Friday, February 25, 2005

The Truth Will Set You Free, Single Disposable-Income Women Everywhere

It was enough to drive someone to the self-help bookshelf at Borders (or better yet, the silent, non-judgmental safety of The straw that broke this particular single person’s back was the married friend’s response to some reflexive whining over weeknight beers about not dating anyone lately:“There are plenty of people interested in you. You’re just too picky.” Okay, okay: that single person was me. Thankfully, I had a copy of He’s Just Not That Into You waiting at home. While not a boyfriend, at least it was hardcover, had that seductive and comforting new-book smell, and possibly could provide a brief antidote to loneliness, or at least future loneliness. Subtitled “The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys,” He’s Just Not That Into You is squarely aimed at a youngish (mid-twenties to mid-forties), sophisticated audience—one that would include viewers of urbane television programs like, say, Sex and the City. In fact, the slender volume’s authors, Liz Tuccillo and Greg Behrendt, both worked for the wildly popular program as a writer and consultant (for the “straight male” perspective), respectively. The book was inspired by an episode in which the Miranda character receives a lightning-bolt revelation from Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriend that her most recent date, who had not yet called, was probably “just not that into you.” Apparently, for men there are “no mixed messages,” and if he doesn’t call after the date, he’s not into you. Period. Ever-resourceful Miranda puts this new philosophy into practice, but it backfires (no pun intended) after she tries to let a first-date fellow with gastrointestinal distress off the hook when he turns her down for a nightcap.

Nevertheless, Greg and Liz (they go by first names only, keeping with the chatty, confidential tenor of the book), as well as Simon and Schuster, sensed a trend afoot in this fault-free concept of relationships and wrote a dating-help book from an ostensibly male point of view, one that’s mercifully less cringe-inducing than some of the other for-singles guides out there, like Stop Getting Dumped! All You Need to Know to Make Men Fall Madly in Love with You, Marry “The One" in 3 Years or Less, How to Make a Man Fall in Love with You: The Fail-Proof, Fool-Proof Method, and the utterly grisly-sounding
Find a Husband After 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School. Nauseated after ten minutes examining these tomes of desperation on Amazon (in preparation for reading Greg and Liz’s book, of course) I started to worry that He’s Not That Into You was going to be The Rules in Hugo Boss clothing. Since the book originated in the writers’ room at Sex and the City, it promises—and proves—to be a more palatable how-to manual than the typical delusional dispatches crowding today’s bookshelves and webspace, fitting neatly into 21st-century chick-lit landscape. At a basic level, not only would it replace How to Deal with Difficult Men and Still Keep Your Sanity on Bridget Jones’ bookshelf, a real-life gal could leave, without discomfiture, the dust jacket on it while reading on the El. Matters of vanity aside, though, He’s Just Not That Into You is flavored with Sex and the City’s salty wit, but just like television comedy, the book is as reductive as it is instructive.

The basic premise, explained in Greg and Liz’s light, laconic prose: if a guy doesn’t call after a date, ask for a date, seem physically attracted to you, or commits major league infractions like disappearing or sleeping with other people, then “he’s just not that into you.” Simple. As Greg, who is a stand-up comedian and former, possibly caddish, bachelor, says, “When a guy is into you, he lets you know it. He calls, he shows up, he wants to meet your friends, he can’t keep his eyes or hands off of you. I don’t care if he’s starting his new job as president of the United States at 0400, he’s coming up!” Another of the dozens of cute Greg epigrams that pepper the book includes “Don’t waste the pretty!” Greg wastes no time informing us that we, who are collectively “delicious” and “foxy,” are all dating the same guy: “He is a man made up entirely of your excuses.” How does he know? Need you ask? He’s a guy, one who finally settled down and married a woman to whom he is obviously devoted; one who knows that guys “would rather lose an arm out a city bus window than tell you simply, ‘You are not the one.’” And why does he care so much? “Because I am tired of seeing great women in bullshit relationships.”

Fair enough; he’s got our back. Liz, a single New Yorker, cheerily substantiates Greg’s proposal with her own bathetic one: “Assume rejection first. Assume you’re the rule, not the exception. It’s intoxicatingly liberating." This back-and-forth Carson-McMahon shtick structures the book, which spreads its already-thin hypothesis like a dusting of snow over the entire mountain range of relationships: the foothills of absent phone calls and follow-up dates, crags of all manner of breakups, and the hideous alps of abusive behavior and dating a married man. “Real-life” questions from fictitious women are answered by Greg to illustrate the myriad excuses those noncommittal men use to perpetuate all manner of “bullshit” relationships, like he’s “got a lot on his mind,” “afraid to get hurt again,” “just not ready.” Or this classic:

The "Maybe He Doesn't Want to Ruin the Friendship" Excuse

Dear Greg,
I'm so disappointed. I have this friend that I've known platonically for about ten years. He lives in a different city and recently he was in town for work, so we met for dinner. All of a sudden it felt like we were on a date. He was completely flirting with me. He even said to me, as he was checking me out, "So, what, you're working the whole 'model thing' now?" (That's flirting, right?)...Well, Greg, I'm disappointed because it's been two weeks and he hasn't called me. Can I call him? He might be nervous about turning the friendship into romance. Jodi

Dear Friendly Girl,
Two weeks is two weeks, except when it's ten years and two weeks. That's how long ago he decided whether or not he could date a model or a girl who looks like one. Can you be a pal and give him a nudge? Nudge away, friendster — but watch how fast that nudge doesn't get a return phone call…Here's the truth: Guys don't mind messing up a friendship if it could lead to sex, whether it be a "(expletive) buddy" situation or a meaningful romance. Go find someone that lives in your zip code who will be rocked to the core by your deep conversation and model looks.

