Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, two married, American women, were catapulted into the public eye in 1996. Within the span of a year, they were featured in publications ranging from the New York Times and People Weekly magazine, and they appeared on such television programs as Dateline and The Oprah Winfrey Show.¹ Saturday Night Live even spoofed the duo on their popular late night comedy program (“The Rules Backlash”). What was responsible for this media saturation and Fein and Schneider’s newfound celebrity status? A little dating, self-help book called The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right.²
Fein and Schneider’s self-help book, published “ree decades after Helen Gurley Brown’s [editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, 1965-1996] classic Sex and the Single Girl” (Gleick 58), operated in opposition to Brown’s declaration “that men are ‘cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen’ ” (Gleick 58). Rather, it implied that “all that solo flying seems to be less than thrilling” (Gleick 58) and provided its single readers with thirty-five rules to follow when dating that promised “if you continue to do The Rules at every opportunity and pray for patience, you will eventually meet and marry the man of your dreams” (Fein and Schneider 21). From its onset, Fein and Schneider’s book was read, debated, disputed, sometimes followed, and sometimes rejected by women and men all across America. Some women believed that rules such as “Be a ‘Creature Unlike
Any Other’ ” (22) and “Be Honest But Mysterious” were empowering tenets for women, forcing them to focus on themselves as opposed to the men in their lives (99). Other women scoffed at the publication, finding such rules as “Don’t Accept a Saturday Night Date after Wednesday” (51) or “Stop Dating Him if He Doesn’t Buy You a Romantic Gift for Your Birthday or Valentine’s Day” to be arbitrary and ridiculous (70). Die-hard fans claimed that following The Rules had enabled them to become married within the year while the opposition argued that game playing would never result in lasting relationships.³
Critics were equally divided. Writing for America, Catherine Walsh argued, “e rules encourage women to take responsibility for their lives and not be victims in romantic relationships” (9). Cristina Nehring of the Atlantic Monthly disagreed, “In fact, the assumption in all this literature is that its audience is not pleasure-seeking but desperate; not confident, adventuresome, and looking for tips on how to have a good time, but frightened and looking for hints on how to avoid disaster-how to avoid further time as a single girl” (142). The Rules had become a cultural phenomenon; Elizabeth Gleick, a writer for Time, stated, “The Rules is not just a book; it’s a movement” (58). Around the country, Rules seminars began emerging, and Fein and Schneider even offered phone consultations for readers looking for additional advice not covered in their book.⁴
e mixed reviews by both readers and critics that greeted The Rules were not an uncommon reaction for self-help books, particularly relationship manuals. Editorial reviews from Amazon.com of John Gray’s self-help book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus: A Practical Guide for Improving Communication and Getting What You Want in Your Relationships (1992) range from the Library’s Journal assessment that “Gray addresses the topic of male-female relationships with humor, insight and understanding” to Publishers Weekly’s assertion, “While graphically illustrative, the hyperbolic, overextended comparisons, particularly in the chapters that refer to men as rubber bands and women as waves, significantly detract from Gray’s realistic insights.” In Women and Self-Help Culture: Reading Between the Lines, Wendy Simonds discusses the critical reception of self-help books implicitly about gender, tying the critics’ responses to our societal assumptions about women’s reading practices. ⁵ Her sociological study of female, self-help readers points to the disparity between critics’ expectations about the harmful effects of these texts and women’s actual critical reading strategies. Simonds details the critical discussion concerning the merits of self-help books that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s:
Simonds’s observation is that, generally speaking, critics see the genre negatively-“At best . . . a waste of time . . . at worst politically backward, narrow, and . . . damaging” (174). But Simonds goes on to say that her “readers do not necessarily turn to self-help books because they expect the books to deliver all they promise. Readers read because they hope to find some comfort, some insight, some information in self-help literature” (174). In other words, Simonds argues that her readers are more discerning than critics often give them credit for; these women, Simonds observes, are capable of critical reading, applying what they find useful, and discarding that which they find essentially unhelpful.