticism, but for the reader and writer to begin to situate themselves in the landscape of social narratives and cultural tropes. When we encounter information we ought to ask ourselves what sort of conversation is being started, do we want to be part of it, and do we like its terms. This meta-lesson is in It’s Just a F***king Date, as well. When we engage in relationships with other people we need to clear about the kinds of things that we want and the kinds of things that we are taking in and giving out with our words and actions. We are all somebody’s audience, and we are all somebody’s author. Hopefully, we are also our own.