When Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider read this review, they’ll exchange a pitying smile and quietly start waiting for my distress call. For woe betide any woman who thinks she can live without the Rules: they are hard and fast and apparently foolproof: ‘You can truly do the Rules on any guy, in any situation, and get the fabulous payoff: a guy who is crazy about you!’ Time and again, women have thought they could ignore just one of the Rules, only to find themselves paying $300 for an emergency consultation with Fein and Schneider.
When their first book of Rules came out in the 1990s, it was a surprise bestseller. It has spawned a relationship consultancy and a clutch of spin-off books. Fein and Scheider have now updated it to include guidance for Facebook, text-messaging, online-chat applications and internet dating. The premise is that men are hunters; if you pursue one, he will lose interest. A woman should not speak to a man unless she’s spoken to, she should rarely return his calls and never offer to split the bill. If she’s wondering whether to answer a text-message, she should refer to the ‘Text-Back Times’ chart on page 53 (four hours is the minimum response time).
The Rules (and its updated version) hovers insidiously between reasonable advice and manipulative nonsense. There is some truth in the idea that men and women tend to play different roles when it comes to courtship, and that women can be strategic. It is better not to be overweight, not to be a weird internet stalker or to bombard people with inane chit-chat. Fein and Schneider don’t stop there, though; they stipulate that every reader be a Creature Unlike Any Other and solemnly add that all ‘CUAOs’ should wear their hair long and straight. There’s also an edict to wear a chunky gold watch (it reeks of self-confidence) and hoop earrings (they scream Vavavoom!) — ‘Don’t ask, because we can’t explain it; we just know it works.’
Intertwined with these pointers are sentiments like: ‘Remember, a guy will try to get away with the least possible effort whenever he can.’ And: ‘Guys are ingenious when they are looking for a free ride.’ The Rules has often been criticised on feminist grounds, but it is offensive to all humans. The authors play women for fools, and they discuss men in the same way a normal person might discuss the grackle or the termite. They treat marriage as an end in itself, men as pawns in a game of entrapment. One horrible anecdote tells how Zoey made Andy jealous by going to a wedding without him: ‘Andy had clearly been shaken, wondering all night who her plus one was. This curiosity made Andy like Zoey even more! The Rules worked — they are married now.’ With straight faces, Fein and Schneider tell readers not to go on holiday with a boyfriend for more than a few days because ‘familiarity breeds contempt. Save that trip for your honeymoon.’
What’s most disturbing about this book is the dogmatism with which it advocates each Rule. Any woman who’s broken a Rule ends up with a broken heart; in fact, any woman who’s ever had her heart broken has broken a Rule. No exceptions. The reductiveness, the extraordinary lack of imagination, with which these two treat the human race is staggering. They are menaces, and there’s a cultish element to their agenda: read the book over and over again, they say, meet up with friends to discuss it, highlight the most important passages, tear out pages to read in the loo on dates.
They acknowledge that it’s not ideal if a man finds your copy of the book, yet insist that the Rules are not disingenuous. Starting a romance with mind games and half-truths sets a terrible pattern, but Fein and Schneider have no truck with naturalness or spontaneity. They know all men are the same because of their bank of case studies. They know that emotional honesty and generosity are a recipe for disaster.
When you learn this the hard way, they’ll happily write you a profile for a dating website — they’d argue that $300 isn’t much compared with the value of a diamond ring. This is a mercenary, heartless book that could be laughed off if it weren’t for the dismal truth that a lot of people take it seriously.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 5 January 2013