"NOTHING HAS CHANGED:" Review of NOT YOUR MOTHER'S RULES: THE NEW SECRETS FOR DATING by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider

Not Your Mother’s Rules: The New Secrets for Dating is an updated version of one of the bestselling dating books of the 90s. I didn’t read the original, The Rules, but I remember at the time female friends whispering about it conspiratorially. The authors of both volumes, Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, have brought their grown daughters onboard to weigh in on this new edition. This accomplishes two things, I think: it gives a young person’s perspective, and stands as a testimonial to the authors’ accomplishments—marriage and children—and at least the former is a goal they are promising their adherents they can help them achieve.

A new era brings an updated authority: “While this book is for a new generation, nothing has changed about what women want in a relationship: to be able to trust that a guy loves them for who they are, and to know that he will be there for them.”

These are the sort of vague objectives the book promises to help one achieve. A guy, a date, ultimately—“Hopefully!” the authors would add—a ring. It’s a fuzzy picture and I guess it’s up to each person to focus it. But if you’re looking to head in that direction, Fein and Schneider promise to guide you down an awfully well-trod path by exactly following their prescriptives.

The daughters get sidebars and they don’t add much. After all, these are their mothers’ rules. They sort of mumblingly agree, “Our moms know what they’re talking about.”

Despite their asset of youth, the daughters don’t have their mothers’ authority. There is a magisterial “we” throughout this book, as demonstrated in Rule #13: “Don’t Talk Too Much the First Few Weeks”: “One day he will dump you and block you on Facebook and you will have no idea why—but we do.” That “we” is the strongest, most compelling part of the book. The authors claim that although the reader might have other ideas, they alone know what is right to do, or to not do, in every situation.

The authors insist that readers subscribe to their fixed ideas of men’s and women’s roles. A man has to make the first move. “The intention behind talking or texting a guy first falls into three basic categories. The first and worst is to create a relationship. The second and more subtle is to remind him that you exist, or even ask him out, if you don’t hear from him after a date. The third is to get closure because you haven’t heard from him in a while. All three are pretexts for making things happen or keeping a relationship going, and totally against The Rules.” (Rule #3: “Don’t Talk to or Text a Guy First.”)

The authors posit that if a woman talks to a man first, she is going against the natural order of things. “Some argue, ‘What’s the worst that can happen, that he will say no to drinks—so what?’ Wrong. The worst that can happen is that he will say yes and date you, have sex with you, and lead you to believe that you are in a relationship. But eventually he will dump you for the girl he really likes.” (Rule #4: “Don’t Ask Guys Out by Text, Facebook, GChat, or Any Other Way.”)

What surprised me is how compulsively readable I found this book to be. The advice is simple, easy-to-follow, and I imagine to a lot of people, helpful. The voice is not unlike a mother’s. Not nagging, but insistent, and that steadfastness exasperates and undermines what you believe at the same time. “Stop treating texts like an emergency that requires an immediate response,” they admonish. They “support using abbreviations like TTYL or LOL, as these make you seem too busy to write full words and long sentences. You should always writer fewer words than he does.” Yet they also understand that “when a girl gets a text from a cute boy, it’s really special, like winning the lottery.” More to their point: “A woman gets a text or email from a guy she likes and she forwards it to five girlfriends to analyze it. A guy gets a text, thinks about it for less than a second, and then turns back to the football game. Vive la difference!”

Is there a dark side to this Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus kind of thinking? At the same time the authors are saying that men and women are different, they are also implying that all women are alike, and men, too—and if you don’t think so, you’re kidding yourself. There is a mold and you must conform. Rule #2 instructs that one must “Look Like a Creature Unlike Any Other.” Yet the advice for hair, makeup, jewelry, and clothing is the same for everyone: light, straight, and long; made-up; big gold hoop earrings and a big gold watch; low-cut blouse, short skirt, and heels—“as high as you can stand!”

This is a book that deals in absolutes: the always, the nevers. Children, it’s said, actually like rules because they make them feel safe.

I was watching a lot of the old Hammer Horror Dracula movies at the same time I was reading this, and I think there are a lot of similarities. Facing something scary and possibly unknown, you want to arm yourself with knowledge and weapons, however regressive they may be. Vampires hate sunlight, garlic, the sign of the cross, and holy water. Guys like a girl who looks “hot, hot, hot. Not slutty—sexy!” Guys like a chase.

The Rules talk about “guys” a lot—rarely, if ever, “men.” Women are “girls” when talked about in a soft or cute context, and referred to as “women” when it comes time to be strong or to do the dirty work. These word choices have a not-so subtle effect on the reader, and if this is a conscious choice on the part of the authors, it demonstrates mastery of mind-control (not unlike a vampire’s).

This is a book about generalizations. Guys are like this, so women have to accommodate them. What is their sampling pool? You get the feeling that all the men they quote (“Chapter V: Guys’ Top 20 Turnoffs…We Know, We Asked Them!”) are stereotypes and another kind of ideal: cute and single-minded, simple-minded—even dumb.

The Rules are not about nuance. They do not make accommodations for special cases. The Rules are not about exceptions. Even for same sex couples (mentioned in one little paragraph near the end), “The spirit of The Rules still applies.” The one-size-fits-all approach for a complicated subject is a little like Weight Watchers. I know people who swear by that.

Not Your Mother’s Rules: The New Secrets for Dating, Ellen Fein & Sherrie Schneider, 2013, Grand Central Publishing, 254 pp.