How Self-Help Books Hurt Women

As The New Yorker Book Bench wryly points out, Kiri Blakeley's Forbes article on why women buy self-help books contains some annoying stereotypes. But it also offers depressing insight into why so many women think they need help.

Blakeley's article is based on the claim that women are buying the lion's share of self-help books. 74% of relationship and family books in 2008 were apparently purchased by women, and the Times' latest paperback advice bestseller list is certainly packed with titles targeting women (Hungry Girl 200 Under 200, Skinny Bitch, and How Not To Look Old are a few standouts). Interestingly, the hardcover advice list appears more diverse. True, Steve Harvey's Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man comes in at #2, but the top 10 also includes such gender-neutral titles as The Last Lecture, The Total Money Makeover, and office-politics guide Thank God It's Monday! This leads us to suspect that while some of the big-splash hardcovers of the self-help genre may appeal to both genders, publishers are making a lot of their money on paperback copies of the Same Old Shit — variants on How Not to Be Fat, Old, Or Alone, marketed to women.

Responses to — and explanations for — this gender disparity vary. Macy Halford of Book Bench is right to ridicule the advice of self-help author Scott Kudia, quoted in Forbes: "Tell him if he reads the book and discusses it with you, you'll buy him a trip to Vegas or dress up like Little Bo Peep." She doesn't mention this little anecdote, though:

Brooklyn blogger [Christina] Frank writes that she occasionally left save-your-marriage books on her husband's bedside table, but to no avail. "He said he'd get to it just as soon as he was done with Remembrance of Things Past."

Frank's ex-husband may have been especially literary-minded, but we're not convinced that the reason more women than men buy self-help books is because guys are too busy reading Proust. Nor do we buy the hypothesis of executive coach Olivia Fox Cabane, who says,

While prehistoric men were out hunting, the women were being engineered to focus on social ties for survival. Therefore, a book that can give women a competitive social edge, such as bagging the right guy, understanding her teen, sharpening her gossiping skills or learning to differentiate between friend and frenemy, would be eagerly sought out by them

Among evolutionary explanations for modern phenomena — already a pretty suspect group — the idea that women have been "engineered" to buy He's Just Not That Into You is especially reductive and silly. It requires us to believe that hunting isn't social, that women didn't hunt, that what men and women may or may not have done in prehistory determines what we do now (the biggest and dumbest assumption of a lot of evolutionary psychology), that human social life can be understood in terms of "competitive social edge," and that self-help books could actually give a woman such an edge. In reality, lots of self-help books play on — and perpetuate — low self-esteem (something gender studies expert BJ Gallagher erroneously tells Forbes is the province of women), and aren't likely to give anyone any kind of "edge" at all.

But one explanation Blakeley cites for the popularity of self-help books among women is actually spot-on. Psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert says,

Society is set up for women to be passive. [...] It's the men that traditionally propose marriage. Imagine if it was the woman who proposed, you'd see a whole slew of books like How to Get Your Lady to Pop the Question.

Alpert's statement implies a corollary: Society is set up for women to be passive, and it requires women to get married in order to be deemed successful. Thus it expects something of women while denying them actual control over it — basically, women are supposed to wait around for this socially-constructed metric of personal success to just happen to them. It's no wonder that women seek ways to gain some control over the situation — and self-help books, with their promises of "bagging the right guy," offer that control.

But these offers are illusory. First of all, relationships are nowhere near as easy to control as self-help books suggest (The Man Plan, which tells women that they just need to be perfectly groomed and no one will ever break up with them, is a prime example of this). Second, the real way for women to take control of their lives isn't to try to achieve a socially-constructed definition of a perfect female life — it's to define and seek an ideal life for themselves.

As self-actualization-focused as self-help books claim to be, these books are necessarily generalized, and they're generalized in a way that usually conforms to established social norms. Take Forbes's list of titles: "Women Who Love Too Much; Men Like Women Who Like Themselves; Smart Women, Foolish Choices; Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them; He's Just Not That Into You." All these titles imply that what's most important to women is men, and if a woman has no man, or the wrong man, she's probably screwing something up. It's not that all self-help authors are malevolent misogynists — it's just that it's not really possible to write a book called How To Figure Out What's Exactly Right For Your Unique, Individual Life, And Then Do That. People have to do that on their own.

Your Unique, Individual Life may include marriage, and you may even be making Foolish Choices that keep you from that goal, if in fact it is your goal. But assuming that it has to be your goal, and that you have to wait around for a man to make it happen, just reinforces the confining stereotypes that keep self-help authors in business. If women really want to take control of their lives, they'll stop buying He's Just Not That Into You, and start defining success — personal and professional — for themselves.

Self-Help Books: Why Women Can't Stop Reading Them... [Forbes]
Help This [New Yorker Book Bench]