SELF AND CODE: THE CASE OF FEMININE WILES
One controversy running through both traditional and egalitarian advice books is whether to use feminine wiles; authors on both sides feel obliged to take a position on the question. In nineteenth-century America, “feminine wiles” were an acknowledged if not much admired way in which a woman might get what she wanted indirectly when direct access to power was blocked to her. Wiles were traditional. As women gained power and influence based on education and occupation, wiles became discredited, though not entirely.
Marabel Morgan proposes crude wiles in assignments for her Total Woman Classes (classes that sprang up—• like feminist consciousness-raising groups—to support women in their efforts to stay traditional). She says:
In class one day, I gave the assignment for the girls to admire their husband’s body that night. One girl went right to work on her homework. Her husband was shorter than she but quite handsome. . . . That evening while he was reading the paper, she sat down next to him on the sofa and began stroking his arm. After a bit she stopped at the biceps and squeezed. He unconsciously flexed his muscle and she said, “Oh, I never knew’ you were so muscular!”
More generally Morgan advises women to plan the “proper time and atmosphere” for bringing up requests: “Let him relax and give yourself time to judge his mood.”7
But Morgan feels obliged to anticipate the reader’s objection to wiles, and to the self-acknowledgment her advice forces on the practitioner—that she is acting, and lying about it. As Morgan notes:
I heard one wife say “I feel guilty using feminine wiles on my husband, it seems dishonest. Why should lie to build him up? I want to be honest but still meet his needs,” … I am not advocating that you lie to give your husband a superficial ego boost. Even a fool will see through flattery. But I am saying he has a deep need for sincere admiration. Look for new parts to compliment as you see him with new eyes.8
Morgan “solves” the problem of dishonesty by moving from advice about surface acting—trying to seem sincere about a compliment—to advice about deep acting—how to try to actually feel sincere. She tells women how through self-exhortation they can talk themselves into believing the flattery they give their husbands. Gamely she urges, “Starting tonight, determine that you will admire your husband.” “Think back,” she says, “to those days when you were first convinced that he was the one.” Once you believe the compliment, Morgan suggests, flattery isn’t “wiles.” She says, “Put your husband’s tattered ego back together again at the end of each day. That’s not using feminine wiles; that is the very nature of love.”-‘ The work shifts from manipulating her husband to manipulating herself. Morgan asks the reader to mean what she says when she is wily, to put her self behind her act.
Helen Gurley Brown takes another tack. Lightheartedly she advises, “Maybe there is nobody much in the world to tell him he is wonderful except you. It really doesn’t matter if the flattery you heap on him is close to baloney—heap away… do this for me. . . . Oh, my God, I sound like Marabel Morgan. ”10
In a section entitled “More Things to Do in the Early Stages” (of courtship), Brown recommends:
When you are in love with a man, you have to be careful not to bore him. . .. You’re in the car and he’s deep into a monologue about the Salt II Treaty. . . . You pass an apartment house where you used to live or a school attended as a teenager. I see no reason to stop the Salt II talkathon to point out the house or school unless he’s an architect. Point them out another time when he’s not so caught up with his subject.
She goes on, “Save your own need to talk for women friends. . . . It’s much safer to call a girl friend who will keep your confidence., , . Release your steam on her instead of on your tired husband.” Brown further advises, “I think every woman needs four to six ‘main people’ in her life apart from her husband, plus about ten to twenty peripherals.”11
A prospective girlfriend is advised to do thoughtful deeds. She should help her boyfriend’s sister sell raffle tickets, wash his Porsche, and photocopy articles about him. She should impersonate a kind person. She should understand that these favors are “‘acceptable’ but necessary’ bullshit."12
This is more than ordinary advice. Brown is guiding the reader in how to feel about that advice. Do these acts, she seems to say. Accept them as necessary. But you don’t have to feel like doing them. You can feel annoyed at having to use them.
Morgan urges her reader to take flattery seriously, to mean it or try to mean it. Brown urges a lighter, tongue-in-cheek approach. Brown invites the reader to object to her cynicism. As she says, “You don’t like my calling this stuff bullshit, right? Okay, call it anything you like (and of course you’re doing it because you love him) but just do it.*13 By putting die reader’s “real” feeling in parentheses Brown reduces her advice to pragmatically motivated ploys. Apply these “girlie” means of flattery, she seems to say, but only because it works, not because you believe in it. Morgan invites the reader to believe in flattery, extra favors, and listening—and more generally, in the asymmetrical rules of interaction. But it is Brown who is the true Goffmanian stage-directing the female Preedy,
But in truth, both Morgan and Brown have written acting manuals. They differ only in the kind oi acting they advocate. Morgan advocates deep acting through which to persuade ourselves of our act, to blend ourselves into the act. Brown advises surface acting, holding an alternate, cynical self apart from the act. Needless to say, many modem advice books condemn feminine wiles altogether, recommending that the reader put her “whole self” behind a style of interaction based on direct dealing. In Smart Cookies Don’t Crumble, Sonya Friedman disparages another, more traditional author’s advice about how to get a man to fall in love. She says:
Mirror his gestures, Cabot | Tracey Cabot, he author of How to Make a Man Fall in lj)ve with You] further advises us—this comforts him—and breathe as he breathes. She proceeds to let us in on how to acquire this secret. You can tell how quickly a man is breathing by watching his shoulders. Mark them with a point on the wall behind him and watch them go up and down. Then simply start breathing yourself in the same rhythm.
Friedman comments wryly, “Breathe as he breathes and you may soon be gasping for breath.”14
Authors differ on how much to put the self behind other issues apart from feminine wiles. In her book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, Gloria Steinem offers exercises on how to get men to listen to women as much as women listen to men, and how to feel about being “too uncomfortable” trying to urge men to listen more. Howr can women try to right an uneven gender balance in talk? By tape-recording dinner table conversa-
tions or meetings, and then playing the tape back to the group. She suggests joking to men who interrupt them by saying, “That’s one,” and promising some conspicuous act when the number of male interruptions gets to three. She also recommends that a woman monitor her own responses for a troubling self-censorship:
Check the talk politics concealed in your own behavior. Does your anxiety level go up (and your hostess instincts quiver) when women are talking and men are listening, but not the reverse? For instance, men often seem to feel okay about “talking shop” for hours while women listen, but women seem able to talk in men’s presence for only a short time before feeling anxious, apologizing, and encouraging the men to speak. If you start to feel wrongly uncomfortable about making males listen, try this exercise: keep on talking, and encourage your sisters to do the same. Honor men by treating them as honestly as you treat women. You will be allowing them to learn.15
Morgan tells her reader to feel like herself as she adoringly “over-listens.” Steinem tells her reader to feel like herself when she quits the habit. Despite their diametrically opposed views on life, both differ from the more cynical Brown. If Morgan says, “Believe your act,” and Brown says, “Don’t bother,” Steinem says, “Don’t act.”