Liz follows up Greg’s snappy and snippy dispensations to sympathetically explain “Why this one is hard;” Greg responds again with results from his decidedly non-scientific polling of other males about the excuse at hand. There’s even a checklist concluding each chapter to remind you what you should have learned (e.g. “You already have one asshole. You don’t need another”).

The chapters are titled with equally artless syllogisms (“He’s Not That Into You if He’s…Not Calling You; …Married; …Not Having Sex with You; …Breaking Up with You; …A Really Big Freak”) that lead to this basic and as I see it, two-pronged premise: 1. Men aren’t that complicated, and 2. If he has issues, other women to sleep with, phobias, lack of purpose or personality, he’ll get over them to be with you. So, women of the world, stop analyzing his mixed-message behavior like Jane Goodalls of the dating world and move on! That’s crystal clear in Chapter One. Then, after unfurling ten more exasperatingly redundant and sporadically amusing chapters of Greg-and-Liz quid pro quo, Greg reaches his pinnacle statement: “By staying with a guy that is not that into you, you are ensuring you’re never going to find one that is.” Thank God, I was getting worried we wouldn’t get to this—or any—core-shaking conclusion.

And buried at the bottom of page ninety-six is the peg on which the fretting single gals and hollow-feeling girlfriends, and Sex and the City fans can really hang their obsessive hats: “Remember always what you set out to get, and please don’t settle for less,” Greg announces. “These guys are able to exist because there are a lot of women out there who allow them to.” Hey, wait a minute—I’m still at fault here? Twisting the knife further, Liz concurs that “there’d be an awful lot of better-behaved men out there” if we ladies insisted on better behavior. Thus Greg, in his infinitesimal wisdom, not only posits that all guys are like him, ready to flop down like doormats in front of that transcendent woman who can finally make him change, but also that relationship behavior is simply a matter of supply and demand. It’s that…simple?

But it’s the simple tropes that embed themselves most deeply in popular culture—remember “Where’s the beef?” “He’s just not that into you” is an exercise in obviousness that is well on the road to maxim (not the magazine). How do I know it’s such a phenomenon? All of the (heterosexual) male friends I polled recently about the book—or the idea of it—recognized He’s Not That Into You immediately, and one demanded to borrow my copy. As I queried some of them at a pub about the soundness of Greg’s rationale, the greatest hits of Paula Abdul (all three of them) blared from the jukebox in the background. Now, I believe in Jukebox Fate (whereby a song appropriate to the occasion or conflict at hand will play at the precise moment in need of emphasis), so my quiz was underscored dramatically by Paula bleating “Straight up now tell me is it gonna be you and me forever?” and “He’s a cold-hearted snake (look into his eyes),” both songs that truly do describe the exact range of emotions unmarried woman in endures in the dating world. Needless to say, the respondents agreed that “Oh, yeah, definitely not into her if you don’t call her,” but trashed Greg’s theory that if women have to be the aggressor and ask a guy out, then—well, you know the rest. “Men like to pursue women,” says Greg, “We like not knowing if we can catch you.” However, even after a couple of rum and Cokes, one of my friends was decidedly more ambivalent: “I may not be into someone, but if she asks me out, then all of a sudden I am sort of into her.”

Would that it could, but Greg’s “powerful silver bullet” (as Liz calls it) can’t pierce the complexity of everyday life and every situation. In terms of “setting a level of what you will or won’t tolerate” in a relationship, the concept is compelling, but there’s a profound reason He’s Not That Into You is disquieting, and it’s that we have to instruct women in 2005 they are (loaded word) empowered. Sure, Fate’s Jukebox now blares Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Woman (Part 1)” instead of Olivia Newton-John sweetly warbling “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” heightening countless pick-up and breakup moments nationwide, but it’s alarming that women today still are struck by an emotional na├»vete that requires the sort of reductive, smart-ass reasoning brotherly Greg offers up to lonely hearts. And it is lonely out there. He admits as much to us—after eleven chapters of chastising pep talk. He concurs that being lonely “sucks,” and then Greg suddenly morphs into the Jesse Jackson of dating, testifying that since he believes “life will turn out well,” it will. That’s a big leap of faith to make in a world that is soundtracked and wallpapered with true-love stories, one driven by a multi-million dollar wedding industry and in which singles, according to the He’s Just Not That Into You philosophy, should both assume the worst and hope for the best. Liz says she feels “more powerful” since implementing his strategy. For my part, I'm uncomfortable with such a singular and, yep, forced point of view. I mean, Greg is just a guy, too. I’m not convinced we should trust him, either. But even if I “waste the pretty,” at least I do know it might just be okay to be picky.