This is an intriguing essay from Rebecca Hazelden that appeared in the March, 2011, issue of the Cultural Studies Review Journal. Hazeldon looks at some of the variations of the gendered self that one finds in self-help books and argues that they are more accurately seen as political variations of the nature of the self than representations of patriarchal vs. feminist gender roles.
I don't agree with some of her assertions, but in general this is a better approach than to see everything as gendered - sometimes gender beliefs reflect more about political agendas than anything else.
This article traces two broad discourses concerning gender in a selection of relationship manuals from 1974 to 2004. On the one hand are manuals promoting traditional gender roles, and on the other are those that promote financial and emotional independence for women.(1) In contrast to other analyses, I argue that these approaches cannot be categorised into a simplistic dichotomy of ‘feminist’ and ‘patriarchal,’ but that they are better understood as being bound up with conservative and liberal discourses of the self. I further demonstrate that these approaches both assume and require types of self that are somewhat removed from their historical antecedents and should be understood as neo variants.
Hazelden, R. (2011, Mar). Dragon-slayers and Jealous Rats: The Gendered Self in Contemporary Self-help Manuals. Cultural Studies Review, Vol 17, No 1; pp. 270–95.
The abstract also functions as the first paragraph of the paper, so here are the next two paragraphs, which form a bit of an introduction.
Here are a few more paragraphs that get into the role of feminism in self-help - and how this becomes a political issue as much as or more than a psychological self-help issue.Although the term ‘bestseller’ is hard to define, it is likely that each book in this study at some point held the position of best‐selling therapeutic relationship manual in the United States, and often also throughout the world.(2) By ‘therapeutic relationship manual’, I mean a book grounded in popular psychology that has the putative aim of aiding the reader in developing and managing more harmonious and fulfilling intimate romantic relationships. This is a popular format that encompasses hundreds of new titles each year, as well as having produced some of the enduring classics of self‐help—the therapeutic relationship manuals in this study are all still in print, with the exception of Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman. Books offering advice on finding a partner were excluded, as were dating, etiquette, household‐management and sex manuals.(3) There is a certain amount of diversity between these books and I do not claim that all relationship manuals fall into the two categories used here, or that all books within a category are consistent with each other. Neither do I imply that readers simply accept and absorb the intended messages within these texts. Numerous studies have been made demonstrating that women read sceptically, interpretively and resistingly.(4) Nonetheless, the unabated proliferation of self‐help books and the saturation of our culture by psy truths tell us something important about our values, both on the societal level and, as self‐help books are increasingly translated into numerous languages and spread across the world, at a global level as well.(5) As Elias has pointed out, an advice book has to relay a message with which its audience can identify.(6) In other words, the prescriptions and proscriptions within self‐help are ‘already constituted’ realities for the readers.(7)
It is also important to acknowledge that women overwhelmingly constitute the readership. Relationship manuals are usually aimed at women and women are more likely to purchase and read them.(8) Some self‐help authors even assert that men are uninterested in self‐help: ‘Men don’t read magazines like Psychology Today, Self, or People’ because ‘they are more concerned with outdoor activities, like hunting, fishing, and racing cars … and couldn’t care less about … self‐help books’.(9) One author includes a small section, near the end of his book, which he encourages his readers to show to their partners and begins ‘I’m assuming that this letter is the first thing you’re reading in this book … give me three minutes to talk to you man to man’.(10) That the presumed audience is gendered is of crucial importance, because the ‘injunction to understand one’s life,’ or one’s self, ‘ for example as an autonomous individual … can come to mean something entirely different when we look across the designations of ... gender and sexuality.(11)
In the 1970s, a new feminist model of sexuality began to appear—that of individualistic sexual autonomy. Sex manuals began to focus on the private sexual experience of women: ‘It is a very self‐centred experience … your focus must be solely on your sexual stimuli and whatever increases it’; ‘you must assume responsibility for your own sexual pleasure’.28 This outlook saw orgasm as a right, and a product of learning, not of instinct. It was argued at the time that placing a strong emphasis on non‐coital techniques rendered the man dispensable to female pleasure, further reinforcing women’s sexual independence.29 This latter view politicises female sexual autonomy, on a model of sex among equals.30 Sex began to be understood as part of the total life experience—competence and independence in sexuality were to be attained as part of a broader, more general social pattern, and sex manuals promised that this type of sexuality would pay off in other areas of life as well.31 These sexual relations both reflected and produced more general cultural attitudes and values, stripping away the moral, sentimental and romantic notions that had surrounded female sexuality. They made respectable the unmarried sexually active woman, giving women more freedom to leave unsatisfactory partners.32 At the same time, however, women became obliged to be actively sexual beings in a way that they had not before.33 That is, women were now obliged to be free with their sexuality—competent, skilled, proficient in their own pleasure, multi‐orgasmic—and open to new pathologies of frigidity, emotional over‐sensitivity, dependence and sexual dysfunction. These new capacities required new interventions: self‐interrogation, self‐examination and work upon the self.34 Indeed, the obligation to work on oneself was adopted by many feminist writers, such as Susie Orbach, for whom feminist self‐improvement and self‐liberation included investigating, nurturing and developing the inner self.35
By the late 1980s, self‐regard and self‐liberation had become an imperative in self‐help to the extent that women who did not prioritise their own self‐fulfilment were characterised as psychologically disordered—’loving too much’ or co‐dependent.36 I have discussed this phenomenon elsewhere, but will mention that co‐dependence can be characterised as a pathologisation of femininity, or as a reverse discourse with the potential to liberate women from positions of subordination.37 In this latter view, women use expertise to liberate themselves in opposition to their putative feminine nature—or at least to furnish themselves with a limited space in which they can refuse to play their appropriate gendered role.38
In her classic study of relationship manuals, Hochschild bemoans the tendency of 1980s and 1990s’ self‐help to exercise a general ‘paradigm of [emotional] caution’. She suggests that feminism may be ‘escaping from the cage’ of a social movement, to endorse and develop a capitalist ethos of private life that is foreign to its original aims and that is emotionally barren. She argues they allow ‘the worst of capitalist culture to establish the cultural basis of the struggle for equality’.39 While Hochschild sees a paradox between what she calls the emotional ‘warmth’ and the ‘patriarchy’ of the ‘traditional’ books, and is surprised by the emotional ‘coolness’ of the approach she calls ‘feminist’, these are part of a long tradition of such tensions within the debate about the nature and role of women—a point to which I shall return.